How to set career goals and create a better future for yourself

Jelena Mraovic

Last updated on: December 21, 2021

Many employees nowadays are chasing career fulfillment, instead of success. We’ve grown to like challenges, and want to get the most out of our careers: constant growth, evolution, and enough free time to appreciate our accomplishments.

But how exactly can we branch out in our careers, without risking failure? Is that even possible?

It is, through career goals.

Career goals are statements that you set for your professional progress. Maybe you want to perfect your second language to land international clients, or you take up a writing course to improve your blog. Or you want a promotion that demands you make more sales, so you set goals to improve your productivity.

These are just some examples of goals, and there are no limits to how short or long-term they can be. It all comes down to your personal wishes.

In this article, we’ll be discussing:

  • The importance of career goals
  • The different types of them
  • What to ask yourself before any decision
  • How to define career goals
  • How to set and achieve career goals
  • How to balance out your career goal chase and personal life

…all this while providing career goal examples so that you can have a better grasp of how to successfully set career goals for yourself.

How to set career goals and create a better future for yourself - cover

What is a career goal?

To achieve your career goals, should you follow your dreams?

Might be, but remember that “a goal without a plan is just a wish” — as stated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Take Nikola Tesla as an example. A brilliant man whose inventions changed the world while sometimes remaining mysteries.

However, Tesla was not a businessman, and he died broke since he was never interested in monetary gain — so others took credit for his work.

He was passionate about electrical engineering but struggled to pursue it as a career. I admire Tesla — we get one Tesla in a million years — but if there weren’t for Edison, Westinghouse, or others who reshaped his passion into a lucrative business, would we ever be able to see his inventions and brilliant ideas come to life? Maybe not.

Therefore, to move back to our question: What is a career goal?

A career goal is a target, i.e., a realistic and coherent plan that you want to achieve throughout your business career. Setting your career goal is something that you need to think about thoroughly.

Just because you love doing something, it doesn’t mean you possess the necessary skills to turn it into your career goal and benefit from it. After all, your passion is not going to pay for your bills and feed your family.

Now you are probably thinking: “Well if Tesla hadn’t been following his dreams, we wouldn’t have had a wireless transfer, safe electricity, and more.” True, he was a noble man who invented the things we can’t live without today and for which we owe him so much. Even though he didn’t benefit from his inventions, it would be really amazing if he had pursued his passion as a career after all.

In the next section, you are going to hear about the importance of goal setting in your career.

Why are career goals important?

Just like life goals, career goals are essential to personal development.

Hundred of years ago, people didn’t have much choice concerning their career since it was predetermined by their social class or inherited from their parents. Doing the same job for a minimum of 30 years used to be the norm. People would find their ways to progress within that framework, but they mainly stayed in the same place. With the opening of the first vocational bureau in 1908 in Boston, people started to get more opportunities to work in different areas of the same field and even change careers if they wanted to. People changed the way they think about their professions — now it’s not just “bringing home the bacon” or “making ends meet” — it became more than that. The word “career” got a new meaning, and people started to pursue career goals to enhance their professional development.

Apart from having more job opportunities, here are some other reasons why setting career goals is beneficial:

Career goals improve your skills

When you clearly set your career goals, you push towards your target and may experience knowledge enhancement along the way. Maybe you’ll need to enhance your skills to achieve a certain career goal, such as learning a new language or obtaining a computer science certificate. Apart from achieving that career advancement you were aiming for, you may also have a chance to become multi-skilled and/or perfect your craft.

Career goals help you use time more effectively

Do you feel like you work non-stop and that overworking has taken a toll on your health? If your answer is “yes” — consider setting yourself an achievable career goal. Whether that’s changing your occupation for good or doing something less radical, you will surely start to notice that how you manage your time has improved as well. When you know where you are heading, you effectively utilize your time and put an end to time wastage.

Using a time tracking tool can help you have a timeframe in mind making your goal more achievable and realistic as a result.

