A guide to setting professional goals that will drive success

If you want to develop your career faster, learn new skills, and earn more money — you need professional goals. While this is pretty standard advice, not many professionals act on it — even when there is hard evidence to back it up.

Dr. Gail Matthews of the Dominican University of California conducted a study looking at how committing to written career goals affects goal achievement and overall success in one’s professional life. The study featured over 267 professionals from various networks, businesses, and organizations throughout the US and overseas.

The participants who wrote down achievable goals and followed up on their action plans had a more than 70% success rate. For the participants that didn’t write down any goals, the success rate fell to 35%. The study also found that you’re 76% more likely to achieve your personal goals if you include an action plan and some form of accountability (such as regularly reporting to a friend or coworker on the status of your goals).

Most employees already have to set quarterly or annual goals, not to mention sit through regular goal-setting sessions — so why not strive to make the most out of them?

It’s clear that setting smart goals can help you streamline your progress down your chosen career path, so learning how to set attainable goals is an extremely valuable skill. That’s why I put together this guide that will teach you how to set professional goals that will help you take your career to the next level.

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Why are professional goals important?

There are many reasons why you should set professional development goals, including some that may not be directly apparent. For instance, forming professional goals is a lifesaver whenever you’re prepping for a job interview.

Why is that?

It’s because setting professional goals will help you place all your work experience into perspective. Establishing a long-term career goal will help you build a narrative that all your past accomplishments were building toward your future goal. If that’s a tad unclear, here’s an example to consider.

Let’s say you look at all your past experiences at your organization, including your time running social media campaigns, working with various team members, and handling project management. You then decide your long-term goal is to transition into a leadership role at your company. To back that up, you cite your experience with all the above as stepping stones toward landing a leadership position.

That’s a great way to enhance your value proposition, as well as present a confident vision for your career development — both of which are fantastic for answering interview questions without an ounce of hesitation. That will reflect far better on your professional skills than framing random accomplishments and not having a direction for the interview.

Achieving career milestones with short-term goals and long-term goals

Professional goals can be both short-term and long-term, and you should use a combination of both if you want to achieve key milestones in your career. Otherwise, you could get stuck in your current role for too long, which can cause burnout.

Without writing out specific goals, it can make career advancement seem too daunting or unattainable. Procrastination also has a habit of setting in whenever actionable career goals are absent.

Maybe your next career step involves learning a complex new skill, such as a programming language. In that case, your best option is to combine short-term goals with an ultimate long-term goal.

Your long-term goal is to master a new programming language like C++ or SQL. That will take a while, which is why it’s your future goal. Along the way, you knock out various short-term goals that inch you closer toward your ultimate goal.

An example of a short-term goal would be to get the command-line basics down. It’s a simple task that you could realistically take on in a few days, and it will kickstart your journey toward mastering the language.

You should also write out a timeframe for each task to hold yourself accountable. Implementing this technique of small goals toward a larger one is a great way to take on challenging goals and remedy procrastination.

Understanding the SMART goals method

By now, you may be wondering how you can come up with your own professional goals. After all, goals don’t write themselves, and it can be challenging to come up with some. That’s especially true if you aren’t sure which direction you want to take with your career.

Bear in mind that there’s no right or wrong way to develop goals, but a framework is always useful for sparking ideas — which is where the SMART goals method comes into the picture.

What’s that?

SMART is an acronym where each letter represents a step that helps you set career goals. Here’s what each letter means:

S for specific

It’s crucial to set very specific goals instead of staying vague. That’s because the more specific you get with a goal, the more actionable it becomes.

To see why this is, let’s consider an example. Here’s a vague goal:

  • To grow my personal brand and sell more online courses.

While it does state a goal, it doesn’t provide much information beyond that. How do you plan on selling more online courses and growing your brand? How long are you giving yourself to do it? This goal leaves too much on the table because it isn’t specific enough.

Here’s an improved version of the same goal:

  • To increase the total number of followers on social media by 10% in six months, as well as launch an SEO/content marketing campaign to see a 5% increase in online course signup during the same timeframe.

