How to Set Realistic, Achievable Career Goals
Have you ever taken the time to think about where you want your career to be one year from now? Five years? Ten years? If you want to achieve success and take your career to the next level, you need to learn how to set career goals. Career goals are targeted objectives that describe exactly what you want out of your career.
Many people feel that setting career goals is a waste of time. Don’t make this mistake. Without career goals, achieving success in your professional life is next to impossible. After all, you need to know your destination in order to get there.
Career goals provide you with a roadmap that will take your career from where it is now to where you want it to be. They help you determine the skills and experiences you need in order to take your career to the next level. Career goals also give you focus and provide you with a benchmark for determining if you are getting any closer to where you want to be.
Setting career goals is not enough. You need to make sure that your goals are realistic and achievable.
This means that with enough commitment, hard work and sacrifice on your part, you should be able to achieve your career goals. A lot of times, many people set goals that are too lofty.
The problem with setting goals that you cannot realistically achieve is that it leaves you feeling discouraged. It creates this mindset that you cannot achieve any of your goals.
Let’s assume that I decided today that my goal is to become a professional footballer and play for one of the top clubs in Europe.
This goal is not very realistic.
I haven’t touched a soccer ball in the last 5 years or so. I have not been doing any training for the last ten. I am almost at the age where most soccer players retire. Regardless of how much effort I put into it, my chances of being a soccer star are next to zero.
On the other hand, if my goal is to become a regular writer for a leading website within the next two years, I can actually achieve this goal since it is in line with my skills and experiences. This is what it means to set realistic and achievable goals.
So, how do you set goals that are ambitious and spur you to success without overwhelming yourself at the same time?
Below are a few tips on how to do set realistic and achievable goals.
YOUR CAREER GOALS SHOULD BE SPECIFIC
Many of us have very broad career goals. I want to earn a promotion. I want to become a great writer. I want to become successful. Sure, earning a promotion, becoming a great writer or being successful is a great thing, but these goals are very vague.
They don’t push you towards anything specific. What does it mean to be a great writer? Is it to write a bestselling book or to regularly contribute in an international magazine? What does it mean to be successful? Is it to have your own car and house, or is to become the CEO of a fortune 500 company?
In order to set realistic and achievable career goals, you need to be specific. Look into the future and create a vision of exactly what you want for your career. How exactly do you want your job to be like? Instead of saying that you want to earn a promotion, include the position you are aiming for in your goals.
For example, you might say, “I want to be promoted to Chief Financial Officer.” Instead of saying you want to be a great writer, describe what being a great writer means to you. For example, you might say, “I want to become a regular contributor to the XYZ magazine/website.” Instead of saying you want to be successful, describe what success means for you. For example, “I want to run my own business that brings in over $1 million in annual profits.”
Being specific when setting your career goals has a number of benefits.
First, a specific goal provides you with greater clarity about what you actually need to do in order to achieve the goal. It is easier to come up with a plan of what you need to do in order to build a profitable business than it is to plan how to ‘be successful’.
Second, specific goals give you more motivation to work towards the goal compared to vague goals. Your chances of achieving your goals are also higher when you have a clear vision of a specific goal you are aiming for, according to various studies.
YOUR GOALS SHOULD BE MEASURABLE
In order for your career goals to be effective, they need to be measurable.
In other words, you need a criteria for determining that the goal has been achieved. Career goals without a measurable criteria are too ambiguous to achieve.
Consider someone whose goal is to increase their income. This goal is not measurable.
If he increases his income by $5, will he consider himself to have achieved his goal? What exactly is he aiming for?
On the other hand, someone whose goal is to increase their income by 20% knows exactly what he wants. He won’t rest until he achieves the 20% increase. A measurable goal provides you with a benchmark for meaningfully tracking your progress.
YOUR GOALS SHOULD BE CHALLENGING BUT ATTAINABLE
Setting career goals is about finding the balance between being challenging and attainable. The essence of setting goals is to spur yourself to take action to push your career to the next level, to do something that you have never done before.
Therefore, your goals need to be challenging. Great, effective career goals should put you in a discomfort zone.
They should be accompanied by some fear, uncertainty and doubt. There should be the risk that you might not achieve the goal if you do not raise the bar and put in a lot of effort. This is what leads to growth. It makes no sense setting goals if you know you can achieve them without much effort.
