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How to Set Career Goals That Work for You

If you had asked me about my career goals at the end of high school, I would’ve told you I wanted to be an English professor.

But when I got to college, things changed. I found this website and learned that you could make money online as a writer. My career goals shifted, and I became less interested in academic life as I began freelance writing. Fast-forward a few years, and I’m now the one writing these articles and managing this website.

Throughout it all, however, I always had career goals in mind. If you’re in college or recently graduated, you’re probably wondering how to set your own career goals.

But how do you set goals for your career in today’s rapidly changing economy? And how do you ensure your goals can adapt to meet your changing interests?

Below, we’ll explore these questions (and more). But first, let’s look at why you should set career goals to begin with.

Should You Set Career Goals?

In general, we’re big fans of planning your career to some degree. Without a plan, you may default to whatever’s easiest or most comfortable. Having career goals helps you stay on track and avoid stagnation.

On the other hand, beware of setting career goals that are too rigid. If you try to plan every second of your career from the end of college to the start of retirement, you might miss out. Trying to stick to your plan above everything else means you won’t be able to adjust to changes in your interests, circumstances, or opportunities.

Furthermore, setting rigid goals can lead to perpetual dissatisfaction. This is an inherent problem with goals: once you achieve the goal, you no longer have the sense of purpose that the goal gave you. So you set another goal, and another, until all of a sudden your life is over and you realize you never stopped to enjoy it.

What you need, then, are career goals that strike the right balance. You need to set enough goals to give you direction and challenge yourself, but not so many that your plan falls apart the moment life throws you a curveball. This process is the subject of the rest of this article.

How to Set Career Goals

With some caveats about the dangers of overplanning in mind, let’s take a look at how you can set useful career goals:

Assess Where You Are Now

Before you set career goals, you need to be honest about where you currently are in your career. This way, you have a starting point for planning how you want to grow and what you want to change.

If you’re currently in college, make a list of your:

Looking at all of this info will help you determine where you want to work, what you want to learn, and who you want to meet in the future. Of course, if you already have a resume, then you can just refer to that.

If you’re out of college, then take a look at your current job, any credentials you have, and your career history/work experience. This is probably on your resume already, but now is a good chance to update it.

With this starting point, you can now move to the next step.

Decide Where You Want to Be

Hopefully, looking over your resume already got some career goals brewing in your mind. But to make things more concrete, now is the time to decide what you want to change in your career.

You can think about this in a couple of ways. First, you can consider how satisfied you are with your current job. If you aren’t satisfied, then you can figure out what it will take to change things.

For instance, you might want to set up a chat with your boss about how to improve your work life. Or, you might even decide to change careers entirely.

If you’re generally satisfied with your career, then you can set goals to challenge yourself and level up. This could mean learning a new skill, taking on a new project, or even trying for a promotion.

Be Sure Your Goals Are Your Own

Throughout this article, I’ve avoided suggesting specific career goals. After all, career goals are very personal. You can get into trouble if you pick goals just because someone else said they were a good idea.

Therefore, when setting career goals, be sure that they’re actually what you want. Not just what your family, society, or peers value.

For instance, popular wisdom tells us that more responsibility at work is better. If you’re in charge of a lot of people, then you’ve clearly succeeded…right?

But do you really want the stress of being the CEO? Does it suit your personality? Will it get in the way of other goals that are more meaningful? You’ll have the answer these questions for yourself, but be sure you decide where you stand.

Don’t Compromise Your Values

We often think of career goals as things to attain or accomplish in the future. While this is one way to think about them, career goals can also be a matter of standards to enforce. Not of things to attain, but to maintain.

It’s important to have these kinds of career goals so that you don’t compromise your values. For instance, let’s say one of your goals is to have a location-independent job. Once you get that job, it’s tempting to think you’ve achieved your goal and can cross it off the list.

However, you should view that goal as more of an ongoing standard to enforce. This way, if someone offers you more money in exchange for a job that requires you to commute to an office, you can politely decline since it’s incompatible with one of your career goals.

Beyond a certain level of earnings, in fact, these kinds of career standards become some of the most important. You can always earn more money, but there’s a point where it isn’t worth the lifestyle sacrifices.

Write Down Your Career Goals

With some cautionary notes in mind, you can now make a list of your career goals. Remember that this list isn’t permanent. It’s a reflection of your career goals now, and you can always change it later.

However, there is value in writing down your goals, if only because it forces you to clarify them. Plus, having a written list makes it easier to reflect on your goals (see the next section).

Where you write down your goals is up to you. Just make sure it’s somewhere that you won’t forget about. Here are a few ideas:

  • A note-taking app on your computer
  • In a notebook
  • A sticky note on your wall
  • On your website
  • A whiteboard in your office (as long as you don’t plan to erase it)

Personally, I keep my career goals on my Impossible List, which lives on my personal website. I like having them surrounded by my other, non-career goals to keep things in perspective.

Reflect On Your Goals Regularly

I don’t think it’s useful to spend hours planning your career and then never deviate from that plan. Rather, your career goals should be something you refer to and evaluate regularly.

To start, regular reflection helps you evaluate if you’re on track to meet your goals. If you only look at your list once a year or so, then it will be tricky to course-correct. Plus, regular reflection ensures that your value-oriented career goals don’t slip.

Beyond that, reflecting on your career goals is a chance to change them if they no longer make sense. It lets you, for instance, take into account a change in your industry, an opportunity at another company, or your interest in a different field.

How often you evaluate your career goals is up to you; what matters is that you do it somewhat regularly. Personally, I review my career goals every quarter. I think this is often enough to make necessary changes, but infrequent enough that I stay focused.

Plan Your Career with Confidence

You should now have the knowledge you need to set career goals that work, as well as avoid some common pitfalls. Above all, remember that while it’s great to be ambitious, there’s more to life than advancing in your career.

Looking for more career advice? Check out this collection of our best resources.

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