Best Practices for Setting Career Goals

Best Practices for Setting Career Goals

By Jen Oleson, Manager, Operations, Career Management

Often the start of a new year symbolizes opportunity and change. It can also be a time to set new goals. Before we can look ahead to the opportunities awaiting us and determine what we want to achieve, we must reflect on the career goals we set and the progress made towards achieving them during the last 11 months.

Whether you have experience setting goals or are exploring the idea for the first time, below are some best practices for establishing and staying accountable to your career goals.

Why is setting career goals important?    

Before we explore some best practices of setting professional goals, understanding the importance of establishing them comes first. In general, setting goals is essential to personal development. In our personal lives, we set goals to improve physical, mental, and financial health. At work, we set goals to achieve professional milestones and improve our careers. Setting goals is essential to ensure progress in your career. When we set goals, personal or professional, we establish a framework that enables us to achieve them.

Best practices for setting career goals

1. Set short-term & long-term goals

We recommend setting short-term and long-term career goals to ensure successful results. Both goal types are integral to the overall framework of setting goals and when appropriately planned, empower you to take your next step.

Short-term goals are achieved over a shorter timeframe and support progress towards accomplishing long-term goals. They are like steppingstones, bridging the gap between the two-goal types. Timeframes for short-term goals can vary from a few weeks to a few months and may depend on the goal itself. Ultimately, short-term goals keep you accountable and motivated to the big picture.

Long-term goals are big-picture dreams. They are bound to an extended timeframe and require an element of strategic planning.

For example, a long-term career goal might be a promotion at work. If improving time management skills is essential to achieving the promotion, practicing time blocking in your calendar may be a short-term goal that supports your overall goal.

2. Be SMART about your goals

SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The Canadian Management Centre states the SMART concept was first introduced in the 1980s and continues to be an effective management tool today. Developing goals under the SMART framework ensures well-defined objectives are established and increases the probability of achieving them.

  • Specific: Focused and tied to a tangible outcome. Make a career goal as straightforward as possible. Answer the ‘what, why & how’ of the plan; what is the goal, why is it important, and how will you achieve it?
  • Measurable: Include measures to monitor and track progress. Measurable goals answer the when and how part of achieving the goal.
    • When will I know I have reached my goal?
    • How will I ensure I am on the right track to meeting it?
  • Achievable: When setting career goals, they should be challenging but still manageable. If you are focused on an out-of-reach goal or dream, it can be discouraging and lead to failure. When identifying objectives, ask yourself if they are realistic and whether you have access to the resources required to be succeed.
  • Relevant: Provides the framework to ensure the goal is relevant to where you want to go and is supported by resources you have today. Ask if the goal is relevant to overall career aspirations and achievable given available resources and the current environment.
  • Time-Bound: Set a target date for completion. When career goals are time-bound, they prompt action and align focus back to the desired outcome while staying on track to achieve it.

3. Stay accountable to your goals

Now that we have covered the importance of setting career goals, the difference between short- and long-term goals and the SMART goal framework, it is time to tie it all together with action and accountability. Staying accountable to goals is the secret sauce to successfully achieving them. What steps can you take to ensure accountability?

The People First Career Management team recommends these best practices:  

  1. Write your goals down. Writing down career goals (on paper or in a digital document) provides an opportunity to reflect and plan on each of the SMART acronym components and what you need to do to achieve the desired outcome. Once you have identified milestones and a timeline, write them down. Cross off your milestones as you reach them to help yourself stay organized and on track. 
  2. Prioritize goals & time management. Managing goals effectively requires prioritizing daily activities. Develop productivity and time management skills by prioritizing time and tasks using a time management matrix and time blocking. These approaches are proactive and effective in identifying how and where you have spent time. Prioritizing tasks and managing time is easier said than done, but it is important. When you understand and implement time management methods, you can focus on the right tasks while increasing productivity.
  3. Work with a career consultant or coach. To improve your confidence, provide structure to your goals and overcome mindset barriers, consider working with a career consultant or coach. Guidance from a consultant can help you reach professional goals much sooner than going at it alone. 

Setting career goals provides structure and a pathway to success. As you navigate career goals in the future, start by taking time to reflect on the goals you previously set to understand where you can improve in your approach to achieving them. From there, refine your goals or develop new ones using the SMART framework and be sure to implement accountability measures. A new year is a new opportunity to refocus your career goals!

Jen Oleson
Manager, Operations, Career Management

Jen believes that adopting an intentional and focused approach to one’s decisions and choices can lead to a more fulfilling and purposeful life. Her purpose and passion are to serve, inspire, and empower people and organizations to achieve their goals.

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