Career Goals and How to Define Them

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Overview

What are your career goals? Don’t dare reply that you do not have any… It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting your first internship or eyeing a membership on your company’s board. Without career goals that shape and focus your career path, you are at the mercy of fate. Not only are you in a passive position if you lack career goals – you are also more likely to pick the wrong opportunities, miss promotions, and lack career security. 

Don’t let your career feel like something you can’t direct! Whether you have dreams of a corner office and bigger responsibilities or just want to find regular employment, you need clearly defined career goals to help you fully participate in the job market. 

The bottom line: you need career goals now. And defining them will illuminate your career path, boost your motivation, and load you up with ambition. 

What Are Career Goals?

A career goal is a specific statement that defines something you want to achieve in relation to your career. You may have the long-term goal of owning your own home –   but that isn’t a career goal, although earning a higher wage could be. 

Career goals form the structure of your career vision and act as stepping stones through your work-life. Career goals differ from other life goals related to relationships and experiences as they are singularly linked to your work.

Setting Career Goals

Setting goals of any kind takes time and effort. Dedicate a good amount of time for your career goal-defining session and prepare for some inner-soul searching as you really analyze what you want from your career. Suspend your pragmatic thinking and negative thoughts. Envisioning your future career requires ambition and blue-sky thinking. 

Start your process with some aspirational thinking. Take your time to really reflect on what your career means to you and what you want to achieve. Use these prompts to get your career goal setting juices flowing.

career goals how to
  • How do you define career success?  
  • What would you do if you had all the money you needed?
  • If you could be in charge of your current company what would you do differently?
  • What do you want your peers and family to think of you and your career?
  • If there were no obstacles in the way what would be your ultimate job?
  • Which people do you most admire and why?

Once you have warmed up, start to get slightly more specific by brainstorming some ideas of what you want to do, and achieve in your career. Common general career goal areas include:

  • Increase earnings
  • Increase knowledge and training
  • Make a difference in my field or sector
  • Gain more power and responsibility
  • Have new experiences and relationships

The next step is to think about how to turn these general ideas into goals. A goal isn’t a dream, but an actionable statement. So instead of “I want to have lots of money.” A goal would be “I want to earn 100K per year by 2021.”

 

Making Your Career Goals SMART

Now that you have turned your visions into goals, it’s time to fine-tune them by using the SMART acronym. 

SMART stands for:

Specific
Measurable
Attainable
Relevant
Time-based

 

Begin with making your goals specific. If you have the goal to increase your network, think of ways to narrow that down. For example, “Attend three networking events a quarter.”

Being able to measure your goal is essential to know if you have achieved it. Add a measurable aspect to your goal so that you can review it quickly. Let’s add something measurable to our example so that it now reads: “Attend three networking events a quarter and make 7 new, genuine and relevant connections on LinkedIn each time.”

Is your goal attainable? It’s okay for Elon Musk to set the lofty goal of reaching Mars, but for most of us, keeping our goals earth-based is important for maintaining our energy. If you have just started as an intern, it’s unlikely you’ll make CEO this year, but there are plenty of other excellent things to reach for. Figuring out what is attainable is often the most difficult part of creating a SMART goal. If you are unsure if your goal is realistic, ask around in your network to get advice on whether they think your goal is within your grasp.

Is your goal relevant to the rest of your career? If you are in marketing, it probably doesn’t make sense to set the goal to learn a coding language – move that to the personal experiences goal list.

Time is of the essence! Making your goals time-based or “timely” works in a number of ways. First, give your goal a time limit. For example, complete the management training course within 18 months. Second, set goals for different time periods. Setting one, five, and ten-year goals will help you create a vision of your whole career.

Now you have SMART goals, it’s time to work out how to achieve them.  Examine each goal, and break it down into the steps you need to take to achieve it. Consider what resources you need and who can help. Most of your goals will require some out of the ordinary action, while others will require you to build new relationships or ask for help. 

Let’s take the example of earning more money. If you set a goal of earning 100K by 202, your next task is to break the goal down into smaller steps or micro-goals. These might include asking for a pay rise, changing jobs or getting a promotion. 

For each micro-goal, set an action plan and a deadline. The crucial thing to achieving your goals is getting granular. Leaving your dreams to chance might work out – that fat paycheck could materialize. But knowing you went after it on your own terms will bring a sense of deep personal fulfillment.

Make Your Career Goals (Semi) Public

There is a long-held belief that making our goals public will motivate us to achieve them. Take smoking, for example. The thinking goes that if you want to quit smoking you need to tell everyone around you that you are quitting, so they will give you a hard time if you light up. Recent research  indicates that making our goals public can actually have the opposite effect. 

career goals how to
 

Participants in one study who had made their goal public, for example, reported feeling like they had more progress than those that hadn’t shared their goal. It seems our minds correlate talking about the goal as a step towards it, despite no real progress being made. 

But this doesn’t actually mean you should keep your goal a secret. Rather it’s a matter of telling the right people and keeping the circle small.

 

Count on Accountability

Make yourself accountable to your goals by getting an “accountability buddy.” Find a friend or colleague whom you can work together to keep each other on track to achieving your goals. An accountability buddy will keep you motivated as well as give you the chance to mentor and guide someone to their own career goals. It’s a win-win situation.

Follow these steps to accountability:

1. Set The Rules

Clearly explain your goals to each other and re-iterate their timelines.

2. Connect Your Calendars

Share the dates when deliveries are due for each other’s goals. Put reminders in your calendar in the weeks leading up, so you can check in with your buddy. Your support can come in many forms, a short phone call, a quick coffee, or a simple text message can all help keep the energy high as the deadline approaches.

3. Regular Revision

Finally, plan regular meetings to review your goals together and make adjustments where needed. Perhaps a life-event has changed your focus, or there were changes in your company out of your control. Meet at least every quarter to review your career goals together.

Career Goals Set? Time to Celebrate!

Congratulations, you did it! Celebrate when you achieve your goals. Marking your achievements, no matter how small, helps you stay motivated for the next challenge. Choose an appropriate reward for the size of the goal, and don’t forget to invite your accountability buddy!

career goals how to

At every achievement, schedule some time to reflect on your process of achieving that goal. Ask yourself questions that will help make the path to your next career goal clearer:

  • What was especially hard?
  • What was easy?
  • Who helped you?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Take some time to focus on your next career goal and get started!

Are you ready to define your career goals? Was this guide helpful? Please get in contact with your feedback.

Jessica Miley

Jessica Miley

Jess Miley is a freelance blogger and founder of Ways Art Residency. She is excited about the good, the bad and the ugly of AI and its effect on how we work. Ask her for a new podcast recommendation.

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