Make sure your time tracking tool can:

✅ Track time you spend on activities in real-time (or lets you enter time manually)

✅ Make precise time estimates

✅ Track progress

✅ Export detailed reports

Career goals boost your self-esteem

Achieving your career goals gives you a sense of personal satisfaction, appreciation, and confidence. Whether you get a bonus or just a pat on the back — you accomplished something. You pursued your career goal, and now you feel on top of the world and want to achieve even more.

Career goals help you find a sense of purpose

Wandering around without any aim and doing the same job without promotion for decades will eventually evoke dissatisfaction — one way or another. Would you rather complain about how you haven’t moved up the career ladder for years or do something about it?

When you set yourself a career goal, whether long-term or short-term, you feel motivated to work, enhance, and find a reason to wake up in the morning. If it means leaving your job or even changing your profession completely, so be it.

Bear in mind that you can’t just leave your job without having planned what to do next. For that purpose, read the section How to set your career goals successfully for more guidance.

Career goals eliminate procrastination for good

I couldn’t help but notice that people who repeatedly brag about their future career plans rarely ever do something to bring them to life. This usually happens because they probably want to make a change in their career but don’t know how, so they keep procrastinating.

What can actually help them achieve their future career plans is setting a clearly defined career goal. When having one (or more), the habit of procrastinating diminishes for good and goals become real.

💡 If you are dealing with procrastination (no judgment, we all occasionally do), you may find this article useful → Dealing with procrastination: Why it happens and how to fix it

If you’ve never had career goals as such or wondered how to go about establishing them, we’ve made a simple breakdown in the following sections.

What types of career goals are there?

When it comes to career goals, there is no universal division into types.
However, in this blog post, we will classify goals based on the time required to complete them. We will also give career goal examples based on their focus for each.

Therefore, career goals can be:

  • Short-term
  • Long-term

1. Short-term career goal

As the name itself implies, short-term goals are usually set to combat a temporary work obstacle or a current hiccup in your career path. Everything that you can achieve within the next 6 months to a year is considered a short-term goal. What’s more, they are most commonly just steps towards achieving a long-term goal.

2. Long-term career goals

On the opposite side, we have long-term goals, which are grander and require more patience and work. Additionally, they take longer to achieve, most commonly between 2 to 10 years.

Your career path is paved with huge milestones which reflect what you’ve achieved thanks to setting long-term goals.

Taking a closer look at them, you can find out what kind of direction will be best for setting your own goals.

Short-term and long-term career goals (examples)

Now that you know how to divide goals based on the time required to complete them, take a look at some short-term and long-term goal examples based on the type of improvement you’re after — education, personal development, productivity, or efficiency.

Setting career goals for education

Career goals focusing on education are about acquiring new skills or improving existing ones. We usually set them to ensure better job opportunities, promotion, improve our work performance, or reinforce our portfolio/CV for a better position.

Short-term goal example (education)

In the case of a short-term goal, it can be finishing a course (they usually last from 2 to 12 months — depending on the field of study) for a new skillset. If you, for instance, want to learn QA software testing to advance your computer-based knowledge, it will take no longer than a couple of months to finish the course. It is relatively quickly achievable and helps you improve your knowledge.

Other short-term goal examples focused on education include attending seminars, enrolling in online courses, finding a mentor, etc.

Long-term goal example (education)

When it comes to educational aims that you want to accomplish in the future, one of such is finishing college. That’s something that requires up to 10 years to complete, while physician studies can last even longer than a decade. Thinking about which college you want to enroll in is a tough decision that you probably start thinking about when you are in high school. You make that long-term goal based on your skills, knowledge, and interests.

Other long-term goals focused on education are learning a foreign language, gaining a master’s degree, starting night school, etc.

Setting career goals for personal development

For this article, we’re addressing personal development in the workplace, not in one’s private life.

Personal development goals are addressed through improving your networking skills, assertive training, self-improvement classes and/or books, finding a mentor (or becoming one), assuming greater responsibility, etc.

We set them to develop a growth mindset, improve our social skills, and emotional intelligence.

