The Simple Strategy That Helped Me Set Long-Term Career Goals

Setting goals always sounds great in theory. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve said, “I’m going to restart my blog this month” or, “I want to be better at exercising this year” or, “I promise I’ll actually sign up for those Italian lessons soon.” But I’ve never actually done any of those things.

That’s because goals aren’t about talking the talk—they’re about walking the walk. The secret to success is making an actual plan to get stuff done.

Now, this is usually easier for short-term goals. If you set a deadline, you’ll get that project done on time. If you put “check email” on your to-do list, you’ll do it that day.

But what about long-term goals—like carving out your career path? How do you plan for and execute on something that’s so far in the future and will inevitably fall victim to change?

Recently, I set out to do just this: set and achieve my long-term career goals (because like I said, I’m not great at following through). This meant first defining them, then figuring out how I would achieve them and in what time frame, and finally deciding how I would track them and factor in changes over time.

I know—this sounds like a lot of work. So, why is this important to do?

For one thing, it’s motivating. Rather than taking my career day by day, I feel like I’m actually moving toward my definition of success. Secondly, it helps me narrow down my priorities. It’s easy to want to do everything, but when I know where I’m headed I can more easily focus on the opportunities that will lead to long-term gains (and say “no” to things that won’t).

If you’re looking to do the same with your own goals, here’s my method.

Step 1Do Some Internal Searching

I otherwise like to call this section, “Ask yourself a bunch of open-ended questions.”

The only way you’ll know where you want to go and what you want to do is to reflect on what you already know (and don’t know).

So, ask yourself the following questions (and write the answers down):

  • What jobs sound interesting to you? What companies sound interesting to you? Why are you interested in them?
  • What jobs or companies don’t sound interesting to you? Why?
  • What do you like to do in your current role? What don’t you like to do?
  • What did you like to do in past roles? What didn’t you like to do?
  • What skills do you have? What skills don’t you have that you wish you did?
  • What accomplishments are you proud of? What do you want to achieve that you haven’t yet?
  • What kind of work environment do you thrive in?
  • What kind of management style gets you most motivated?

I began my own process with these questions. I thought back to everything I’d done and roles that I’ve come across over the years as an editor, and jotted down my observations.

I liked editing and writing, but didn’t like the idea of editing and writing certain types of content. I liked attending meetings and managing people, but didn’t want that to be the bulk of my job. I liked working on a small team within a small organization, but was open to the idea of joining a bigger company.

You may say, “I don’t know the answer to these questions.” Pardon me for being blunt, but you’re lying.

I know that asking yourself these questions is scary—you’re putting yourself in boxes you aren’t sure are completely accurate. But that’s why we won’t stop here.

Step 2Do Some External Searching

Every great researcher backs their hypotheses up with real data. Setting goals is no different.

The list you created above is a rough draft of how you see your career going. Now’s the time to confirm this is actually what you want—and then outline a realistic path for yourself.

For example, you may want to become an engineer, but do you actually have the skills (do you know how to code?), resources (can you afford the time and money to learn to code?), and passion (do you like the idea of coding all day?) to do it?

External searching comes in two forms: networking and online research.

Networking means you go out and talk to people—people in the fields, roles, or companies you listed, people with experience carving out a similar path, people you trust to give you an honest take. And, it’s not that difficult to do, even with complete strangers (in fact, we have several email templates for this—like this one and these).

I’ve started doing this with the sole motive of learning more—about my industry, about my options, about other people. I asked my co-workers and friends to see if anyone could connect me with someone in my field, and emailed them to say I’d love to grab coffee or hop on the phone.

Online research is the easier task but not nearly as rewarding. Networking allows you to narrow down your goals and build relationships that can lead to opportunities down the road, while online research only really does the former.

You listed a bunch of skills and interests in step one. Scroll through various job descriptions on a job board of your choice. Under what roles do these skills and interests tend to pop up? What roles sound interesting, even if they’re not on your list? Within these roles, what bullets are you missing? Take notes.

Which brings me to…

Step 3Make a Document

You know how I said tracking your goals is everything? Well, that’s why you have to put this all in writing.

How you organize it is up to you. However, you probably want to include the sections below. And you’re in luck, because we made a template that covers all these things right here so you don’t have to make the spreadsheet yourself.

The Soft/Hard Skills You Want to Improve Upon

There are probably plenty of things you’re good at but could be better at—not just to move up in your current role but to eventually move into a more senior role elsewhere.

For example, I know that to become a senior editor I need to, well, be able to edit really well. So, I’ve made that a goal of mine and outlined several ways I can continue to improve on it in the next six months.

Your Soft/Hard Skills Wish List

Those bullets you’re missing in your dream job descriptions? This is where you’ll write them down—everything you don’t know how to do but want to learn, and how you’ll master them.

For example, if I was looking at a senior editor opening, I may list the exact title and company (“Senior Editor, VICE Media”), the skill I’m missing (Photoshop), and how I plan on building it (“ask manager if I can get budget to take an online class on Photoshop, do research into cheap online courses”).

Your Networking Notes

Who did you meet with when you did your external searching? What did you learn? List their name, their contact information, and anything worth noting from your chat so you can reach back out to them later on.

Step 4Follow Through

The final step, of course, is to actually follow through on your goals and on tracking them.

So, put a date on your calendar (yes, right now) three to six months from now to review this document—what you’ve done, what you’ve lagged on, and anything you should change/revisit.

If you have a manager who supports your long-term goals, invite them to look over your notes and discuss ways to continue improving. (In fact, having an accountability partner—whether it’s your boss, a colleague, or a friend—is extremely valuable.)

And remember: Nothing is permanent. It’s OK if you decide down the road these goals are no longer relevant or worth pursuing. However, make sure you replace those with something that is worth going after. Because having something to look forward to will only propel your career forward and give bigger meaning to the work you do every day.

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