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How to Set Your Career Goals in 2021: Career Planning Made Easy

Am I on the right career path? Will I ever get a promotion? How can I excel in my career? Whether you’re an amateur or experienced professional, chances are you have asked yourself these questions more than once. After all, finding success in their careers is many people’s ultimate goal.

There are many methods to excel, but setting career goals is the easiest way to succeed in your career. You will need to have a clear vision of what you want and outline the steps you’ll take to get there. In this article, you’ll learn why setting career goals is essential and how to set realistic goals that remain relevant throughout your journey.

Career Goal Setting: In Brief

  • There are two distinct types of goals: long-term and short-term goals.
  • Professional development goals are essential in motivating you to work harder and remain focused in your career.
  • Smaller, short-term career goals can help you fulfill your long-term goals.
  • Using the SMART goals criteria will help you draft specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. 
  • Although it isn’t always popular, consulting a career coach is a great way to set realistic and achievable goals. 
  • You must do your research, gauge your abilities, and focus on creating manageable goals.

What Is a Career Goal?

A career goal is a target or objective that you set for your professional life. These goals can help you develop a career plan and find ways to enhance your performance in the job market. In addition, career goals give you an overview of what you want to achieve within a specific period.

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You can set short-term and long-term goals that vary between a few months long to five years or more. Unlike personal life goals, which can include starting a family or a hobby, professionals goals are career-specific. They make it easier for you to define what you’re working towards in your professional life.

Why Should I Set a Career Goal?

You should set a career goal because it gives you the motivation to work harder and achieve more in your career. Moreover, Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation indicates that setting specific challenging, achievable goals leads to higher performances. When you are focused on achieving something, you become more focused and driven to work hard. 

Furthermore, creating a clear path to success enhances your self-esteem. A study from the ​​Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics showcases how achieving goals leads to higher self-esteem. The pride you feel when you achieve a goal will make you want to work harder, which is an excellent way to develop a successful career.

Professional Short-Term Goals vs Professional Long-Term Goals

Short-term and long-term professional goals go hand in hand, but each has a different purpose in your career journey. Short-term goals are small objectives that you can achieve within a shorter period. Generally, you can achieve short-term career goals in 12 months or less. Professionals use these as stepping stones toward their long-term goals.

For example, let’s say you work as a data scientist. If your short-term goal is to learn a new tech skill, you can enroll in a coding bootcamp to gain that skill within six months or less. Alternatively, you could earn certification through an online certification platform, which takes anywhere from a few hours to a few months.

Achieving a long-term career goal takes more time. For example, a long-term career goal might be to start your own tech company. Once you decide on a long-term goal, you can use short-term goals to help you get there. You might want to use short-term goals to make a specific two-year plan, five-year plan, ten-year plan, or more.

Short-Term Goals Examples for Work

  • Enroll in a bootcamp to gain a new skill, such as coding or digital marketing
  • Earn professional certification
  • Improve one soft skill per month, such as time management, communication skills, or leadership skills
  • Create and abide by a morning work routine to enhance productivity
  • Connect with a certain number of professionals in your field
  • Complete an online course to learn a new skill, such as Python or search engine optimization
  • Set monthly or quarterly work goals
  • Read your company employee handbook to become a better employee

Long-Term Goals Examples for Work

  • Pursue a bachelor’s degree program in a specific field
  • Start your own company
  • Rise in rank at your company
  • Find a new job or seek a promotion
  • Establish a mentorship program
  • Become proficient in computers or information technology skills

How to Set Realistic and Smart Career Goals: 5 Factors to Consider

The best way to set realistic goals is to use the SMART goal method. This method ensures you include all the factors that are necessary for creating a desirable career. Generally, a well-executed SMART career goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.


Your goal should be specific. Otherwise, you won’t have a clear vision of how to achieve that goal. For example, if you want to climb the ranks of a company, make it clear what promotion or position you are aiming for toward getting a promotion. Try to answer the five W questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Answering these questions will help you develop specific goals and create an achievable action plan. For example, if you want to become a project manager, you will know how to gain appropriate skills, such as communication, and initiate steps toward the goal.


