A Guide to Setting – and Achieving – Career Goals

Setting Goals

What do you want to be when you grow up? If you still find yourself asking that question, you probably have unmet – and maybe even unimagined – career goals.  

Career goals are a natural outgrowth of planning your career. People, however, are said to change careers (not just jobs, but careers) 5-7 times in their lives, suggesting that most don’t put a lot of effort into planning their careers and setting career goals.

Typical career goals include attaining a higher degree, additional training or advanced skills. Most people don’t pursue these kinds of goals for the pure joy of learning but in service of a career move that requires heftier educational qualifications. Thus, they pursue short-term goals in service of longer-term goals. Similarly, a goal of making more money is usually attached to landing the kind of job that would be accompanied by higher pay. And some folks yearn to get into leadership and must climb a ladder of increasingly responsible jobs to get there.

Other goals are tied to a sense of freedom or adventure. Many workers dream of owning their own business or having a job that involves constant travel.

You don’t have to feel adrift as you move through your career. You can apply these career-planning and goal-setting techniques to establish career goals that are just as exciting as those you dreamed about as a kid.

Envision your goal: Picture yourself having attained your goal. What does it look and feel like? What does it enable you to achieve? Creating a clear and enticing mental picture of your goal will help motivate you to attain it.

SMARTen your goals. SMART has been the go-to acronym for goal setting for several decades. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Specific is the difference between saying you want to be a successful business leader and deciding to become CEO of a company. Measurable means you have a metric in mind that will let you know you’ve achieved your goal. Attainable means your goal is realistic for you. For example, my earliest ambition was to be a dancer; however, I discovered that I was a terrible kinesthetic learner. I could do improvisational dancing but was not capable of learning steps; thus, a career as a dancer was not attainable for me. Relevant means the goal makes sense with the broader aspects of your life. And Time-Bound means you need to set a deadline for achieving the goal.

Stretch yourself: While it’s important for your goal to be attainable, you don’t want it to be too easy to get there. Make sure you challenge yourself with goals that are just outside your comfort level.

Break it down. To get to your goal, you need to outline the steps. Exactly what will it take to get there? You may discover that some steps are too daunting and need to be broken down into smaller steps. Think in terms of short-term goals (6 months or so) that segue into longer-term pursuits (3 or 4 years). A good example is a career path that requires significant training. Each certificate or degree along the way is a smaller goal reached on your journey to a major goal.

Commit it to writing. Writing it down makes it real and becomes a contract with yourself that you will execute your goal.

Enlist one or more Accountability Buddies. Tell one or more people about your goal and ask them to help you meet it. Do the same for them. Some people request accountability from their social media followers or even create social media groups to provide accountability for goal-achievement. A friend, for example, recently started a Facebook group for would-be authors who had started writing books and needed accountability help to finish. Mentors and coaches also make effective accountability partners.

Ensure steady progress. Set up activities on a regular schedule – whether daily, weekly or monthly – that enables you to keep moving toward your goal, if only incrementally. For example, if you seek a new career, you could set a goal of conducting two informational interviews a month to learn about the prospective career and make contacts.

Don’t reject shortcuts. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our accomplishments are less than stellar if we didn’t have to struggle to reach them. Be open to the notion that an easier path may be open to you. Maybe a certificate program would qualify you as much as a degree would. Perhaps you can develop skills through volunteer work instead of through training or a new job. Maybe your boss would support your goals by delegating a special project that would give you needed experience.

Be prepared to pivot. Stuff happens, and we are all susceptible to getting distracted along the way, which isn’t always a bad thing. You can have a perfectly worthy goal but then discover you’re actually more interested in something else. When I started out as college instructor, I realized the part that jazzed me the most was designing the courses and then tweaking them after I taught them to make them better. Thus, I took an unexpected detour in the pursuit of my career goals to study instructional design.

My mother is an avid reader, who over the years has regularly lamented that she did not keep a journal of all the books she read. At any time during these years of regret, she could have simply decided to keep a journal. Don’t be like my mother and regret that you never committed to a career goal you could have achieved.

Back to news