Wondering why your career goals keep falling flat? Well, it’s simple. You’ve been doing it all wrong.
Setting your career goals can make or break your success in your professional life.
Do you want to work aimlessly for decades, achieving nothing? Probably not.
Without career goals, we lack direction, focus, and motivation. Success won’t fall in your lap. At least, this shouldn’t be the plan. It takes years of consistent progress toward known goals.
Maybe you have set career goals in the past but failed to achieve them. Why? You don’t know how to set your career goals.
Career goals are the best tools to make better decisions every time. You make choices every day. You prioritize and let some opportunities pass. There must be a framework in place to show what is worthwhile. You need systems for scheduling time and resources. Career goals do this better than any other tool.
Here’s everything you’re going to learn:
- What are career goals?
- Why are career goals important?
- Categories of career goals
- How to set career goals (with examples)
- How to answer interview questions about career goals
What Are Career Goals?
Career goals are processes and targets used to achieve professional objectives.
They outline your career in full. This gives direction and brings focus to your work. Weekly tasks, yearly targets and life milestones are all linked together. All of your ambitions in one system — I’d say that’s a pretty big deal.
Statements of career goals are used in resumes, job interviews, and performance reviews. They show your ambition and loyalty to peers and employers. I find them pretty handy at family gatherings too.
An entire life is a broad time-frame. Career goals are split into two types: short-term and long-term career goals.
What are Short-Term Career Goals?
Short-term career goals guide your day-to-day work, with time-frames of 6–12 months. These are more specific and measurable than long-term goals.
You might already make new year resolutions, or set yearly cycles. Those targets are your short-term goals.
Short-term goals must be relevant to future objectives. You create them by breaking small targets from long-term goals. Every short-term goal is important, and a step toward your chosen success.
Any objective beyond the next year is a long-term career goal. Short-term goals are always the priority, in order to achieve long-term goals later.
What Are Long-Term Career Goals?
Long-term career goals describe big-picture ambitions, with 2–10+ year time frames. These are more aspirational than short-term goals — you don’t have to be as specific. They must be realistic though. Let’s not spend years working toward something impossible.
Your long-term goals will be big milestones. They mark progress toward lifetime objectives.
The most memorable days of your life may well be achieving these goals. Most won’t be the end of the journey, but they each prove serious progress.
You will have long-term goals for your professional and personal life. They set the direction for all of your work and effort. They plan your entire career. You will rely on them to motivate and direct short-term goals.
Why Should You Set Career Goals?
Career goals let you measure progress. With an outcome in mind, it is easy to see where you are now. Then, when you complete short-term goals, progress is obvious. You move on to the next targets, building momentum.
Without them, I would never feel sure that I am getting closer to the things I want. And then I would wonder if the work is worth the effort.
And so, career goals are also a source of motivation. With all of your ambition in one list, you see what happens when tasks get done. This links any small steps you take today with career success. Every tiny task has value and reward.
You need this motivation to push on when work is tiring or hard. To see that the effort is worthwhile.
And you also need to be reminded of what is worthwhile.
Career goals provide a clear focus on what you are working toward. They also show what tasks are important. Anything moving your career goals closer is important and, you guessed it, everything else is not.
You will stop wasting time on pointless tasks, and focus on short-term goals.
This is how I choose new projects and prioritize my work. I ask whether something helps achieve my goals and if it’s more important than everything else. I don’t spend time on work that isn’t important.
#4 Overcoming Procrastination
Finally, you will beat procrastination with career goals. They show who is responsible for your future (it’s you).
Your actions drive progress. You can’t sit back and expect magic to happen. You are the link between aspiration and success. Career goals show light at the end of the tunnel, and which steps to take.
Motivation, focus, progress and beating procrastination. That’s more than convincing, right?
Categories of Career Goals
Creating categories for your career goals makes them easier to visualize and organize. Labels that suit your career and life work best.
Most people will have goals for their professional and personal lives, with categories within both. My categories are:
- Productivity Goals
- Professional Goals
- Personal Goals
This category contains performance targets. They can be metrics like revenue, or deadlines. The group will be made up of projects and aims that are your actual work.