At the same time, you should not have your head in the clouds. Don’t set goals that are too ambitious. Remember my goal of becoming a world class soccer player? The goal is challenging, but it is not attainable. In fact, if I told my peers about this goal, they would think I am delusional. For a goal to be effective, it also needs to be attainable.
It should be compatible with your skills and abilities. If you do not have the skills required to achieve the goal, it should be possible for you to gain these skills. Setting goals that you cannot realistically achieve will only leave you demoralized and erode your self-confidence.
A good way of determining if your goal is attainable is to consider your personal limitations. Are there any obstacles that might prevent you from reaching your goal? Is there something you can do to overcome these challenges?
For instance, if your goal is to make a change to an entirely different career where you have no training, you might need to go back to college.
Do you have the money to pay for college, as well as the time to attend classes considering your current schedule? If you cannot afford paying your way through college, then your goal might not be very realistic.
If you have a way of getting yourself through college, however, your goal is attainable, even though it might take a while to achieve it.
YOUR GOALS SHOULD MOTIVATE YOU
This is something people usually forget when coming up with their career goals. Very often, people set certain career goals because they sound good or because they think they should set such goals.
When setting goals for your career, you need to think about yourself. Is the goal important to you? Do you actually want to achieve it? Does it motivate you? Do you personally value the outcome? If you set goals because you think they sound good or because others expect you to have such goals, you won’t have the motivation to go after them.
There will be nothing pushing you to put in the work to make it happen, which means your chances of achieving the goal will be very slim.
Think about your priorities in life and set career goals that are in line with these priorities. This gives you a sense of urgency and the attitude that it has to be done regardless of what it takes.
A good way of making sure that your goals are motivating is to consider the reason behind the goal. Why do you want to achieve that goal? What makes it so important for you to achieve this goal?
Once you figure out why you are chasing the goal, it will motivate you and keep you going even when doubts and lack of confidence creep in.
DETERMINE HOW YOU ARE GOING TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS
There is a popular saying that a goal without a plan is only a dream. If you have no idea what it takes to achieve your career goals, you are only wishing.
For your goal to be effective and attainable, you need to find out what exactly you need to do to achieve it.
Here, you need to ask yourself questions like:
- What skills do you need to learn?
- How long will it take?
- How much will it cost?
- Do you need to make any lifestyle changes?
Answering these questions might require you to do some research. Once you determine what it takes to achieve the goal, you can now break the goal into small chunks or sub-goals that you can work on in the short term.
A huge goal might seem out of reach, and makes it easy for you to procrastinate or put it off. Once you break it into smaller steps, however, it appears a lot more attainable.
Breaking it into smaller steps also provides you with milestones to track your progress.
For instance, if your goal is to learn CSS and HTML so that you can become a self-employed web developer within a year, it is easy to leave it at that.
However, by committing to going through two video tutorials every week, your overall goal becomes a lot more manageable and achievable.
ASSESS YOUR COMMITMENT
Imagine a friend has invited you to a party at an address you have never been to before. To help you get there, your friend sends a pin drop of the location to your phone. With this pin drop, you can use the map on your phone to find the place where the party is happening.
However, you have to get into your car and actually drive yourself over. Your career goals are like the pin drop shared by your friend. They help you know where you are going and how to get there. But they are not enough.
The same way you have to drive yourself to the party, you have to put in some time and effort in order to realize your goals.
Having determined what you need to do in order to achieve your career goals, you now need to assess yourself and determine whether you will be committed enough to follow through with what needs to be done.
This is especially important if your goal is a challenging one.
Achieving your goals will not be easy.
Are you willing to put in the time and effort it takes to achieve it? Going back to the example of learning CSS and HTML, will you commit to going through two tutorials each week, or do you think it is a lot of work?
It makes no sense setting goals if you will not be committed to them. If you doubt that you might not be committed enough to follow through with your goal, this is a sign that you need to revise your goal or set a new one that you will be committed to.
Inability to commit to your career goals might also be a sign that your goal does not motivate you.
A goal will only be realistic and achievable if you can make the commitment to yourself that will do whatever it takes to achieve the goal.
