This time of year is always about “resolutions,” but those tend to fit squarely into the “personal” category—at least the ones you hear people talk about. Today, I’m focused on the goals that aren’t glibly discussed over cocktails and crudités. I’m talking career goals, and I thought I’d take you through my approach to thinking about professional intentions and establishing new career objectives.
To start, it’s important not to feel pressured to have every goal buttoned up right at the start of the month. Some years, the holidays feel so overwhelming, I wake up in mid-January without having had the chance to reflect or set any “resolutions” and feel like the opportunity is lost. News flash: it’s not. Whether it’s January 8th or August 27th, it’s never too late. Start now. And take your time! In fact, I like to take January as a whole to really dig into what I want to accomplish this year. I think of the month itself as an amazing starting point.
Below, I walk you through the first two phases of career goal-setting: reflecting and brainstorming. To help guide this process, I use a couple simple, but super helpful worksheets that provide a comprehensive framework for navigating this process. If you’re interested in using these as well, simply sign up for Memorandum emails by clicking HERE and I’ll send them right to your inbox!
Career Goal-Setting: Where Do I Start?
As mentioned, let’s not put excessive pressure on ourselves to rush this process. That’s the New York City subway’s job. Think about it: you’re setting your professional course for the year ahead (maybe longer), and it’s worthy of serious contemplation. I give myself at least a week just for reflection, and follow that reflection with a good brainstorm. Setting specific goals comes later, after I’ve given myself the chance to find clarity around where I am, what I have (or have not) accomplished, and what I want moving forward.
Goals are all about making changes, striving for improvements, establishing better habits, etc. Before I can set goals, I need to have a good idea of where I am right now and what I want to change. That whole cart-before-horse thing really doesn’t work when it comes to goals. Always opt for assessing and getting clarity on what’s happening right now (or in the past), first.
Career Goal-Setting Step 1: Reflect
I always start by looking back. As the saying goes, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I think about the high points and the low points of the year and use them as a jumping off point for setting new professional goals. I like to do this by turning my phone and computer off and taking pen to paper. No interruptions, no distractions. Yes, friends, we’re taking things extremely analog today. There’s nothing better than a solid block of time to just think about the past year—its good, bad and ugly. Professionally, what are the things that made me feel motivated, challenged, excited, frustrated, confident and insecure.
I like to take a first pass at these reflections, and then let them marinate for 24 hours before I read them again and move onto brainstorming. This waiting period allows time for additional items to pop into my head (at the gym, in the shower, while eating my body weight in leftover holiday candy, etc). The idea here is to really grab onto what is going well and not so well in my professional life, and then use those data points as you start to brainstorm and move towards setting specific goals.
If you’d like the specific prompts that guide my career reflection (and the brainstorm exercise described below) you can get them by simply signing up for the Memorandum email list HERE. I promise I’m not a spammer.
Career Goal-Setting Step 2: Brainstorm
After you reflect, marinate, and let things simmer, now it’s time to really get cooking. (Can you tell that I’m hungry while writing this?) Your professional reflections should have highlighted the positives and negatives of your current career situation, and now it’s time to think concretely and specifically about what you want. In essence, this part of the process is about figuring out how to generate more of the good, and less of the not-so-good.
I have a theory, which is pretty simple, but also pretty accurate (in my experience): most of our professional success comes down to effort. That’s it. Aside from extremely specialized fields populated by neurosurgeons or actual rocket scientists, most professional fields are populated by a lot of generally smart, talented professionals. However, people so rarely match their intelligence level with the hard work required to achieve real results. Often, this lack of effort comes down to a lack motivation. The good news is that there are a few simple ways to motivate yourself.
A great way to increase motivation is to identify the tasks and professional endeavors that get you excited at the office. What kind of tasks do you look forward to most? What kinds of work makes you lose track of time because you become immersed in what you’re doing? Also, what professional activities make you feel the most confident? Ultimately, ask yourself what kind of work doesn’t feel like work to you? When you can identify that, you can do further brainstorming on ways to create more work in that area, which will create more excitement and motivation in your professional life. This is what the brainstorming step is all about.
Obviously, we can’t totally get rid of everything we dislike doing professionally, but we can take steps to reduce our exposure to these de-motivating tasks or processes. The more you’re motivated by your work, the more you’ll find it fulfilling, and the more your performance will improve almost without thinking about it. All of these amazing attributes of your work will then generate (wait for it) even more motivation. The idea that we should love what we do for a living isn’t an abstract one—it has real benefits.
The goal of your brainstorm is to take the “what happened in the past” from your reflection exercise and transition it into “what I want to have happen in the future.” This means identifying ways to increase the professional “good” from your reflections, and decrease the “bad.” I take the exact same approach to brainstorming that I do with reflecting. I sit down with a pen and paper, no distractions, and take a first pass at writing out what I want professionally—on a micro and macro level. I wait a day and take another pass, making sure to jot down any new ideas that come to me in the interim.
Using a set of specific prompts really helps me complete this exercise, and if you’d like to use the worksheet I use (along with the reflection worksheet I use for step one) click HERE to sign up for Memorandum emails!
Once the brainstorming is all done, then I’m ready to really set my goals for the year ahead. And next week, I’m going to show you how I do that. For now though, reflecting and brainstorming should be where your head is at. It’s certainly where mine is at, in between catching up on episodes of The Crown and feeding a perpetually hungry four-month-0ld.
Career Goal-Setting: Things To Remember
Take your time! There’s no need to put any pressure on yourself to have your entire professional future mapped out by January 1. This is important. You want to not only be free from stress and pressure, but you also want to be thorough, and it’s hard to achieve that when you feel rushed. I have been known to enjoy a glass of wine or three during this exercise to allow myself to just sit and enjoy it. (Little secret: this process can be really fun.) Free yourself of restrictions, and allow yourself some time to really think positively about your career and where it’s going. And lastly, think big! Your career is a huge part of your life, and you should get everything you want out of it. A great start is by getting clarity and setting goals for a productive, motivated 2020.
Cheers to a new year and a fresh start!