By:
August 25, 2020

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community of trailblazers. 


Even before the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, I had set my sights on 2020 as a banner year. I had 20/20 vision on 2020, you might say. I selected a word of the year. I mapped out yearly, quarterly and monthly goals. I even started a weekly gratitude jar!

Needless to say, my plans changed. I’m still intensely focused on the events of this foundation-shaking year, but exerting control over any of it seems silly. Most days, I put my head down and get to work. Daily task lists are sometimes the most forward-looking goals I can manage.

I’m not alone. Many of you who responded to The Cohort survey wrote about major disruption to long-term planning, stemming from a variety of factors including new priorities, layoffs, lost opportunities, grief, anxiety and depression. To help all of us process being a little unmoored, I asked three alumnae of Poynter’s leadership academy for women to share their advice for thinking about goals during an era of change. Below is their feedback, edited for length and clarity.

Mel Grau: As mentors to other women in the industry, what’s the most common piece of advice you’re offering about goals these days?

Emma Carew Grovum, newsroom consultant and trainer: Survive so you can thrive. We’re all in a constant, multi-battlefront war right now. Work is hard. Home life is hard. Self-care even feels hard sometimes. The advice I give to folks right now is just get through the day and figure out how you can show up again tomorrow. Tactically, this means setting strong boundaries between your home and professional lives if you can.

Hannah Wise, social strategy editor at The New York Times: Honestly, the thing I have been saying over and over to women in the industry and to personal friends is: I am proud of you.

This is an unprecedented time. It is a scary time. We do not know what comes next. But I am proud that they are here with us. I am proud that they are doing the work. I am especially proud that they are reaching out to talk.

Next, I advise that people try and break their problem or situation into smaller pieces. What is the big picture goal or aspiration that you have? What are its components? Do they go in a particular order? Who needs to be bought in? What are their goals? How does your goal align with their goals? How do you define and measure success? Once you know the things that need to be done to reach the goal, then you can start to prioritize them within the other work and build a roadmap to follow.

Mel: How has the pandemic impacted your career goals?

Emma: I had really hoped to do more product strategy work. But 2020 had other plans for me, just like it had other plans for us all! The racial reckoning currently unfolding in newsrooms around the country has meant I’ve seen a surge in interest in my diversity, equity, and inclusion work — work I’d love to someday stop doing. I hope to eventually find a more even balance between leadership coaching, product strategy and DEI work, but for now, I’m happy to be working in a space with high demand.

Hannah: I recently relocated to Kansas City to be in a place that I can better take care of my health — that decision was hard. But over the last two months it has been abundantly clear that it was the right choice for my life, which means it is the right choice for my career.

The pandemic has felt goals-wise very similar to how I felt after covering the July 7, 2016 police shooting in Dallas. I was thinking a lot about our community of readers and what they needed from me. How could I be of service to them? More recently, I have been asking: What work can I be doing to listen to and elevate the voices of those we are not regularly hearing from?

Mel: It’s important to schedule time to contemplate the big picture, not just the immediacy of the day’s events. Carving out this “balcony time” seems more difficult than ever. How are you managing this?

Emma: Really poorly, to be quite honest. I pretty much say yes to every request that comes my way, an impulse that comes from a place of insecurity that constantly whispers: “But what if no one else wants to hire you after this?” This means my days are packed with meetings, and I’m constantly context-switching between clients and projects.

I’m a big fan of cranking my productivity playlist and just uni-tasking on a single issue for the duration of a 20-minute block. This online tool is free and can help folks block off their time using the Pomodoro Technique.

Hannah: I think that this is one of the hardest things for journalists to do. The news just keeps on going. We are trying to care for ourselves, our friends and our families. Truly my best tip is to actually block this time on your calendar. It doesn’t always have to be long. I am trying to make myself take at least a short walk outside every day. I usually wear headphones, my mask and sunglasses in the walk because it helps me tune into my thoughts better. I find that repetitive actions that my body can tap into the muscle memory to accomplish help with my balcony time too. As does being away from the screens.

