In some circumstances, we’re asked to set professional goals for ourselves. Perhaps you have a performance review where you’re asked to reflect on what you’ve accomplished so far and what you’d like to accomplish later on. Or maybe an interviewer prompts you to consider where you’d like to be in five or 10 years.
But the best kinds of professional goals we can set are the ones we create for ourselves. We have agency in our careers — and when we take the time to consider what we really want, we’re the ones who can make it happen.
Why should you set professional goals?
1. You’ll be working toward something rather than working for the sake of working.
Sometimes, work can feel like busy-work — you’re just going through the motions. But when you set achievable goals for yourself, you’ll actually be working toward a specific outcome, which makes what you’re doing feel more worthwhile. True, not every activity will meaningfully contribute to the bigger picture, but just remember that even something that seems rote like data entry is a stepping stone toward your future goals.
2. You’ll identify strategies for improvement.
By establishing clear, specific goals, you’ll be able to better analyze where you are now and where you need to improve in order to meet your aspirations. When you consider longer-term objectives, you should think about the specific steps that are required to get to that point, which involves a measure of self-improvement.
3. You’ll gain motivation.
Motivation is an important driver of success. Without it, we can easily feel lost in our careers. But by establishing goals, we can reinvigorate our professional lives and our sense of purpose and feel like we’re more able to accomplish things. Similar to point #1, you’re more likely to feel like you’re moving forward rather than stagnating in your career.
4. You’ll have greater satisfaction in your career.
At the end of the day, we all want to feel like what we do has meaning. With clear goals, you can discover what you really want out of your career and your life in general. And once you’re able to pinpoint it, you’ll be more satisfied with your career trajectory, because you’ll know when you’ve met your goals and what that means to you personally. In other words, you’ll be defining success for yourself.
20 examples of professional goals.
1. Learn a new skill.
Have you always wanted to learn how to code? Would you like to gain proficiency in a language other than English? How about mastering Photoshop?
There are so many skills that can help us grow professionally and personally. And even if a particular skill doesn’t seem precisely relevant to our current roles, you never know what will help you in the future. So, consider what skill you really want to learn for yourself — not just what you think will help you get that promotion (although that’s certainly important, too!). Given the abundance of online courses you can find these days, mastering that skill is certainly within reach.
2. Get certified in a competency.
Getting certified in a competency is an extremely helpful way of demonstrating that you’re serious about your career and allowing you to advance. Perhaps your current employer offers professional development opportunities and certifications at a reduced cost. Or, you can look into continuing education classes and programs that will prepare you to earn that coveted certification.
3. Seek out feedback.
Don’t think this qualifies as a goal? Think again. Many people struggle with asking for feedback because they’re afraid of hearing about what they might be doing wrong. But it’s also a very valuable well of helping you improve.
Make it a goal to ask for feedback from others, including your colleagues in addition to your managers, periodically, such as once every two months (be careful not to do this too frequently because you could come across as insecure in your role), being specific about what you really want to find out.
4. Hone your method of delivering feedback.
It’s also important to help others grow professionally by learning how to deliver feedback yourself. This will allow you to improve your relationship with your colleagues, as well as gain important skills yourself, like the ability to be a mentor. Additionally, you’ll gain the respect of others which will enable you to move forward and improve your professional reputation as you grow in your career.
5. Figure out how to effectively collaborate with others.
Working well with others is another important part of your professional life. Collaboration will get you far in your career, making your colleagues and others in your industry trust you and your interest in furthering the company mission, not just your own goals.
6. Create a blog or website.
There are many reasons to start an online space like a website or blog: you’ll be able to showcase your work, you can create new work and you’ll be getting your name out there. Not sure what you should put on your site? Start with your own interests, and think about how you can appeal to others with your work.
For example, perhaps you’re passionate about playing a musical instrument. You can start a website with recordings of you playing your music to peak others’ interest — and maybe even book a gig.
7. Learn how to network effectively.
Today, networking is a pivotal part of furthering your career. Connecting with others in your field can lead to immediate and long-term opportunities, such as landing a coveted position, being promoted in your current job, learning new skills, learning more about your industry and much more.
8. Build up your network.
Networking is a multi-step process. Not only do you need to learn the skills to connect with others at events, through social media and via other means, but once you’ve mastered this art, you must actually build your network. You can make it a concrete goal to increase your network by X% incrementally.
For instance, perhaps as steps toward the longer-term goal, you’ll send a certain number of LinkedIn messages every month, or you’ll ask a certain number of people to get coffee (or Zoom during COVID) within a given period of time.
