Make An Initial List
After I have taken the time to reflect on the past year and brainstorm (with these worksheets which I find so helpful), I like to start an initial list. I leverage what I have surfaced during my reflection and brainstorming exercise and start writing down everything that I’d like to achieve—everything. I think big and small, and don’t hold back—I’m ready to use up a lot of ink on this one. In this part of the process, the only restriction is that there are no restrictions. Don’t over-analyze and don’t get hung up on the how. No thoughts of details or practicality should stifle this exercise.
Yes, I find that some of the goals I write down might seem audacious, but as soon as they hit the paper they become more tangible and that pesky analytical side of my brain actually starts to figure out how I am going to make them happen (unleash the beast!). So think BIG with me, we will figure out the details in a minute.
NOTE: This part of the process is best done with a glass of wine in my hand and some Celine rolling on Spotify, I find it really enhances the creative synapses in my brain. But that’s just me.
Narrow The List
Now that I have a great list, it’s time to review my goals and narrow them down. Sad? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I have found that an important part of setting goals (and ultimately achieving them) is not trying to do too much. When I have overwhelmed myself with 10-15 goals, I find that I cannot focus and dial in on just a few items. I lose momentum and I end up not accomplishing much of anything. So I stay focused on a few core goals.
Four goals is my sweet spot. Three short term goals (accomplishable within 12 months) and one long term goal (something that will take more than 12 months to complete) is generally where I land. The final number changes from year to year. Some years I just have one main goal, and in other years, I have five that I’m really motivated toward. There’s no right or wrong, but I have personally found that 3-5 goals generally makes sense for me.
In terms of narrowing down your list, I try to prioritize my goals in terms of:
1. How important they are to me
2. How beneficial they are to my career
3. How motivated I am to get moving on them
If I can triangulate around a few goals that rank highly for each of the above three criteria, then there is a strong likelihood that I will be able to achieve them. Don’t forget to look back at the reflection and brainstorming you did in the first part of this exercise to help guide this process. I find that when I am stuck, this is invaluable and can help keep me from going around in circles.
Ask: Are These Goals S.M.A.R.T.?
Once I have my initial list of goals, I need to confirm that they make sense and start thinking through how I am going to achieve them. This is incredibly important because setting goals is one thing, but achieving them is another thing altogether. Saying you want to earn more money is easy to do. But what does that really mean? Do you want a raise in your current job? Do you want to start a side business? Or dos you want to develop passive income streams?
For goals to be attainable (which is… the goal… right?), they need to have a few fundamental characteristics. Otherwise, they are just generic statements that hang like a dark cloud over your head as a reminder that you are not making any progress. Thankfully, there is a popular framework for setting and achieving goals that you’ve probably heard of—the S.M.A.R.T. method. It’s an acronym that stands for the following:
Goals should not be abstract. They should be specific and clear. For example, “I want to be VP of Marketing” is far more specific and clear than “I want a better title.”
Make sure that you can easily measure the progress you’ve made toward your goals. For example, “I got a 5% raise, which is halfway to my goal of 10%.”
If the goal is impossible to achieve, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment from the start. For example, you wouldn’t set a goal of winning an Olympic Gold Medal in Figure Skating if you’ve never put skates on before. You want to push yourself, but also be realistic and honest with yourself.
Goals should be relevant in the broader context of your personal and professional life. This speaks to the usefulness of the goal. Think about whether the goal aligns with your other goals and your personal life. Ask whether the timing is right and be honest with yourself about whether you’re well-suited for pursuing this goal. For example, if you’re an accountant with young children, the goal of becoming a wildlife photographer in South Africa may conflict with your other professional goals and/or the educational plans you have for your children.
Your goals should have deadlines and reasonable timeframes. If your deadlines are infinite, you can fall victim to procrastination and lack of motivation. In addition to a timeline for achieving the goal, I also find it’s important to set progress deadlines (more on that below).
Once I’ve verified that my 3-5 goals fit into the S.M.A.R.T. method, I start filling out this goal tracker. It allows me to keep a shortlist of all of my goals and their key information in one centralized location. At this point, all you should be doing is filling in the top GOAL line of each section. The rest will be filled in as you move through the remaining steps below.
Set Timelines & Check-Ins
Taking the last part of the S.M.A.R.T. method a step further, I like to dive in a little deeper on the timeline and steps necessary for achieving each goal. I have found it’s not enough to just have a date by which the goal should be accomplished. I really need smaller, bite-sized progress deadlines and check-ins along the way. The moment I finish setting my goals, I map out all of the necessary steps for achieving those goals and log check-in dates (which serve as mini goals along the way) in my calendar. I love these check-ins because they not only keep me on track, but they also let me assess my progress and make adjustments if necessary. This also has the added benefit of reminding me regularly that I set a goal in the first place!
Pick A Person
Another thing that improves the chances of accomplishing my goals: finding a person to share each goal with. This could be a designated accountability partner (someone who can help me achieve my goal) or just a friend I am confiding in. Regardless of whether this person is actively involved in helping you achieve your goal, there’s a great psychological benefit to this part of the process because we all have an inherent desire not to let someone down. Saying your goal aloud to someone else makes it real and makes you feel accountable—hugely boosting your motivation.
Beyond this, I’ve found that when I share my goal with someone, they will ask me about it occasionally, even if I haven’t specifically asked them to be an accountability partner. This person you tell will also hopefully serve as a sounding board and could even help offer support, ideas or advice in achieving your goal.
Start Small, Start Now
Once I’ve established each goal, I pick an initial action that can get me started on the way to achieving each goal. The initial action I choose is generally small, but something I can do immediately. It could be sending an email, making a list, doing some research. The key is that it can be done right now (or at least this week). By getting started immediately, I am instantly making progress and I have momentum. It also gives me a small sense of accomplishment, which I love, because it’s really reinforcing and something that I can build on. However, be wary of trying to do too much, too fast, because if you overestimate what you can do in the short-term given the other demands on your time, it could be discouraging and inhibit momentum. Get the ball rolling now, schedule out your next steps, and stay accountable.
As discussed in part one of the career goal setting process, this exercise requires time. If you can devote an entire day to sitting down and hammering out your goals and their associated timelines, you’re a rockstar. However, a better approach may be to schedule time over the course of a week or two. Today, spend an hour making your initial list. Tomorrow, start to narrow that list and evaluate whether your final three to five goals are S.M.A.R.T. The next day, map out timelines and check-ins, and so on, using this goal tracker as a way to stay organized. If you rush this process and don’t give it the proper time and attention, your goals will quickly fall by the wayside.
Remember that slow and steady wins the race.
Though there is no single way to set goals, these methods have really worked for me. Hopefully, by now, you feel like you have a strong framework for setting and achieving your own goals. If you have any additional tips or techniques that I’ve missed, please share in the comments below! I’m excited to dig into lots more career content this year, so stay tuned for more and good luck with your goal-setting!