Career Goals: Why You Need Them + How to Succeed (with Science!)

I am a big believer in setting career goals and other types of goals. I personally recommend setting goals around your career / education, personal finance, health and fitness (mental and physical), your general contribution to the world, and relationships. However, today, we’re going to talk about career goals.

I 100% got to where I am now by setting—and following through on—very specific goals. For example, doing my PhD, learning to code, getting back into shape, blogging, starting a company, and learning to paint were all on my goals list at the end of 2018. I’m now successfully doing / I now have done all of them. I’m constantly planning out goals—whether it’s completing research projects that highlight certain skills for my dream post-PhD career, planning for buying a house, or making plans to tackle my fitness goals.

Basically, if you’re not setting yourself career goals, now is the time to start. While your goals will change, it’s important to be working towards something. People generally don’t end up with successful careers by accident—they’ve worked and taken control of their own success.

But, setting goals is only half the battle. Then, you need to focus on actually reaching your goals. That being said, it’s no secret that most people don’t reach most of the goals they set for themselves. Here’s how to get there, according to ~science~. 

This article will explain why you need career goals and how to reach your career goals.

career goals
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1. Set goals you actually care about.

According to Saunders (2016), one of the primary reasons people fail to reach their goals is because they set goals they don’t actually care about. Many people set goals they feel they “should” achieve, rather than those they want to. Chamorro-Premuzic (2014, in Knight 2014), professor of business psychology at UCL, also notes that many people’s goals are completely contrary to their intrinsic characteristics.  It’s important make sure you actually care about what you’re trying to do and that it aligns with who you are as a person.

Personally, I also find it easier to stick to the goals I care more about. For example, doing my PhD work comes more naturally to me than, say, getting back into yoga. For years, I tried to convince myself I actually wanted to practice yoga regularly and become more flexible, but, eventually, I admitted to myself that I actually don’t care about or like yoga. It merely felt like something I *should* do rather than something I was actually motivated to complete.

2. Stay focused and be realistic.

Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) also underscores the importance of being realistic and not spreading yourself too thin. He recommends setting no more than 3 goals at a time. 

I generally find this to be one of the more difficult tips to follow. I always have lots of goals I’m inspired to complete. But, ultimately, it is much easier to achieve your goals when you’re more focused. As Ron Swanson would say,

“Never half-a** two things, whole-a** one thing.”

Ron Swanson

When I was learning to code, the sheer number of resources available and the number of different types of coding skills I could learn really overwhelmed me. Initially, I set goals to learn some basic coding languages before moving on to more complex data science. For more information on how I learned to code (and how you can too), check out this article.

3. Plan and align your time with your priorities (and don’t be afraid of plan b!).

Planning is key, as is being okay with adjusting your plans as required (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014).

This has been particularly helpful for me. I always felt like I had to see a goal through to the end even if it no longer was useful. Even in the span of a month, I’ve revamped my plans as external factors have changed.

4. Follow the most enjoyable path to your goals.

In 2017, Woolley & Fishbach published the results of five studies, which surveyed 449 people’s ability to reach their long-term goals. Their main conclusion? You should choose the most enjoyable activities you can when you set about achieving your goals. For example, in their study, they found that gym-goers completed an average of 52% more repetitions of exercises they selected for enjoyment over pure effectiveness.

5. Give yourself more immediate benefits.

Woolley and Fishbach (2017) also effectively recommend treating yourself while you achieve your goals.

“Immediate benefits are a stronger predictor of persistence than delayed benefits.” 

Woolley & Fishbach (2017)

For example, you could work in your favourite coffee shop instead of at home. Don’t save all your rewards for when you’ve reached all your goals (though those are important too!), but try to make the process as enjoyable as you can along the way.

6. Focus on the positive and reflect on the immediate benefits you’ve afforded yourself.

Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) and Wolley and Fishbach (2017) both emphasise this one. In fact, Wooley and Fishbach found that people ate almost 50% more healthy food when they focused on its positive taste.

It’s important to take time to reflect on your small wins (weekly if you can). It may often seem like you haven’t actually accomplished anything if you haven’t achieved your final goal. However, if you take the time to acknowledge your smaller successes, it’ll keep you fired up to continue towards reaching your goals.

7. Commit publicly.

People seem to have mixed thoughts about this one, but Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) recommends it and I whole-heartedly agree. Telling people in my personal life about my goals has been a real game-changer for me. In the past, I kept *all* my goals private (even generally from partners, best friends, etc.). There was really no reason for me to do this (as I’m sure everyone would’ve been supportive), but knowing that others are following my journey now certainly keeps me going!

career goals

8. Get support.

Honestly, this one could be said about pretty much anything in life, and I’m guilty of not reaching out for help out of fear in the past. Over the past few years, I’ve gone with Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) on this one and it has really made all the difference. From asking my friends for advice to seeing if others want to join me in some of my goals, I’ve honestly been so grateful for (and surprised by!) the support I’ve received both from my friends and family (and strangers on the internet!).

9. Set incremental milestones.

You guessed it, Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) also recommends setting milestones along your journey. I’m a big fan of splitting things into much more bite-sized chunks to avoid goal fatigue.

10. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

I’ve talked about this before, but experts agree—getting overwhelmed and being too hard on yourself just isn’t productive (Chamorro-Premuzic 2014). I’m forever trying to find the balance between self-compassion and pushing myself just hard enough, and I’ll admit I’m still working on it. Again, I do think reflecting on your small wins every week helps with with this. There are times when I feel like I haven’t really gotten anywhere with my goals until I sit down and really reflect on everything I’ve accomplished so far.

What keeps you on track with your career goals? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments below!

Want more career tips? Check out my other articles.

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