You could plod along a career path, taking whatever promotion comes your way, or you could set clear goals and get on a path to achievement. Which one sounds better? Probably the latter! Setting career goals is a great way to make sure you have the success and fulfillment we all hope for.
But the process of goal setting doesn’t begin the way you think it does. If you think goal setting is as simple as deciding what future job you want, listen up! The correct way to set career goals involves a 4-step process that has you working toward something that’s about achievement and inspiration.
First, Think Back…
When people think about setting goals, they usually think about the future. That makes sense, because that’s when your goals will be achieved! But by thinking backwards, first, you’re giving yourself an extra perspective on your goals. Start by reflecting: how long has this been your goal? What led you down this path? Are you currently in the place you imagined, when you started? Have you reached the prior goals you’ve set? Did you get to where you currently are by achieving prior goals, or more by accident?
Taking time to reflect on the past accomplishes several things: you can evaluate your experience with these goals, and you can also evaluate your relationship to goals in general (some people are great at goal-setting, and others struggle with it, so it’s good to know where you fall on the spectrum before you get any further into the process). It’s also an important reminder of how far you’ve come! It’s easy to just focus on moving forward, but getting perspective on how far you’ve come is great fuel for those days you get frustrated.
…THEN Think Forward
After you’ve reflected back, it’s time to fire up your imagination and think forward. Studies have shown that orienting our thoughts toward the future can be a powerful driver for success. In fact, having what psychologists call a “future orientation” can help you move through stressful and challenging situations more easily. That’s the reason dentists give kids candy after a teeth cleaning! When you have something to look forward to, it makes even difficult tasks go more smoothly. So what do YOU have to look forward to? What goals would thrill you to accomplish? When you keep those in mind, the day-to-day of work becomes much more enjoyable.
Think Big Picture…
As you’re thinking forward, start to broaden out your goals and think about how your career goals will impact your life moving forward. Can you picture what your existence will look like once you’ve achieved those goals? Do your current goals conflict with any other goals, like family goals? Make sure that you’re making room in your personal and social life for the achievement you’re planning. What would come next, after you’ve achieved your goals?
…Then Think Small Details
Finally, flip that big picture thinking around and look critically at the goals. Do you know sacrifices you’re likely to have to make, and are you okay with that? Do you really have the time and the desire to work toward the goals you’ve set? Or are they the goals someone else thinks should be next for you? Make sure the goals you are setting are YOUR goals, and not just what society, or your dad, or your best friend, thinks you should want.
I faced this decision when I was running my small nonprofit. I loved our mission, and I loved getting to sit at the head of a small startup community group. When I started thinking about moving on, my friends and colleagues couldn’t believe it. “But.. you’re winning awards!” “You’re on the front page of the newspaper!” I loved what I was doing and I was getting recognition for it, but I had seen how many nonprofits failed to thrive when their founder stayed in place for too long. I knew I needed to help it grow by getting out. It didn’t make immediate sense to the rest of the world, but that didn’t matter. It was MY goal.
Your exact goal doesn’t matter. But having a goal matters, and setting yourself up properly to achieve your goal matters a lot. Follow these 4 steps to be successful, strategic, and inspired.