Short-term goal example (personal development)

It’s always a good idea to work on yourself — you’ll feel more confident, and others will gladly cooperate with you. Therefore, opt for a personality development seminar or watch life-coaching videos if you don’t have time to attend in person; read books on self-improvement, keep a journal, and similar.

Long-term goal example (personal development)

A long-term goal focused on personal development can be developing better communication skills in the workplace. If you feel like you are being “kept out of the loop”, or as if you “can’t fit in” — maybe you should enhance your workplace communication. This includes practicing active listening and public speaking, reaching out to your colleagues (also a great way to build good relations within your organization), showing empathy, etc.

This is considered a long-term objective since improving your skills and building effective communication in the workplace doesn’t happen overnight. Even after you accomplish this, you need to keep working hard to nourish your skills.

Other long-term goals focused on personal advancement include becoming a better team leader, improving work-life balance, and so on.

Setting career goals for productivity

These are fairly self-explanatory. When you’re setting productivity goals, you want to work on the quality of your results, and the way you tackle tasks. It is constant work on creating a better output.

Productivity goals can be reached by setting deadlines, scheduling brainstorming sessions, working on fulfilling basic needs (so they’re not a hindrance to your productivity level), finding your circadian rhythm, and much more.

We set such goals to increase our daily output.

Short-term example (productivity)

Being productive can’t happen straight away, but there are some short-term goals focused on productivity advancement that you can achieve shortly. For instance, if poor time management hinders your productivity, maybe you should consider enhancing your time management skills. For this purpose, you can make use of a productivity tracker app that easily identifies where your time goes, keeps you focused on critical tasks, and increases your productivity as a result. Other short-term goals focused on productivity include decluttering your workspace, changing your work routine, and finding your most productive time of day — see if you are a morning lark or a night owl.

Long-term goal example (productivity)

If you want to increase your productivity for good, apart from enhancing your time management skills, think about doing something that will bring long-lasting results once and for all. Of course, this will take more time and effort. Thus, if you don’t have such long-term goals so far — create a schedule that you are going to stick to. For that purpose, try making use of the time blocking technique that lets you organize your day by making small blocks of time for each activity or task — to make your schedule more manageable.

Creating such a schedule will lay out what you will work and when. Not only will you produce better output but also avoid procrastination for good. Bear in mind to have patience — since building a habit of creating a workable schedule is a lengthy process that takes time.

Other examples include automating work to reduce resources (manpower) and increase output.

💡 If you want to maximize your productivity using other techniques and apps, check this article out → Personal productivity guide: Maximize productivity with these methods and apps

Setting career goals for efficiency

While it can be put in the same basket as productivity goals, efficiency goals aim not to only improve the output of your work, but also the speed of its delivery. The aim is to learn where and how to cut corners without losing out on quality. Meeting deadlines with minimum sacrifices being made – both in resources and manpower.

Efficiency goals are set and reached by working on your focus, precision, timing yourself, and finding skills and software that can automate some of your everyday processes.

Short-term goal example (efficiency)

Say you are a small business owner and overhead costs keep rising. Since efficiency means doing things right – you have trouble allocating resources (in this case, funds) accordingly. What you need to do is set a short-term goal to manage your money wisely without damaging your business. Therefore, you should start keeping track of your company’s expenses (like mileage, meals, day rates, etc.) and choose between a traditional expense ledger or opt for an expense-tracking app that can do the job automatically.

Other short-term, efficiency-based goals include eliminating distractions, organizing daily meetings, etc.

💡 To become an expense-tracking master, check this article out → How to keep track of expenses

Long-term goal example (efficiency)

Let’s say you want to map out a thorough retirement plan. This is a long-lasting undertaking, and you should start thinking about it as soon as you get a serious, i.e., full-time job. Again, efficiency is all about managing your resources in the best way possible. Thus, you will need to map out a detailed financial plan such as leaving aside 10% of your income each month, investing, stop spending money on unnecessary things, and more. You can perhaps divide this long-term goal into small short-term goals and celebrate milestones. Such as start using an expense tracking app, set saving goals, etc.

