How To Set Career Goals The "Smart" Way

How To Set Career Goals The 'Smart' Way
by Lauren McGoodwin
Photos Joe Kathrina | January 04, 2016

This article is part of our 5-Day Career Kickstart Challenge. Follow along as we help you turn 2016 into the year you remember as your professional turning point. The first step? Set realistic goals, and let go of past mistakes. 

We love the New Year and setting goals. Doing so can be a really therapeutic process, and having a checklist to measure your progress against can be equally motivating.


Before you set this year's goals though, get started by taking an assessment of your current career using our career assessment + goal setting worksheet. 

Once you know where you stand, it's time to write down where you want to end up. On paper. Don't worry, our worksheet has room for that, too.

When setting personal goals, we recommend following the S.M.A.R.T guidelines to make sure you avoid getting discouraged and actually reach them. Because we all know how easy it is to botch those resolutions, right? Here's how SMART goals work: 


General goals tend to get lost in the busyness of our daily lives. When you get specific with your goals, you’re much more likely to accomplish them. 

This is a general goal: I want to go to the gym more in 2015. This is a specific goal: I will join a walking club and walk for an hour before work on Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

To get started, consider the five W’s:

  • Who: Who is involved?
  • What: What do I want to accomplish?
  • Where: Establish a time frame
  • Why: Specific reason, purpose or benefits for accomplishing the goal
  • When: Identify a location


Establish a criteria for measuring progress on each goal you set. Ask yourself: “How will I know when my goal is accomplished?” When you measure your goals, you stay on track and are that much more likely to see your progress and reach your target timelines—you also tangibly experience the momentum that keeps you going!


When you focus on only the goals that are most important and most attainable to you, you’ll be that much more likely to accomplish them. In addition, you’ll develop the exact abilities, attitudes, and skills to reach them. Think of it this way: you can reach almost any goal when you plan wisely, within a realistic timeframe—and the goal that might have seemed far away and out of reach eventually moves closer and closer to completion. Attaining your goals happens not because your goals shrunk but because you grow and expand to match them.


Set a goal that you’re willing and able to work toward. Your goal can (and should) be aspirational, but just make sure that you can realistically make substantial progress with every goal. To determine whether or not your goal is realistic, you might consider whether you have accomplished anything similar in the past or identify ahead of time the conditions that would have to exist to accomplish this goal.


Every goal should have a time frame. Without one, you have no sense of urgency to accomplish your goal. If you want to lose 10 pounds, when do you want to lose them by? “Someday” won’t work. But if you anchor your goal within a timeframe—“I want to lose 10 pounds by May 1st”—then you’ve set your unconscious mind into motion to begin working on the goal before the deadline you’ve assigned.

Now that you know what S.M.A.R.T goals are, I encourage you to take the time to come up with 3-5 (or more!) of them. I like to write mine down in my day planner and check-in with them once a month to see where I stand on my progress.

Also, I never worry about having to change my goals—life happens and it’s fine to adapt, so long as you use your best judgment. For instance, editing a goal because you don’t know where to start is not a good reason. If you don’t know how to accomplish a goal, find friends and family to talk to about it. Get their advice on where to start, but start somewhere!

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Don't forget to download your free career assessment + goal setting worksheetJoin in all our 2016 Career Kickstart action by using the hashtag #5DayCareerKickstart