Your goals should be measurable to help you track your progress and overcome obstacles. Tracking your progress helps you stay motivated because you will have small steps along the way to celebrate. Measurable goals also help you stay on track and meet all your deadlines.

For example, if you want to become a computer programmer, you might want to familiarize yourself with a certain number of coding languages by enrolling in tech bootcamps. This is a measurable goal because you can define what skills you want to pick up and mark them off your list as you master them. 


Your goals must be realistic and achievable. A SMART goal should not be beyond your reach, as this decreases the possibility of success. For example, you can’t aim for a managerial position within three months of gaining an entry-level job.

You must give yourself time to gain daily work experience, professional knowledge, and the technical skills needed to excel as a manager. Giving yourself five years to grow in rank might be more achievable. To avoid setting unrealistic goals, you should know the difference between short-term and long-term goals.


Your goals should be specific to you and your life plan. Establish goals that have a sense of direction and align with your values. As you design your goal plan, consider whether you can achieve this goal, if it is worthwhile, and if it aligns with your personal goals.

For example, you might want to start a mentorship program within your organization. Can you afford to commit your time to the project? Are you ready to create a safe environment for your mentees right now, or do you need to turn it into a long-term passion project? If your answers to these questions are positive, then your goal is relevant and on track.


Every goal you set should have an end date to ensure you stick within a particular time. A goal end date helps you focus and stay motivated towards achieving a specific goal. However, it’s important to set realistic time frames to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the process. 

Typically, you should create time-bound goals by asking yourself whether you can achieve these goals within said timeframe. For example, if you want to develop a consistent work schedule, you could give yourself two months to adjust your habits. Alternatively, creating a to-do list of tasks to complete might help you avoid procrastination.

How to Achieve Your Professional Goals: 5 Tips to Advance Your Career

A person writing down his goals  a guide to setting your career goals
You need an effective plan of action to execute your short-term and long-term goals.
  1. Consult a career coach
  2. Write down your goals
  3. Draft an action plan
  4. Set realistic goals
  5. Focus on what you can control

Consult a Career Coach

Mentorship and support are crucial in ensuring you achieve your personal career goals. Career coaches can help you identify ways to actualize your goals and deal with challenges. Furthermore, a job coach helps you develop vital soft skills, like time management and presentation.

You might learn how to answer questions effectively in a job interview, work on your resume, and figure out your best professional path. Coaches also impart networking skills to help you build lasting relationships. 

Write Down Your Goal

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of power in writing down your goals. A Dominican University of California study by Gail Matthews showcased how you are more likely to accomplish written goals. Take time to evaluate all your goals by writing them down. Then, expound on each goal and explain how you intend to achieve each step. 

Draft an Action Plan

Once you write down your goals, the next step is drafting an action plan. Explain how each goal will come to life and the specific steps you’ll take to achieve them. Be as specific as possible and add goal end-dates to give you something measurable to work towards. This is where SMART goals come into play.

Set Realistic Goals

Make sure you set goals that align with your abilities. If something isn’t achievable in the short term, you can always turn some goals into long-term projects. For example, you cannot expect to build your firm in six months. That is bound to happen within a five-year plan or more.

Focus on What You Can Control

It is easy to put pressure on yourself in a professional setting. However, always remember to focus on your abilities and the decisions you have control over to avoid getting frustrated by setbacks. Remember, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. If a goal seems too challenging, take a break and focus on other goals.

Career Goal Setting FAQs

What are career goals?

Career goals are objectives and targets you put in place to help you achieve more in your professional life. These goals can be long-term or short-term, depending on the time and effort it takes to achieve them.

Do I need to create new goals annually?

No. Although it offers a sense of purpose and motivation, you don’t need to set unnecessary goals to appear focused. Only set achievable goals to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

What are the factors to consider when setting a goal?

There’s no specific method to set a goal. However, the SMART goals criteria make it easier to prepare practical goals. SMART ensures the goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

What are some tips for setting professional goals?

You can talk to a mentor, draft a plan of action, and be realistic in your goals. Writing your goals down is also a great way to stay motivated.

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