4 Steps to defining career goals

What you need is a realistic picture of how you feel about your current job, and what you wish to achieve with new career goals. Whether it’s a full job change, transferring to a different department, or wanting a higher position in your current field — you’ll want to make some things clear first.

Following is a set of 4 simple steps that can help you define your career goals:

  1. Separate interests and work
  2. Look at your skills objectively
  3. Be specific with wording
  4. Make the goals achievable

1. Separate interests and work

It is perfectly normal to have interests and hobbies that are different from our job interests and skills. That does not necessarily make them viable options for a different career.

Take into account all the risks and obstacles if you choose to turn your passion into a job. Are you ready to handle a different kind of pressure and a new set of responsibilities? Sometimes, when people change their profession to something they did as a hobby, the joy they used to feel starts to dwindle. What they once did out of love now has a new weight of obligation and responsibility, and it no longer feels fulfilling.

Example scenario for separating interests and work

You work as a content writer, but at home, during your free time, you revel in doing graphic design. Logos, spreads, invites, business cards… It’s not just a personal expression but something you also greatly enjoy. It crosses your mind that you could do this for a living, so you start toying with the idea.

However, can you picture yourself doing it for eight hours a day? Deal with indecisive clients, possible endless revisions, and invoicing processes?

Putting yourself in this fictional situation will help you distinguish what should remain a hobby and what is a feasible career move.

2. Look at your abilities objectively

When setting goals, you need to be truthful with yourself. Consider what seems achievable, and what doesn’t.

Aiming too high too fast will create a lot of pressure that can hinder your progress. You should be aware of your schedule, your personal life, and consider what is humanly possible and what isn’t. While our workaholic culture praises individuals with machine-like stamina, it undoubtedly creates a big imbalance between work and private life.

Example scenario for looking at your abilities objectively

“To meet the deadline, I’ll work two hours of overtime every day this week, but next week I’ll return to regular work hours.”

Neglecting personal life to achieve a career goal is okay, in moderation. Deciding to work 10 hours a day for a week will have no consequences so long as you return to your regular schedule next week.

“I can’t enroll in a night school since I have a child, but I can take an online course with a flexible schedule.” 

In this example, you’re attending classes from the comfort of your home. You’ll be saving time you’d spend getting ready, commuting, and coming back home exhausted. Time that could be spent at home with your loved ones, or attending important personal issues.

3. Be specific with wording

Being as specific as possible makes it easy to maintain a routine and ultimately, progress. You’re less likely to get overwhelmed, giving up before the goal is reached.

When making career goals, do one (or all) of the following:

  • Include a timeframe for achieving a goal/goals (days, weeks, months),
  • Specify a skill level (a B1 level of a language course),
  • Set up signals, to avoid burnout (“once I catch myself losing steam, I’ll take a break”).

4. Make the goals achievable

Don’t be afraid to start small.

If you break down big professional goals into manageable, easily-reached milestones, you increase the odds of progressing faster. Also, achievable goals are easier to track. And being able to track your progress is the best-known motivator there is.

Example scenario for making achievable goals

You want to start a course on programming and earn a certificate. This step could be broken down into more achievable steps like:

  1. Spend an hour searching for the best course
  2. Enroll the course
  3. Create a study plan
  4. Complete the first week of the course
  5. Complete two weeks of course, etc.
  6. Pass the test for the certificate

As opposed to ill-defined like:

  1. Enroll the course
  2. Get a certificate

When goals are left vague or too broad, we tend to disregard the steps they’re comprised of. We are then unaware of the amount of work needed to achieve a goal, making it more likely to start feeling overwhelmed and give up. The moment you start breaking them down, you’ll make them more achievable and have a clear roadmap ahead of you. That being said, you can create simple “To-do” lists that help you keep track of all your tasks or activities and unburden your mind from remembering everything.

How to set your career goals successfully

Now that you’ve defined your career goal, the next hurdle is actually achieving it. Although there is no strict guideline on how to set your goals (whether short-term or long-term), we want to emphasize some universal steps you should take along the way.

