How do you set realistic career goals, and what’s the secret to achieving them? This post covers everything you need to know with some examples to boot.
Have you ever stopped to think about what your career goals are? It’s a common interview question, but many of us probably haven’t taken the time to think about specific career goals and how to achieve them.
Although it may seem cliche, the question, “Where would you like to see yourself in five years?” is a great way to align yourself with your own personal and professional goals. Goal setting increases your chances of success — and the probability that you’ll achieve more than you thought possible from the outset.
So, how do you set realistic career goals, and what’s the secret to achieving them? This guide covers everything you need to know with some concrete examples to boot.
When you were a kid, you probably had friends who wanted to be an astronaut one day. Ambitious dreams are great to have, but as you settle into your career, it’s more important to set realistic, achievable goals.
Thankfully, setting career goals is more of a science than an art, making it possible for you to create goals that you can actively work towards as you progress in your career. That said, your career path may change, and with it, your short-term and long-term goals.
Realistic career goals should be specific enough that they push you consistently forward while giving you enough leeway to change direction when needed. Here are a couple of ways you can set goals that do just that.
It’s essential to understand that there are long-term career goals and short-term career goals. Short-term goals, however insignificant they may seem, are critical to personal development as they enable you to achieve objectives over time. For example, if your ultimate goal is to be a marketing director, you won’t get that title as an entry-level employee.
First, you need a college degree in a related field; then, you should get an internship to cut your teeth and build a portfolio with relevant work samples. From there, you can get a better idea of what industries appeal to you, and what other skill sets you need to cultivate.
At that point, you may have enough work experience to lead your own campaigns or manage a small team, which will eventually help you work your way up to that director title. The whole process may take you 10 years, but it’s the short-term goals that push you to grow and succeed.
Starting with your end goal in mind, it’s also important to set SMART goals. SMART goal setting helps you establish measurable milestones, so you’re not vaguely pursuing your goals. Here’s what SMART goals stand for:
What do you want to achieve? “I want to be an entrepreneur” doesn’t cut it. “I want to create a service that helps people gain control of their personal finances and pay off debt” is more like it. The more specific, the better. Take out the ambiguity and give yourself an action plan.
Measurable goals are tangible milestones you set for yourself. Rather than saying, “I’d like to be more productive,” set concrete expectations for yourself and meet them. For example, “I’m going to read one book on productivity and time management each week.”
To take it a step further, you can put your time management skills to the test. For instance, you might consider time-blocking your days, using something like the Pomodoro technique to monitor how much time you spend on a task. By allowing yourself to focus on one task for a specified amount of time, you teach yourself to concentrate and get more done.
Your goals should be challenging but attainable. You can’t run a marathon overnight, but you could possibly run your first 5k in a week. From there, a realistic goal would be a four-mile run, and then a five-mile run. Over a period of months, you build up the muscle and stamina to run a half marathon, and then you can start focusing on a marathon.
Your goals must be relevant to you. A lofty C-suite title might sound great, but is it a good fit? It’s imperative to assess yourself first so that your goals make sense for you. Are you willing to put in the work to be a doctor, or would you be happier pursuing something else? If your goals aren’t relevant, it’s easy to lose focus and burn out.
It’s crucial that your goals are timely, too. Timely goals provide reasonable time frames and spur you into action. For example, if you wanted to run your own consultancy, a timely goal would be to pitch one to two clients a week in hopes of landing at least one or more clients by the end of the month.
Reaching goals requires action on your part. You can think of SMART goals all day, but if you don’t act on them, you'll go nowhere. Here are three actionable ways to get the end result you want:
Write down your goals: People who write down their goals are 42% more likely to achieve them than those who don’t write them down, according to one study. A similar study from Harvard Business Review found that 3% of graduates who wrote their goals down earned 10 times as much as their peers who did not.
Create a timeline: In the spirit of timeliness and goal setting, creating a broad trajectory of your career path and long-term career goals will help you better visualize and achieve smaller milestones as you progress.
Ask others for help along the way: Ask your managers and colleagues for advice whenever you can. Research shows that the likelihood of achieving your goals increases by 70% when you share them with someone (such as a mentor) who holds you accountable.
Now that we’ve talked about how to set your goals, here are five examples of career goals and how you can achieve them.
Whether it’s learning a new coding language or earning a certification, expanding your skill set can help you move up the corporate ladder or get your foot in the door. Aside from giving you in-demand hard skills, it also shows that you have initiative and grit.
How to achieve it: Look at the job requirements and must-have skills on job descriptions that interest you. You can quickly learn which technical skills, as well as hard and soft skills, are in demand.
This goal may sound unrelated to your career goals, but it’s incredibly important. You must articulate your ideas and present them effectively to gain the support of your colleagues and to impress hiring managers in job interviews.
How to achieve it: Watch Ted Talks on public speaking and read books that discuss public speaking strategies. Then, find opportunities to present your ideas and processes in your workplace.
If you’re not being challenged enough at work, take the initiative and create your own challenges. You could think of it as “thinking outside the box” or “working well with ambiguity,” two traits that hiring managers love to see in a prospective employee. When you do decide to move on to another role, you could cite the processes you implemented and the challenges you met as examples of your own ingenuity.
How to achieve it: Be proactive. If something doesn’t work well, improve it. Managers are impressed when employees have innovative ideas to share. For example, if your team is taking too long to deliver on a project or task, you could introduce them to time-tracking apps and techniques that work for you.
One major milestone to work your way up to is a management position. You’ll learn to lead others, have more responsibilities, and focus on big-picture tasks.
How to achieve it: Work diligently to become an expert in your field. This could mean attending conferences, earning certifications outside of your job, or signing up through your job for career-related programs to sharpen your skills. Usually, your superiors will take notice and give you more responsibility.
Owning your own business is another fulfilling milestone that many people aspire to achieve. While it can be daunting to know how to start, you’ll have more autonomy with your schedule, unlimited potential for growth, and you get the satisfaction of building your own enterprise.
How to achieve it: Learn the ins and outs of your industry, so you know what it takes to start a business. Be sure to network with like-minded professionals and mentors to get the support you need when launching your venture.
Nothing is quite as satisfying as achieving your career goals. The road to reaching your objectives will be challenging, but in the end, you’ll find it’s worth the effort. Create actionable and realistic goals, write them down, and work your way up.
Whether you choose to climb the corporate ladder or run your own business, the bottom line is that success is possible. To get started on your next career goal, take the Hoist owner quiz to see if launching your own business is a fit for you.