Good examples include:
- Improve customer satisfaction scores by 25% within 6 months
- Meet all project feasibility report deadlines this quarter
- Write 3 articles for the company blog this month
These are awards, promotions, and industry achievements. If someone asked “What do you want to be?”, your answer would fit here.
Professional goals do not describe specific work targets but result from doing the job well.
Examples of professional career goals include:
- Become a Partner at Chartley & Gold LLP by age 45
- Publish an article on modern foreign exchange trading strategies this year
- Teach contract law seminars at a university within three years
I group all education, qualifications, and skills. This is a knowledge or training category. The goals improve performance, rather than giving productivity targets.
Skills can include:
- Learn to speak conversation French by the end of the year
- Complete a Masters of Business Administration within 2 years
- Attend 8 forensic accounting professional development sessions this quarter
All personal goals can be put together. Success at work might allow personal goals to be achieved, but the focus is separate. Look at this area as your personal growth plan.
Goals outside of work guide relationships, health, personal finance, and your interests. Personal goals can’t be ignored, because they inform the work you do, and what is prioritized.
Your personal goals could outline:
- Own a family home within 10 years
- Run 2 marathons before age 30
- Volunteer five hours per week for the rest of the year
- Hold net investments of $1,000,000 by age 40
How to Set Career Goals
Career goal setting has 7 key steps. Let’s start with the big picture.
Step 1: Choose Your Lifetime Objectives
Good career goals describe your lifetime objectives. These are the big dreams that get you out of bed. This is where you imagine the future you want to build.
What will you achieve in a decade? 20 years? Do you want to become the CEO of your company? Own a house? Save the planet?
Consider all aspects of your life, and write down every big accomplishment. Use a pen and paper or a device — whatever feels natural. Just make a big list.
Step 2: Create Categories for Your Goals
Look at the list of lifetime objectives you wrote. Group goals together based on the different aspects of your life. This will show you any area that has been forgotten.
Personal goals should be separate from professional aspirations. I also like to keep skills and training apart from specific performance targets.
Having four categories works well for me, but you can have a different number. Don’t create too many though, it is easier to prioritize objectives from fewer categories.
Use labels that make sense for your life and work. Mine are:
- Productivity Goals
- Professional Goals
- Personal Goals
Your goals must look organized. Your big list has now become smaller lists.
This will help you prioritize, which we are going to do now.
Step 3: Rank Your Career Goals and Targets
Within each category, decide which goals are the most important. You can’t do everything at once.
Ask questions like “If I could only achieve one of these, which would it be?” Get to the core of your ambition. Your priorities might change over time, but go with what seems important now.
Rewrite your lists, or consider moving them to a spreadsheet. Give every goal a ranking from 1. down.
For example, within “Professional Goals”, you might rank:
- Become the CEO of the company
- Publish a book on corporate governance philosophy
- Expand the company’s operations into 2 new countries
- Offer mentorship to younger colleagues
This is a good chance to see what your top priorities are. These are the goals you are going to focus on.
Step 4: Write Long-Term Goals
From all of the highest-ranking objectives, choose 3 that are the most important. These are the objectives you are going to focus on. Everything else must wait.
You can separate personal and work if it makes sense. Just remember, you have to narrow your focus in this step.
What skills, experience, and resources do you need to achieve each goal? What milestones will mark progress for them?
For each lifetime objective, show the full path you will take. The big milestones you must reach will be your long-term goals.
For example, if your goal is to “Become the CEO”, milestones could be:
- Be promoted to Sales Team Leader
- Be promoted to Regional Sales Manager
- Complete Masters of Business Administration
- Be promoted to Vice President of Sales and Marketing
- Become the CEO
Anything that you won’t target this year is a long-term goal. In this case, that’s everything below the first promotion.
Step 5: Break Big Goals into Smaller Targets
Write short-term goals that start the process toward each objective. These are targets you can reach within a year. They are going to be the focus of your day-to-day work.
Your short-term goals have to be specific and measurable. Give them timelines and metrics.