As you can see, this goal is far more actionable due to how specific it is. You now have target numbers to hit as well as a timeline to follow, which will make it easier to come up with smaller goals along the way.

M for measurable

Next, your goals need to be measurable in that you have a tangible way to keep track of your progress. That doesn’t mean that you need fancy analytics software, either. It can be as simple as keeping a journal to keep track of your goal progress.

Other techniques include:

  • Creating a to-do list and checking off items as you go.

  • Using apps that provide analytics related to your goals.

  • Holding regular meetings with coworkers to go over your progress.

As long as you have a way to keep track of your hard work, you’ve taken care of this step.

A for attainable

If your goal is to become fluent in Russian in a single day, you haven’t set an attainable goal. While that’s an extreme example, people unintentionally set impossible goals all the time. What’s worse is that unattainable goals can negatively affect your morale, especially if you aren’t aware that the goal is impossible.

To avoid this, make sure that your goal is realistic and attainable. Your goals should always motivate and inspire you, not discourage or question your competency.

R for relevant

If you work in PR but set a goal to become a professional broadcaster, your goal isn’t relevant to your current career path. You should always ensure that your goals pertain to your current work environment and will provide value to you.

If the only goals that motivate you are in another field or industry, it might be time for a career change.

T for time-bound

Last but not least, your goals need to have a clear timeframe in mind. If the clock isn’t constantly ticking down, you likely won’t have the motivation to act on your goals.

After all, why not just do it tomorrow if there’s no deadline set? You’ve got all the time in the world.

Except you don’t, or shouldn’t if you want to achieve your goal. That’s the main reason every goal needs a clear timeframe to keep a fire lit under you to get things done. Not only that, but setting time-bound goals will help you improve your overall time management skills.

Tips for setting professional goals


Are you still drawing a blank on which professional goals to set for your personal development? If so, these examples of professional goals should help spark your creativity. Feel free to use them as templates to form goals for your own business or professional network.

Understand your team’s structure

In order to follow through with a work goal, you need to have a flawless understanding of your team’s dynamics. That will help you come up with productive goals that add value to the organization.

Understanding team structure means knowing all your teams’ and departments’ functions and interrelationships.

Stepping back to take in the big picture can help you identify areas for improvement, such as a lack of communication going on between departments. That’s a surefire way to develop actionable goals that will improve communication skills and productivity.

Focus on factors you can control

There’s no point in setting goals related to factors that you can’t control. As an example, you can’t set a goal to have flawless weather on the day of a business event — as that’s out of your control.

Instead, set goals around the things that you can control, such as the quality of the business event you put on.

For all the factors that you can’t control, come up with a contingency plan. Going with the business event example, you could reserve an indoor venue should the weather turn sour.

Know what success looks like

An excellent way to come up with professional goals is to draw inspiration from others that have succeeded. There is no shortage of professional development success stories online, and they can give you examples of successful goal setting.

Just as a musician cites influences in developing their style, you can too for how you develop professional goals.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support

The weight of the entire organization isn’t on your shoulders, nor should it be. After all, an organization consists of lots of different people, not just one. As such, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for support when coming up with professional goals.

In fact, it’s a much better idea to ask for help instead of coming up with a subpar goal that adds no value.

Think about it as if you’re a professional athlete. You’re the star performer, but you don’t have to do it alone. Just as every athlete has a team and a coach, you have mentors, bosses, and coworkers who can help you develop ideas for goals.

Concluding thoughts: Professional goals

Goal setting is an essential component of a successful professional life and for life in general.

Being able to harness the power of setting goals will help you succeed more in your life.

Professional goals can help you advance your career, succeed in job interviews, and grow your business. Without goals, it’s too easy to become complacent with your routine and not push yourself.

Goals serve as a way to motivate yourself to keep moving forward, which is why they’re so valuable.

I hope this guide helped you realize the importance of setting professional goals, as well as how to set valuable goals of your own. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below.