Planning in Uncertain Times: Try Themes, Not Goals

Learn how themes are different from goals and how they can help you set some direction during these uncertain times.

Planning in Uncertain Times: Try Themes, Not Goals
Photo by Monty Allen on Unsplash

It’s been a few weeks since the pandemic hit North America. For those not working the front line, the initial frantic scramble has settled (sort of) into an uneasy vigil for...whatever comes next.  I have been hearing from many of my friends (and experienced myself) a degree of listlessness as they try to figure out what to focus their attention on each day. Strategic plans have been thrown out the window. Goals and projections are moot. Like most small businesses (and many large businesses) we are mostly trying to stay afloat while serving our current customers as best we can. On a personal level, if your New Years’ resolutions didn’t peter out in February, they almost certainly did in the decade that was March 2020.


For many, we are in this weird twilight zone. We are experiencing Groundhog Day, Bill Murray styles, on a micro-level in our new #SocialDistancing and #WorkFromHome lives. If you are not on the frontlines, every day is kind of the same because we are not supposed to go anywhere or see anyone. At the same time, we are having constant large-scale changes happening on a macro-level on a day-to-day basis. We all wait to hear the daily updates on new cases, deaths, medical supply shortages, emergency relief, quarantine measures…It’s mind-bending. There is so much uncertainty that long-term future planning and goal-setting, both personally and professionally, are almost impossible.

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And yet for many of us, a plan or goals are important. They help calm some of the chaos and claw a modicum of control back in these uncertain times. I have posted it before, but to paraphrase Lewis Carroll in Alice In Wonderland, if you don’t know which direction you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which road you take. When we are planning our work, or even just our day-to-day routines, it is powerful to have a goal to attach our tasks and actions to. It is a way to feel like we are moving the needle towards something instead of being reactive to whatever happens each day.

For many, long-term goals are off the table for now. So what can you do?

Try short or medium-term themes to help set some direction, but allow for flexibility in a time of fast change and general uncertainty.

What are themes?

A theme is something to keep in the back of your mind as you make decisions on how to manage life and work over the coming weeks. Your themes can be as specific or general as you need them to be. A theme is a guiding principle, an overarching outcome to work towards. It is different from more traditional goals in that it is less specific and doesn’t have a success/fail parameter. It is more of a north star than a specific path.


In terms of our current context, themes lend themselves to setting a direction while still allowing for flexibility in the uncertainty. They are meant to bring focus and direction, while allowing you to navigate all of the unexpected and challenging circumstances of things like working from home, trying to educate children while also working, being in constant close quarters with your family, or being alone.

Normally I am a staunch proponent of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound) but our current circumstances make setting and keeping to them, unreasonable. The goal for many right now is to just weather this situation as best we can, for as long as we can. While that is a reasonable goal, setting some themes to work on for a day, week, or month can help bring back some much-needed direction.

*Note: The idea of themes came on my radar from a few different sources in early January 2020, one specifically being the podcast Cortex (2020 Yearly Themes, December 31, 2019 Episode).

Setting themes

What should my themes be?

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They are really anything that you want to work towards. Think of the (probably many) things that feel out of control right now. It might be things like managing:

  • Daily routine
  • Diet
  • Cash flow
  • Your family
  • Educating your kids
  • Being alone
  • Your mental health
  • Your employees

There are plenty of things that are outside of our control (especially right now), but what we do have control over is how we handle them.

*Note: This is not to say that we need to choose to be happy or productive. Rather we can work on acknowledging how we are feeling, and work on ways to manage those feelings in healthy ways as best we can. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Examples of themes

For small businesses, example themes might be:

The theme for this week is cash flow stability.

  • I am going to see if we qualify for any federal or provincial emergency benefits.
  • I am going to look at our cash flow and see if there is anything that can be cut or reduced.
  • I am going to see if there is anything that can be deferred.

The theme for today is team connection.

  • I am going to talk to each of my team members individually and see how they are doing.
  • I am going to set up some guidelines for specific communication so everyone knows which tool (Slack, email, Zoom, etc.) is best for what.
  • I am going to encourage ‘water cooler’ talk/connection time during the day and weekly virtual ‘beers’ at the end of each week.

The theme for this week is healthy habits for me and my team.

  • I am going to talk to my team about the challenges of working from home with kids, pets, and partners.
  • I am going to talk to my team about taking breaks and getting some fresh air.
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For individuals, example themes might be:

The theme for this week is experimenting with a new daily routine for my family.

  • I am going to have a family meeting about daily chores.
  • I am going to get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every day.
  • I am going to work out a plan with my partner about trading off work-time and kids-time during the day.

The theme for today is anxiety and stress management.

  • I am going to only check social media once today.
  • I am going to go for a short walk around my block to get some fresh air.
  • I am going to take a shower and get dressed.

The theme for this month is staying connected to my friends and family.

  • I am going to call my parents every other day to check in on them.
  • I am going to book a recurring Google Hangout with my friends each week.
  • I am going to set up a new WhatsApp group with my siblings.

These themes and the types of actions you might take may not be realistic for your circumstances. They are not meant to create pressure but rather get the gears moving in your head. Some days you are going to feel like you are on top of everything, other days you will feel like a hot mess. Both of those, and everything in between, are ok. Themes are meant to help provide some direction without being restrictive. They are meant to give you a way to think about moving forward in these uncertain times, without passing judgment on how far you get or how fast. I hope they help.

So… what are your themes during this pandemic?