These steps outline a simple and effective strategy as you start your journey to setting career goals:

  1. Find your personal motivation and self-discipline
  2. Find support from those close to you
  3. Be SMART with your goals
  4. Break down your goal into manageable pieces
  5. Track the progress of your professional goals
  6. Take time to reevaluate and modify your goals as you go

1. Find your personal motivation and self-discipline

Motivation is a fickle emotion that is very difficult to grasp. We hold the belief that everything we get done is because motivation strikes us at just the right time. Sadly, that is not the case.

We tend to get much more done when we discipline ourselves. Did you know that you can create motivation, instead of waiting for it to come around?

Here are just a handful of them:

  1. Make a reward system for yourself after reaching specific milestones,
  2. Analyze your lack of motivation to find out what prevents you from moving forward,
  3. Have a planner specifically for career goals, and write down everything you’re planning to achieve,
  4. Team up with a friend, or find support with your family.

💡 All these motivation tips are explored in detail in our other article on motivation, and how to find your own.

2. Find support from those close to you

We’ve mentioned that a friend or a coworker who has similar goals as your own can be a good motivator.

There is something in creating a “tribe” of like-minded people for the sheer support, resource sharing, and help they can provide each other. Additionally, it is great for accountability when you can’t keep your word.

Therefore, if you have a problem acting on your resolutions and promises, then find someone who will hold you responsible for them.

3. Be SMART with your career goals

Let’s revisit the example we previously mentioned. Since you’ve previously defined your future goal — to earn a programming certificate — it’s not enough to say “I want to earn a programming certificate” to carry out your goal successfully. Instead, make your goal “smart” and incorporate the SMART goal criteria into your goal-setting process.

That said, ensure your goal is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Specific goals ✅

You need to provide more details about your goal. Try answering the questions “What?”, “How?”, or “Why?” to make your goal more distinct.

Therefore, saying “I want to enroll in an online course so that I can earn a programming certificate and find a job in the IT industry” will make your goal as specific as it can be.

Measurable goals ✅

To make your goal measurable, you need to make sure it shows progress along the way. When making it measurable, answering these questions can help you “How many/much?”, “Can you measure the outcome?”

Your measurable goal should sound something like this “To make sure I understand the course curriculum, I will ask my developer friend if he can assist me with any problems I may encounter along the way.”

Attainable goals ✅

Do you possess the necessary skills to finish the programming course? Do you have all the necessary resources? Therefore, your attainable goal should sound something like this “I possess some basic hard skills such as HTML and CSS knowledge.”

Relevant goals ✅

Do you feel like your future career goal is something that really interests you? Your relevant goal should say: “I’ve always been interested in computer science, and this course will boost my knowledge and increase my chances of getting a job.”

Time-bound goals ✅

Finally, answer the question “When?” since every goal needs to have a target date. Try setting a realistic time frame so that you don’t end up disappointed or discouraged to move on. Therefore, your timely goal now sounds like this “My classes are going to be four times a week for two months. I suppose if I commit myself to regular learning and practicing, I will be able to start sending resumes soon after the course finishes.”

4. Break down your goal into manageable pieces

Now that your goal starts to look more complex because of a detailed plan, it’s time to chunk it down into smaller pieces. This way, you’ll have a better idea of the tasks that need to be completed to carry out your goal successfully.

To revisit our example above, in order to earn a programming certificate, you’ll need to complete tasks such as:

  • Ensure you have a computer with an i5 processor or more
  • Balance your current job or classes with the programming course
  • Practice and do homework regularly
  • Call your developer friend when in doubt

5. Track the progress of your career goals

We’ve mentioned that the only way to reach your milestones is through discipline.

By working towards your goal regularly, you increase your chances of succeeding. Like doing small programming tasks every day to practice for a certification test. However, for the majority of us, forming a habit proves to be much harder.

The easiest way to track your goals is via an application. This is especially useful if the traditional habit tracking doesn’t work for you.