Continuing our example, “Become the CEO”, I would focus on getting promoted to Sales Team Leader. Targets could be:
- Improve unit sales by 50% within six months
- Complete the company’s internal leadership training course within 9 months
From this, you can plan tasks for the coming week. You have small, specific goals to work toward, like increasing client calls and enrolling in the course. Follow this on for the next month, and so on.
Go through the same process for each of your three top priority objectives. You will have a list of goals to complete within the next year.
As you complete short-term goals, replace them with new targets. We do this in the next step.
Step 6: Schedule Regular Reviews
I use quarterly, monthly, and weekly reviews to measure progress.
I restate any goals that need clarifying and refocus my work. As you move through the milestones for each big goal, write new short-term goals to work on.
This is also a great time to ask “Do these targets move me closer to my long-term goals?” You might need to re-rank your goals, or shift focus. Check that every task is relevant and important.
Use old drafts of your career goal lists to see progress — this is very powerful. It is easy to forget how far you have come. You will find it easier to stay motivated, I promise.
Step 7: Keep Your Career Goals Nearby
Have a copy of the list on your desk. Look at them often. Write the next review date on it.
Remind your brain why you are working hard every day.
This makes it very clear what you care about most. It is motivating and great for focus. You will be less likely to drift onto things that don’t matter or procrastinate entirely.
Eventually, you will internalize these goals. Decisions will be easier. You will automatically do things that help make progress. This consistency is what builds long-term success.
That’s it, 7 simple steps.
Let’s look at some examples.
Career Goals Examples
11 Short-Term Career Goals Examples
- Sales and revenue targets
- Hiring and personnel objectives
- Postgraduate study
- Attend professional development sessions
- Gain leadership experience
- Increase team collaboration
- Contribute articles to the company newsletter
- New technical skills and competencies
- Expand subject knowledge
- Set up personal investment strategies
- Project deadlines
7 Long-Term Career Goals Examples
- Personal wealth targets
- Promotions and job positions
- Professional network building
- Expand operations into new markets
- Retirement objectives
- Found a local charity
- Build a personal brand and audience
How to Answer Interview Questions About Career Goals
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Interviewers love asking this question. They want to hear your career goals. A great answer outlines your vision for the future and shows that you have a plan to achieve it.
The interviewer is looking for:
- Commitment to the role and company
- Compatibility between the company’s goals and your own
Show these by focusing on professional goals. Explain how you are going to create value in your role.
Draw a link between short-term goals and becoming better at your job. Show that achieving what you want involves staying with the company.
The same principles apply when answering performance review questions about career goals.
If you have a track record inside a company, you can lean on your proven skills and loyalty. Just remember to keep it relevant and show commitment.
Tips for Career Goals Interview Questions
These general principles cover the basics well.
- Start with your short term goals and work forward toward your lifetime objectives
- Avoid giving personal goals or goals that are not relevant to the role
- Keep things realistic — you may need to revisit your goals in future performance reviews
- Focus on the process you plan to execute — this will justify your ambition
The key is to explain your goals in a believable way, and benefits everyone involved.
Are You Ready to Set Great Career Goals?
Here are the key points:
Combining short-term and long-term goals is the best way to structure your work life. By outlining a range of ambitions, and detailed processes to achieve them, goals become reality.
Run through the 7 steps in order. Start with your greatest ambitions, and break them up into manageable steps. By working toward milestones, you can stay on track long enough to achieve success.
Stay motivated and focused by keeping your goals nearby. Prioritize work that is important for your goals.
And finally, have career goals ready for interviews. By having goals set, answers to those questions can be realistic, ambitious, and demonstrate a commitment to the role.
Happy goal setting.
Career goals are processes and targets for professional success. They give structure and focus, linking life objectives with weekly tasks.
Short-term career goals are specific and measurable. These are goals for the next year and used to prioritize important tasks every day.
Long-term career goals are more aspirational and cover all of the big objectives you hold. Short-term goals are steps toward future long-term goals.
Categories are used to group goals and visualize the full range of your objectives. These also separate personal from professional aims.
The best method for setting career goals is beginning with lifetime objectives. These are broken into smaller, easier steps. From this, short-term and long-term goals are written.
Career goals are often questioned in interviews. You should show ambition, loyalty, and value to employers with answers.