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Unlock Your Potential: A Guide to Setting Career Goals

Updated: Jan 18

Unlock your potential: A Guide to Setting Career Goals, How to set career goals to achieve more

Have you heard of this study?

A study conducted by Harvard Business School found that 3% of graduate students earned 10 times as much as their peers from the same graduating class after 20 years had passed. Their key to success was writing clear goals with plans for their future.

Despite being frequently referenced, this story has been proven to be untrue. Some sources allege that this study was conducted by Yale instead. But the truth is that the study did not happen at all, this story is made up.

However, goal setting is still extremely important. Apart from helping you identify what is truly important to you, it also provides you with a clear sense of direction and helps you focus. So, how can you set career goals to unlock your greatest potential and professional dreams?

What is goal setting?

Goal setting is a strategic process of defining specific aspirations an individual or business aims to achieve, creating a roadmap for success through clear, measurable, and time-bound targets, fostering motivation and direction in personal or professional pursuits.

Why should we set career goals?

Setting career goals provides direction, clarity, and motivation. This aligns aspirations with actionable plans, accelerating growth, and maximizing opportunities for success in your professional journey.

At its core, career goal setting is about envisioning your future and planning the route get there. It is a mindset that motivates and propels you towards growth and achievement. Setting goals will align your aspirations with actionable steps, making sure that your efforts and energy are placed in meaningful directions.

To do this, many managers and successful professionals will encourage you to set SMART goals, a guiding framework for effective goal setting.

What are SMART goals?

The acronym 'SMART' stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These criteria help set objectives that ensure clarity, trackability, and attainability in goal setting, enhancing focus and driving successful outcomes.

As such, 'SMART' is thought of as the blueprint for individuals and businesses to turn their vision into reality.

Are your goals SMART? Specific: What exactly do I want to accomplish? Measurable: What metrics will I use to measure my success? Achievable: What steps can I take to achieve this goal? Relevant: Is this goal relevant with my long term aspirations? Time-Bound: When should I achieve this goal?

If your goal is career advancement, make it specific by stating the position you are aiming for, measure progress by setting milestones, ensure achievability based on your skills and resources, confirm its relevance to your career trajectory, and set a time frame for to achieve this goal. Let us break this down further for you!

How to set career goals using SMART? (with an example!)

To illustrate the process of setting SMART Goals, we use 'a job promotion' as the broader goal. Adapt the following points according to your own goals!

S: Specificity

  • Clearly define the target position for promotion. e.g., Senior Manager, IT Project Management (Application).

  • Outline the key responsibilities and expectations associated with the promotion.

  • Specify any additional skills or qualifications required for the new role.

M: Measurability

  • Establish specific metrics to track progress, such as completing relevant training programs or gaining proficiency in a specific skill.

  • Set quantifiable goals, like achieving a certain performance metric or leading a successful project that contributes to the team's objectives.

A: Achievability

  • Assess current skills and qualifications against the promotion requirements.

  • Evaluate if there is opportunity for promotion, such as company expansion and competition.

  • Identify realistic steps, such as acquiring necessary certifications or gaining experience in leadership roles.

  • Break down larger tasks into manageable steps, ensuring each is achievable within the given timeframe.

  • Relook at your metrics and make sure the goals are achievable.

R: Relevance

  • Align the promotion goal with long-term career aspirations.

  • Consider your personal goals and check if they are still relevant to you.

  • Evaluate how the promotion aligns with organizational goals and values.

T: Time-bound

  • Establish a clear timeline for achieving the promotion. e.g., in the next 12 months.

  • Set deadlines for completing specific tasks, such as obtaining a certification.

  • Regularly review progress against the established timeline and adjust as needed.


Now that we understand how to set smart goals, let us share more tips on how to make and stick to these goals. These suggestions may call out to you to follow them this time round!

Overcome Procrastination

Even when we know that setting goals are important, we may struggle to start.

Challenges in goal setting and attaining goals are inevitable. Procrastination, self-doubt, and fear of failure often hinder progress. Remember, setbacks are part of the journey! Embrace them as opportunities for learning and growth. Take a page from the “M” in SMART acronym and break tasks into smaller, manageable steps to improve your productivity.

Moreover, cultivating a growth mindset can significantly impact your ability to navigate challenges. Embrace the idea that setbacks are not failures but stepping stones towards success.

Seek Support and Mentorship

Mentors provide guidance and provide professional feedback. They also help you to build a network of experienced individuals who can give you invaluable insights and perspectives.

More specifically to goal setting and goal achievement, mentors help to hold you accountable to the goals you have set in a timely manner. According to a study, people who submit weekly accountability reports tend to achieve 40% more than those who don’t. Think of having a mentor as an ‘accountability partner’ to push you to achieving your goals!

To put this into perspective, 25% of mentees had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not have mentors. Mentees are also found to be promoted 5 times more often. Support from a mentor could be pivotal to your goal achievement!

Celebrate Milestones and Adjust Course

Each milestone reached is a testament to your progress and brings you closer to your goal than you were at the beginning.  Research has shown that celebrating small wins along the way helps employees to maintain better physical health. Making progress in work that is meaningful also motivates you to go further!

However, sometimes we don’t always walk the right path from the get-go. Sometimes, life happens and our goals, or our track changes, and that is perfectly fine. Revisit and adjust your goals as needed and bear in mind that the journey is as important as the destination, and continuous growth is the key to sustained success!

Writing and Visualizing Your Set Goals

Going back to the legendary study we mentioned at the beginning of this article – if the Harvard/Yale study has been proven to be a myth, is there benefit to writing down your goals at all?

Yes, there is! Although no such study was conducted by Harvard/Yale, a study conducted by Dominican University found that you are are 42% more likely to succeed if you write down your goals. Some people also have vision boards to help them align their goals, and the effectiveness of vision boards are backed by neuroscience. Neuroscientist, Dr. Tara Swart, notes that “The more you look at those images, the more those images move up in importance”, and this cognitive process is called “value-tagging”.

Setting and pursuing career goals is a transformational journey. It empowers you to dream big, chart your course, and accomplish milestones you once thought unattainable. As you embark on this journey, remember: the most successful professionals are not those who never fail but those who persist in the face of challenges!

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