How to set career goals, both long and short-term

Career goals are a superb way to stay motivated at work, but how can you set realistic goals that will keep you challenged and on form?

A new year brings resolutions – and in the middle of solemn vows about abstinence from alcohol (unsustainable) and overspending (forlorn hope), it may be time for a serious audit of your career.

The world of work moves quickly and even a big fish may find itself stranded in the shallows if it fails to make progress. Make sure you have a plan.

Think about the kind of career you would like for yourself and the moves you need to make to achieve it. Experts agree that setting goals is important, and making the mental commitment to meet them is key.

Be SMART about it

This business theory of setting goals has been around since the 1960s but the acronym SMART was first coined in the 1980s by American business expert George T Doran to give a framework for improving corporate performance. The meaning of the letters has shifted over the years, but generally they stand for:

  • Specific: identify an area that needs improving.
  • Measurable: suggest how to quantify it or indicate progress
  • Assignable: allocate the task to someone
  • Realistic: be clear about what can actually be achieved
  • Time-related: set a deadline that stands a chance of being met.

For career objectives, start with the bigger picture, break it up into chunks and work out the smaller steps you need to take to get there. Then write them down so that you have a tangible plan.

Long-term goals

“Setting yourself long-term goals first gives you a sense of direction before you figure out how to get there via short-term goals,” says portfolio marketing officer Kat Thornberry.

“If nothing changed in your current role, would you be happy in five years’ time? If not, what would you like to have changed? Do you need to move up, or sideways, or try a totally different career path? What are you already good at, what gives you satisfaction in your day-to-day role and what would you like to improve?

“Long-term, strategic goals just need to give you something to aim for. They can be as vague as ‘I’d like to be doing something that helps people’ or as specific as ‘I’d like to be earning x amount’.

Short-term goals

You should next set tactical short-term goals that will help you get closer to the situation you’d like in the future, says Ms Thornberry. “Break these down over a reasonable period, and don’t try to take on too much all at once or you run the risk of burning out.

“Be honest with yourself about what you could improve on, where your experience or skill set is weaker and how you could make progress. Do you need to ask for opportunities outside your usual job role to gain experience in a new area, or consider additional qualifications? Could you identify someone more senior in your field who would sit down for a coffee with you and talk through some of the challenges and successes in their career?

“Short-term goals should be SMART, and don’t forget to build in time to celebrate smaller achievements along the way. It’s a good idea to give yourself some goals that are achievable in a short space of time, such as updating your CV or adding new connections on LinkedIn, to keep your momentum going.

“If you’re specifically looking at changing roles, be kind to your future self and keep a list of specific achievements during your recent work that would be useful when applying for a new position – anything you’ve previously pulled together for an annual review is a good starting point, and then just keep it updated so you always have examples of successes when facing the dreaded job application form.

“Make sure your application is tailored to each role you apply for, and think up some good questions to ask in a job interview – there are plenty of suggestions online if you’re stuck.”