For instance, in Clockify, you have the option of planning out your tasks for the entire day or even week. Then as the tasks pop up, you simply start the timer. When you’re done, you stop the timer, and voila! It’s as easy as that.

When the week passes, you’ll have a clean-cut overview of the time spent on career-related goals. These can help you regroup your tasks and make any necessary changes to your schedule.

6. Take time to reevaluate and modify your goals as you go

It’s perfectly normal to realize that your professional goals evolve and change over time. Especially earlier in life.

Maybe you’ve been working as a programmer for a few years now and found out in the past few months that you’re gaining interest in QA. Or, it turns out you are really good at mediating between teams and understand the production pipeline well enough to try project management.

How to know if you should change your career goals?

When talking about redefining your career goals, this important question always comes up. We take our careers seriously, so, naturally, we’ll question our choices. Let’s take a look at the signs if and when you should modify your goals.

  • The amount of effort you’re putting in overshadows the reward,
  • You no longer find joy in pursuing a goal,
  • It’s beginning to negatively impact your personal life,
  • You realize the goal is actually not as important anymore (e.g. Learning a new language),
  • Unexpected life changes occur.

Make it okay with yourself to come back to your goals and reevaluate them every now and then. Especially if you’ve realized that a different career path suits you better.

Instead of chasing a goal just to achieve it — even though you know it’s a dead-end — is just a waste of time and energy. It’s better to give up, count your losses, and move on in another direction.

How to balance career goals and personal life

It’s not easy to balance work and life, especially if you’re setting new career goals for yourself. And even with a support system within your friends and family, the idea of dedicating so much time to your career can look dark and gloomy.

Not everyone is up for the “grind”.

As a matter of fact, multiple media outlets today are speaking up against the “rise and grind” culture. At Clockify, we’re of the same mindset. There is no real success if you nearly lose yourself by the time you reach it. Health and sanity should always come first.

With that in mind, here are some pointers on how to pursue your goals in a healthy, balanced manner:

Decide how far you are willing to go

In time, you’ll want to find out what your absolute limits are and stick to them. If achieving a certain goal will say, have you work 100 hours a week while you can barely manage 60, then you need to know if the goal is worth the sacrifice. If such work hours turn out not to be a one-time thing, then it may be time to set your foot down.

Deciding how far you are willing to go early on will immensely help balance out your work and life.

Try making smarter choices

You don’t have to take every opportunity that comes your way. Some will be beneficial for your career, while others will be a dead end. Take the time to assess which ones to accept, and save some precious time for yourself.

Choose experiences that will move you forward, teach you something new, and add significantly to your life. Everything else will just be pointless.

Find someone you admire to mentor you

How can a mentor help your work-life balance? It’s actually quite simple.

People who have been in your shoes before have seen all the challenges, ups, and downs this path brings. They will know best what kind of traps lie ahead. Moreover, good mentors will give priceless advice on overcoming said obstacles and teach you valuable shortcuts and tips on how to choose the best opportunities for yourself.

That alone will save you enough time and energy, instead of learning through trial and error.

Conclusion

While your career path can seem complex, it proves to be interesting and versatile once you begin the journey. Setting goals for yourself is good not only for getting a better position, a promotion, or switching to a higher-paying job. It’s beneficial for your personal growth as well. Career goals can make you learn more about yourself as a person. They reveal your skills, your interests, mental toughness, and your overall outlook on life. Of course, don’t forget that the road to an attainable career goal can get bumpy, and you need to stick to your plan to carry it out successfully.

With that being said, this journey should excite you. So, grab the proverbial bull by the horns and good luck!

✉️ Do you have a career goal? After listening to our tips and incorporating the SMART goal criteria when setting your goal, does it seem more feasible now? Write to us at blogfeedback@clockify.me for a chance to be featured in this or one of our future articles.

Author: JelenaMraovic

Jelena Mraovic holds a master's degree in English language and wants to learn multiple languages. Moreover, she is tirelessly writing and doing researches on effective and proven time management techniques. She takes her writing seriously so as to help people make efficient use of their time. She believes true productivity depends on acquiring new time management skills.


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