YOUR GOAL SHOULD BE TIME-BOUND
The other day, I was talking to a friend about goal setting and he said his goal was to make a lot of money and buy a Ferrari. I asked when he planned to do this, and he simply answered “someday.”
This is something very common with a lot of people. They know want they want to achieve, but they simply do not have a timeline for when they want to achieve it. Without a timeline, your goals are not very effective. If it doesn’t matter when you achieve your goals, what will push you to start working on them today?
Having a deadline for your goals has several benefits. First, it keeps you accountable. A deadline provides you with a critical metric for measuring your outcome.
You know that if you do not achieve a certain outcome by a certain date, then your efforts will be deemed as a failure, regardless of how much progress you might have made.
The risk of failing puts pressure on you and pushes you to start taking action. Without the time constraints, there is really no accountability and no sense of urgency since you can always do it later. Lack of a timeline leads to procrastination.
Second, having a timeline allows you to break your goal into manageable chunks. Once you know the timeline within which you need to achieve your goal, you can break down the goal into smaller goals that you need to achieve every day or every week.
For instance, if your goal is to make $1 million someday, you might not worry so much about how much you make every single day, since you will eventually get to the target, even if it takes you ten years. If you goal is to make $1 million within a year, however, this means that you need to make at least $2740 every single day.
Knowing what you need to do in the short term allows you to prioritize and focus on activities that move you closer to your goal. If you know that you need to make $2740 every single day, you are unlikely to waste time on TV shows and social media until you make sure you have reached your daily target.
A timeline also provides you with a way of tracking your progress. Let’s assume that your goal is to write a book within a year.
If you find that you are yet to start writing the book halfway down the year, this is a clear indicator that you are not on track to complete the book by the end of the year. It tells you that you need to work twice as hard as you had planned to if you want the book to be ready by the end of the year.
Once you start setting your career goals, make sure they are attached to a deadline. This will make them realistic and achievable and will provide you with the motivation and inspiration you need to start taking action.
PUT YOUR CAREER GOALS IN WRITING
This is the final step of setting realistic and achievable goals. Once you have come up with realistic and achievable goals for your career, you need to put them in writing. Get a notebook or a piece of paper and note down your goals.
When doing this, use the word “will” instead of “might” or “would like”. For instance, if your goal is to increase your profits by 20%, write
“I will increase my profits by 20% by the end of the year,” not “I would like to increase my profits by 20% by the end of the year.”
Using the word will provides you with passion, commitment, and will power to pursue your goals. Using the words “would like” or “might” presents your goals as a nice-to-have, not something you need to do at all costs.
Once you have your goals written down, place them in a visible place where you can see them every single day, such as on your bedside table, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or desk.
You might be wondering if this step is actually important. Many people set their career goals but never bother to write them down? Why do you need to write down your goals? Putting your goals in writing has several benefits.
First, it helps visualize your goals. Before writing down your career goals, you need to visualize them clearly in your mind. Visualizing your goals motivates you to work harder and increases your chances of achieving the goal. Research shows that those who visualize their goals are more likely to achieve them.
Writing your goals down also helps to transform them from abstract concepts to something real. When you just think about your goal, the goal is not physically real. It only exists in your mind, and it’s easy for you to change your mind. But once you put them down in writing, they become real and tangible.
You can visually see them and you are more likely to feel committed to achieving them.
Finally, putting your goals in writing serves as a reminder. I mentioned that you should place your goals in a place in a visible place where you can see them on a daily basis. Looking at your goals every day reminds you what you are working towards and keeps you motivated on a daily basis.
The importance of writing down your goals is backed by science. According to a study conducted by Dominican University psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews, by simply writing down your goals, you are 42% more likely to achieve them.
Therefore, after you come up with goals for your career, finish the process by writing them down.
Setting career goals is essential if you want to get to the pinnacle of your career. In addition to setting career goals, you have to make sure your goals are realistic and achievable.
In order to do this, your goals should be specific and measurable. They should be challenging but at the same time not overly ambitious. Your goals should also be motivating to you and should be tied to a deadline.
When setting your career goals, you should also determine how you are going to achieve the goals and evaluate your commitment to the goals.
Finally, you need to put your goals in writing in order to increase your chances of attaining them.