9. Discover how to deliver a great presentation.
At one point or another, you’ll have to deliver a presentation. This is intimidating for many of us, but if you make it a goal to hone your public speaking skills, create eye-catching visuals and practice regularly, you can boost your confidence and learn how to connect with your audience, even in a virtual setting.
10. Develop your professional brand.
Honing your professional identity is a central part of your career. What are your career values? What image do you want to project? What’s your work mission? In order to convey these facets of yourself and your work, you should focus on developing your professional brand to ensure that you and your career stand for something.
In fact, part of this goal might involve writing down your specific career mission — something you’ll work toward achieving throughout your career.
11. Find out the ins and outs of other departments.
You probably won’t be in your specific role forever. In order to further your career and gain more industry-relevant skills, you should learn as much as you can about the various departments that make up your company. How do they each contribute to the big picture and work together? Increasing your knowledge about the inner workings of your business will make you more vital to your organization and others in your field.
12. Become more productive.
Sure, don’t we all want to become more productive? This is an important goal that you really can accomplish. As part of the objective, start planning your days out, allocating a certain amount of time for each task, being as realistic as possible. You could also embrace time tracking tools or productivity strategies like the Pomodoro method, in which you complete tasks in sprints and take breaks.
13. Improve your communication skills.
Written, verbal and auditory communication skills are a pivotal part of work. To thrive in your role, collaborate with others and generally be an efficient professional, you must be able to articulate, describe and convey information, whether it’s a quick email, updating your colleagues on a project’s progress in a meeting or undergoing a performance review.
14. Secure a leadership role.
This is a goal of many workers — to land a leadership position. And even if you’re in an entry-level job, you can begin working toward this ultimate goal today. Take initiative on projects, volunteering to handle tasks and serve as the lead.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to be in a managerial position to be a leader. You can be an informal leader by being that go-to person on whom people can rely without the formal title, and once it’s clear that you have that natural leadership quality, those in a position to promote you will certainly take notice.
15. Craft an outstanding resume.
Your resume is something that will help you show others who you are professionally: what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done, the path you’ve taken and where you intend to go in the future. It’s not just about getting a new job, so don’t just update it when you’re on the job hunt. It’s also a way to keep your career life organized and consider how you want to proceed, as well as view it from the perspective of someone else, like a hiring manager.
This is something you should alter depending on the purpose at a given time, like if you’re putting it on your website to attract new clients or using it to apply for a job, but the basic outline will remain the same.
16. Exceed your manager’s expectations.
Go above and beyond. No matter what your job is, you can do this. You know your job and your manager better than anyone else, so only you can say what exceeding expectations looks like. Perhaps it involves helping someone else with a project, suggesting a new idea or implementing a new organizational system. Whatever you do, it will show your manager that you care about the company and are willing to do something beyond what is expected.
17. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone knows how to leverage them effectively. This often separates people who go far in their careers and those who don’t. Take the time to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses truly are, not just what you want them to be. Once you know them, you can find ways to leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses or search for roles where they won’t hold you back.
18. Find a mentor.
A mentor is a valuable means of support in helping you achieve your professional goals. This is someone who can guide you throughout your career.
How do you find one? Perhaps your workplace has a formal mentorship program in which you can participate. Or you can reach out to people you admire on LinkedIn. (Check out our tips, too.)
19. Be a mentor.
Being a mentor is another hallmark of a successful career. Not only will you be helping someone else grow in their career, but you’ll also be improving your own professional skills and building working relationships. (Here’s how to be an effective mentor.)
20. Become an entrepreneur.
This could be more of a longer-term goal, but it’s becoming increasingly common for people — even young people — to start their own businesses. This, of course, involves a great deal of initiative (and gumption). Even if you think this is something that will happen in the distant future, if you’re interested in going your own way, start considering what this might look like and even concrete steps, like researching possibilities to manifest your idea, now.
How to set your goals.
1. Make your goals SMART.
The best goals are concrete and actionable. One method of goal-setting many people embrace is the SMART method. The acronym stands for:
To ensure that your goal is feasible and determine how you can track its progress, illustrate each of these adjectives with a corresponding action or aspect of the goal. In other words, describe how the adjective correlates to your particular objective.
2. Put them in writing.
Remember your goals and make them “real” by writing them down, rather than keeping them in your head. You might also use project-management tools, such as a Trello board, to make them more engaging and track your progress visually.
3. Consider your overarching ambitions and career path.
Figure out how each of your goals fits into your overarching career path. Think about how an individual objective will help you further your work life and move forward. This will motivate you to tackle each one, rather than doing them for the sake of doing them. Each goal should matter in the grand scheme of things and make an impact on your career journey — and your life as a whole.
About the Career Expert:
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.