Thinking about the year ahead? While the new year is a common time to revisit our plans for the future, any time can serve as an opportunity to reflect on our aspirations and set goals for ourselves—especially when it comes to our career. Often, we tend to pay more attention to our personal lives than to our professional lives when we’re thinking through what we want to accomplish, but having a vision and clear career objectives can help us make consistent progress over time. 

This guide will arm you with some key considerations and effective strategies for evaluating your current position, as well as suggestions for charting a course toward achievable and measurable career goals. From financial ambitions to skill acquisition and navigating life changes, we’ll cover it all so you can start creating a career roadmap that empowers you to make the most of each year.

Why should I set career goals?

Just like when we make a resolution to run a marathon or learn a new language, setting professional goals keeps us on track and moving forward. They help to fuel motivation and ambition—driving our professional growth—and provide direction and purpose along our career journey. With well-defined goals to refer back to, we’re also better able to adapt to evolving circumstances and navigate through challenges, because we have a vision for what we want to achieve when we come through the other side. Whether you are seeking financial growth, skill enhancement, a change in work environment, or a fresh start in your career, strategic professional goal-setting is the key to realizing your aspirations

Begin by assessing where you are currently

Before you can set any career goals, you first have to start by assessing where you are now. Assessing the state of your career will give yourself a clear understanding of your current professional landscape, as well as serve as a foundation for any future decision-making. 

When completing your career self-assessment, be sure to conduct a comprehensive evaluation that includes:

  • Exploring your strengths, weaknesses, skills, and experiences. What are you good at, and what unique skills do you possess? Are you using those in your current position, or not as much as you would like? 
  • Taking stock of your financial situation, considering both current earnings and future financial goals. Are you happy with your compensation and with how much you’re expected to make in the future? Or are you feeling the squeeze, and boosting your take-home pay is a top priority? 
  • Understanding the skills you possess and those you wish to acquire. Are there any skills that you’d like to add to your resume that you can start building proficiency in? You may also want to explore new certifications that can help boost your earrings potential.
  • Reflecting on your current work environment, your aspirations, and any imminent life changes. Do you have big plans for the future—perhaps getting married or having a child? Would your current position support you through those changes? And at the most basic level: Do you like your job, or are you unhappy? Sometimes a desire for a change of scenery is ample reason to put a new position at the top of your career goals list. 

With this self-assessment in hand, you’ll be better able to set goals that are not only ambitious but also tailored to your unique professional journey.

Keep the right mindset when setting goals

As you move from assessment into goal-setting, let’s take a moment to expand on the type of goals you should be setting. SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound—provide a clear framework that enhances the clarity and precision of your objectives, which in turn makes you more likely to achieve them. 

Each SMART goal will take into account the following: 

  • Specific to help you define precisely what you want to achieve
  • Measurable criteria to enable you to track your progress
  • Achievability to ensure that your goals are realistic and feasible, fostering a sense of attainability
  • Relevance to make sure that your goals align with your broader aspirations, making them meaningful and purposeful
  • Time-bound to provide a deadline, creating a sense of urgency and preventing procrastination

Using the SMART goal system keeps you from creating vague, unattainable goals, like saying, “I want to become an astronaut.” There’s no plan behind it, so this goal doesn’t feel concrete. Now, if you wanted to become an astronaut, SMART goal-setting would have you account for what kind of schooling you’d need to complete and how you would apply for it. You would set time-bound milestones for yourself to spur yourself along on your journey, and you would break down this larger goal into smaller, more achievable goals that build up to finally becoming an astronaut. 

So, in essence, SMART goals serve as a practical guide, enhancing the likelihood of your success by promoting clarity, accountability, and a strategic approach to personal and professional development. 

Setting your financial or earnings goals

Now, it’s time to move into goal-setting. Financial aspirations often top the list when defining professional goals, so we’ll start here. Begin by establishing clear and realistic financial targets for the year. This could involve aiming for a specific salary increase, say a 10% raise. Now, break down these goals into achievable milestones and create a timeline for tracking your progress. Perhaps you break it down quarterly; for our example target of 10%, this could mean aiming for a 2.5% increase every quarter. 

With these milestones, you can then create a timeline outlining when you plan to discuss the raise with your supervisor or HR. Schedule periodic check-ins with your recruiter or supervisor throughout the year to assess your progress and keep making measurable increases. 

Of course, there are some instances in which your financial goals simply won’t line up with what these achievable milestones might be. For instance, if your goal is to double your pay within a year, realize that this may be unlikely—especially if you haven't made any other changes in the workplace. In these instances, it may be time to revisit your skillset, certifications, or employer.

Define what skills you want to acquire

Skill development is a perpetual journey in any career. The skills you want to acquire or enhance in the coming year could range from technical proficiencies to soft skills such as communication or leadership. In any case, improving your skill set or certifications makes you a more valuable employee and a more desirable candidate should you decide to switch employers. 

For example, perhaps you are currently employed as a warehouse associate, but you’d like to become certified as a forklift operator to capitalize on new career opportunities and boost your pay. If you were interested in a job as a forklift operator, you would need to develop a plan for how to gain these skills; in this instance, you would sign up for and pass an OSHA-approved training program at a local training school. 

Whatever skills you’re interested in cultivating, be specific about how you’ll develop them, whether it’s through training programs, workshops, online courses, or on-the-job experiences. As always, be sure you’re setting measurable benchmarks to track your skill development and demonstrate tangible progress throughout the year.

What to do if your goals involve working in a new place

If your career goals involve a change in scenery, whether it's a different department, company, or even a new city, planning ahead is essential. These are often more major changes, which require careful research, resume updates, potential skill development, and more to present yourself as an attractive candidate to potential new employers. You may want to take a slightly different approach depending on what has spurred your desire for a career change: 

Major life changes require planning accordingly

Life changes, such as marriage, relocation, or parenthood can significantly impact your career trajectory. Do your career goals align with these changes? You may want to explore more flexible work arrangements or a new industry that better suits your evolving lifestyle.

Exploring a different career path requires reflection

A desire for something different or a complete career change often signifies a deep longing for fulfillment and purpose. Ask yourself: What are your passions or areas of interest, and what industries or roles are aligned with them? While you’re learning more about these industries and creating a plan for transitioning into your desired career path, you may also want to prioritize networking with professionals in the field, seeking mentorship, and gaining relevant certifications or qualifications can facilitate a smooth career transition.

Returning to the workforce requires ample preparation

Many people take a hiatus from work. Perhaps you were recovering from an illness or injury, or maybe you were caring for a child or family member. If you've taken a hiatus from the workforce and are eager to re-enter, start by updating your resume, highlighting any skills or experiences gained during your time away. Consider part-time or freelance opportunities to ease back into the professional sphere, and set a greater number of short-term goals dedicated to skill refreshment and networking, gradually building momentum toward securing a full-time position.

Setting career goals for the year ahead is a transformative process that requires self-reflection, strategic planning, and a commitment to personal and professional growth. Whether your aspirations lie in financial achievements, skill development, a change in work environment, or navigating life changes, hopefully, you’ll find this guide to be a useful roadmap to help you navigate the intricacies of goal-setting. As you set your professional goals, remember to embrace the possibilities by setting goals that are both ambitious and realistic, challenging you to stretch beyond your comfort zone.