Yeah, right. You’ve heard it all before. Your mother told you. Your teachers told you. Your boss told you. You probably even attended a seminar or two, and the trainer told you: “You’ve got to set some goals if you expect to get anywhere.”
Well, guess what? They were right.
In the same way that a company or a corporation needs a well-thought-out business plan that contains viable growth strategies and metrics, you and your career need a plan. If you want to learn, grow, and succeed, you will need to define your goals and develop a reasonable strategy for accomplishing them.
The continual setting and achieving of goals is the foundation of a satisfying career—or, quite often, it’s the continual setting and modifying of goals before they can be achieved. (And, while we’re on the subject, goal setting is also the foundation of a satisfying life.) But not just any old goal will do. Certain goals can sap your confidence, make you feel like a failure, and carry you off in the wrong direction. Still others can leave you spinning your wheels, getting nowhere. But some goals—the right goals—will spur you on to success. Like a beacon in the night, they’ll continually lead you down the right path, as long as you keep focusing on them.
So how do you set goals that help rather than hinder?
There are five essential parts to a worthy goal. It should be:
Reasonable: “One day you can be president of the United States if you really want to,” they told us when we were kids. And they insisted we should always “aim for the stars.” Sky-high career goals may be inspiring for some, but they can be self-defeating for the majority of people. That’s because impossible or nearly impossible goals practically ensure you’ll feel like a failure if or when you don’t achieve them. And when that happens, you may just want to throw in the towel and go home. To avoid the “impossible goal syndrome,” break down your long-term goals (e.g., getting into management) into something more realistic. Set smaller, bite-sized, daily goals, like showing up for work on time, spending at least 15 minutes networking with people who can help you, and getting all the way through a reasonable to-do list. These repeated successes will build your feelings of personal fulfillment and your confidence, while steadily moving you closer to your larger, long-term goals.
Specific: Set clear-cut, simple goals. Instead of saying something vague like, “I want to move up the career ladder,” say, “I’ll get a degree in my field,” or “I’ll make sure that all my reports are on time and accurate.” Once you’ve pinpointed some goals (no more than five at a time), write them down and say them out loud. Committing them to paper will make them more concrete. By thinking about them, saying them out loud, and writing them down, your brain will build multiple strong connections to your goals, making you more likely to be successful.
Measurable: This goes hand in hand with being specific. Make sure your goals have clear outcomes that you can see or quantify in some way. Instead of saying, “I’m going to be a better employee,” say, “I will contribute at least one constructive idea to every staff meeting.” This will make it easier for you to track your results. Either you reached your goal or you didn’t—no guesswork involved.
Adjustable: If your goal is too rigid or impractical, it might not be attainable. For example, let’s say you’ve set a goal of getting your master’s degree no later than one year from today. But if you are working full-time, have two small children, and have suddenly found out you must vacate your house and move across town, your timeline for getting that degree will probably need to be lengthened. Or you may decide that it isn’t really necessary, or maybe it’s not something you truly want to do. Goals require not only ability and drive, but commitment and opportunity. Reevaluate each goal periodically and decide if it’s still something you really want to pursue. Then give yourself the opportunity to change your mind or create more realistic or desirable goals.
Given a time frame: Setting a deadline is particularly important, especially if you tend to procrastinate. Without a deadline, it may be hard to find a reason to act right now; there’s no real sense of urgency. So pick an end date for achieving your goal (again, write it down), as in, “I’m going to make 10 cold calls before noon every day for one month.” On the end date, evaluate. Did you reach your goal? If so, pat yourself on the back. If not, ask yourself if you may have set your goal too high. Was it too complicated? Did you work hard enough at it? Was it something you really wanted to achieve? You may find that your goal needs to be tweaked, changed, or even possibly abandoned.
Make sure all of your career goals are reasonable, specific, measurable, adjustable, and given a time frame. When evaluating your progress, if any of your goals seem obsolete or they no longer work for you, get rid of them and set new ones. And if you’ve attained them, celebrate! Buy yourself one of those fancy eight-dollar coffee drinks. Take a walk. Call a friend. Do something that acknowledges your accomplishments. And then jump right back in and start again. Goal by goal, you can—and will—achieve success!
Author of Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted, Denise Dudley is on a mission to help young professionals everywhere take charge of their careers and find meaningful employment in their ideal field of work. Dudley is also a professional trainer and keynote speaker, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, the largest public training company in the world, which provides 18,000 seminars per year, and has trained over 12 million people in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Dudley speaks all over the world on a variety of topics, including management and supervision skills, leadership, assertiveness, communication, business writing, career readiness, and personal relationships. Dudley thrives on people, animals, and lively audiences!
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