Meredyth Grange, community manager, Vox Media: I make lists constantly. I scribble them in my journal. I type them in the notes app on my phone. I have a “Goals, Habits, & Checklists” Google Drive folder that is an archive of my more elaborate lists of dreams and schemes over the years. Making these lists is a coping mechanism and a brainstorming device. If I feel unclear or worried, I think about the question that is at the center of that feeling, and then I make a list. To be honest, lately my lists have been titled things like “How to be OK?” and “What do I actually care about?”

I generally do not spend more than 30 minutes on a list. Their main purpose in the moment is to get me to chill out. However, because I tend to write a lot of versions of the same list over and over again, they have also turned out to be incredible data collection. Goals at their best are our attempts to align ourselves further with our values. Figuring out what you value at different moments of your life requires paying close attention to what keeps coming up in your own internal monologue and your conversations with others.

Mel: Hannah, you outlined a framework for evaluating goals and priorities when you were guest faculty at Poynter. What, if anything, has changed about that process during this time?

Hannah: I have found myself returning to my framework of finding those elemental pieces that bring me joy. It is truly exhausting to be churning through and processing the news all day every day. Especially on the busiest days, I do not always feel like I have had the mental space to be creative, or that I’m truly serving a community of readers. It is all coming at me too fast. Those are the days I need to dive into something to refill my soul during my personal time. In pandemic times, it has meant even more sewing and crochet than I did in the Before Times.

Mel: If someone is questioning their previously well-planned career path based on something that’s happened this year, what advice would you share?

Hannah: Honestly, always be questioning your path! All I have heard since I started working in journalism — especially in digital journalism — is that there are no clear career paths. Your career path is yours. It does not belong to anyone else. Do not measure yourself or your success against someone else’s path. Did I think that I was going to leave New York a year after moving there? Certainly not. Did I anticipate a pandemic? Who among us did?!

Life throws you curveballs. You can only make choices with the information at hand — fight like hell to get the answers you need to feel comfortable with your decision.

Meredyth: We’re in the middle of multiple destabilizing global crises. If someone is looking at their very structured plan from 2019 and saying, “I don’t actually know how I feel about this anymore,” I have only confetti and applause for that person. I would ask that person to be gentle with themselves and hold space to grieve both that former career plan and the person they were when they made it.

I would hope that making space for that grief would allow them more space to begin to explore where exactly that initial questioning is coming from. What new information has come up over the last year that you want to factor into your plan? What information did you already have about the power structures you currently exist in that became impossible to ignore this year? What do you feel your plan no longer addresses? What does not feel as urgent anymore? What feels more urgent? What was revealed to you this year about your values, your sense of purpose, and where you see yourself wanting to plug in and create?

Mel: It’s hard for an ambitious person and serious planner like me to admit, but career goals aren’t everything. Is it OK for one’s career to take a back seat this year?

Emma: Absolutely. I think one thing we can often lose sight of is that journalism careers are meant to span and be measured in decades. A year, even two or three years, of stagnation or slipping into maintenance mode won’t hurt you in the long run. Taking care of yourself, your chosen family unit, your mental health should all be taking a front-seat in the current times.

Think of your career like the sourdough starters we’ve all learned to make during the pandemic (JK, I still suck at breadmaking): It will sustain you for years if you just feed it a little at a time. You don’t always have to be making bread with it. It’s OK to let it grow a little more slowly at times. But, you DO need to be feeding and maintaining it, so that it can bloom properly when it’s time to bake again.

Meredyth: Yes, of course. Your career is not the only place in your life where you live out your values, contribute to a community, are driven by purpose, learn about yourself and others, and just generally make meaning as a human. One of the conversations that has stuck with me most from Poynter was the conversation I had with Katie Hawkins-Gaar about how our lives naturally have different seasons. And in each of those seasons there are a different set of questions for us to explore. If you have already figured out this season of your life does not have your career as a core focus, please do not waste any more of your valuable time wondering if it’s OK for that to be the case. Please let yourself move fully into considering the other important and unique questions that have come up in this season of your life.


For additional insights, community and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
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