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How to Set Goals that Stick

It’s never too late to set new goals. Whether it’s finding a new job, growing an existing career or tackling an exciting new personal endeavor, goals should be achievable. Make sure they stick by applying the “SMART” method to them.

S: Specific

Choose something specific. Narrow down your goal by asking questions like, “why do I want to reach this goal?” or “what am I hoping to accomplish?”

What does it look like in action?

Ben wants to find a new job. To make his goal more specific, he first needs to evaluate his priorities to give his search more direction. What industry does he want to work in? Is he open to relocating? What companies is he targeting? Is he interested in temporary work? What salary range is he aiming for? Which of these aspects are negotiable, and which are not?

Julie wants to earn a promotion. She looks into the company’s promotion structure and discovers as an Account Executive, her next step is to become a Business Development Manager. She talks with her manager to identify where her performance gaps lie and what milestones she should strive for, and together they make a development plan for Julie to follow.

M: Measurable

Determine how to measure your progress—doing so is essential for staying on track and accountable. If the goal can be quantified, set metrics to define success. Bring in accountability partners by sharing goals with teammates, managers, family or friends to help track progress.

What does it look like in action?

For Ben, landing a new job is the main measure of success, but what other major milestones can be tracked to gauge progress? By creating a plan for his job search, Ben tracks the smaller successes along the way. He begins by committing eight hours per week to the search. Within the first week, he plans to update his LinkedIn and resume to ensure he is prepared to ace introductions and interviews. He then creates a short list of companies that match his specifications, and a spreadsheet to record important details about each connection he makes and job application he submits. This plan keeps him organized throughout the search while allowing him to measure his progress and keep him moving in the right direction. It also helps him sustain momentum when the inevitable rejection or bump in the road comes along.

Similarly, Julie’s main measure of success is achieving the promotion, but there are other steps along the way that will help gauge her progress. After Julie’s manager helps her identify skill gaps, Julie carves out time in her schedule each week to commit to training and gaining necessary skills to work toward the promotion, setting a calendar block to spend uninterrupted while working on a new skill. Each new certification or milestone she hits is one step closer to her end goal. She also blocks time to touch base about her development plan progress each week during her 1:1 with her manager.

A: Attainable

The goal must be attainable, meaning it is achievable and action oriented. Get an outside opinion by consulting with managers or trusted friends to help determine whether the goal is within reason. Don’t just go to a best friend who will always tell you yes—ask for the bad news and lean on the people who will tell the truth, even when it’s hard.

What does it look like in action?

Ben needs to be looking for roles that are realistic—he can’t jump from an entry-level role to the C-suite. While he may not need to check off every requirement on a job description, he should be applying for roles he has the skills and experience to do. If the role Ben is striving for is just above his reach, investing time into skill building and achieving needed certifications can help.

While Julie is lacking some skills necessary to earn a promotion, she has the tools necessary to get there. Between training provided by her company and support from her manager and team, Julie simply needs to put in the work and be willing to try new strategies, even if it means being a little uncomfortable for a while.

R: Realistic

Chasing goals requires time, energy and resources. Evaluate whether the necessary tools are readily available, and if not, how to obtain them. This may mean sacrificing in other areas, such as attending fewer social events, in order to spend time and energy towards a specific goal.

What does it look like in action?

Ben is balancing his current job, social life and time with his family along with job searching. Spending every waking second scouring the job boards isn’t realistic. However, he ideally wants to start a new role within the next few months. Treating the search like a job and dedicating enough time to it each week is essential, but he can’t forget about his other responsibilities as well. For now, he has determined he can dedicate eight hours to his job search each week.

While it would be nice to earn a promotion quickly, Julie recognizes that working toward a promotion takes time. She has several online courses and certifications she will need to complete, and they can’t all be done at once. By managing her current projects and understanding which steps are within her bandwidth, she can make her goals more attainable.

T: Timely

Goals that are given a timeframe are the ones most likely to be accomplished. Create deadlines that will keep you on track.

What does it look like in action?

Ben knows that his industry most actively hires in the fall. Despite this, he cannot control when he actually gets an offer. Instead, he creates a timeline around what he has more control over: interviews. He aims to initiate at least six informational interviews and participate in at least four formal interviews each month. Though Ben can’t set a perfect timeline for accepting an offer, creating intermediary, time-sensitive goals along the way will keep him moving forward.

Julie recently had her year-end performance review, and based on the feedback she received, she knows that her manager has been pleased with her work ethic, personal development and production levels. This paves a perfect segue to ask for a promotion and makes it a timely ask. Leaning on the strengths addressed in her performance review, along with quantitative data from the past year, Julie proves she is ready to take the next step up in her career. With her manager on board, they create a realistic timeline that will give Julie the brand-new title she’s after within the next year.

Check out our blog for additional resources on setting and achieving career goals and professional growth.