How to Set Professional Goals

All your goals should be specific and measurable.

Written by Tammy Xu
Published on Mar. 30, 2022
How to Set Professional Goals

As anyone who’s resolved to get fit or save more money knows, following through with a resolution is really hard — and that’s especially true if the goals you set were too ambitious to begin with.

But goals are important for personal and professional growth. They are handy tools for helping us get to where we want to go and become the people we want to be. Without them, it’s easy to lose sight of long-term career goals in the hustle of our day-to-day obligations.

Realistic Career Goals to Consider

  • Build your technical knowledge. If you’re a developer, consider picking up a new language or framework. Learning to use a popular software tool within an industry is also a good way to get ahead.
  • Improve your leadership skills. Start with something small, like being a mentor.
  • Learn more about your business or your industry. Understanding the big picture can help inform your work.
  • Grow your network. Talking with industry peers is also a great way to get new ideas for career goals.

Rather than beating yourself up and hoping for more willpower, one way to make more progress is to make goals more realistic and to think harder about what you need to do to get there. 

“Anything is realistic, given a long enough time frame,” said Lydia Gorham, senior backend software engineer at Fast, a startup that facilitates online checkouts. “But I find it harder to check in on whether or not I’m actually making progress if it’s these long-term, fuzzy kind of goals.”

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Get Ideas for Realistic Goals From Industry Peers

One common technique for setting realistic goals is to use the SMART method: a guideline for creating goals that are “specific” in their scope, “measurable” enough to track progress, “achievable,” “relevant” to what you really want from your career and “time-bound,” so that goals have deadlines and won’t keep getting pushed off into the future.

Lacking a clear idea of what career progression might look like can prevent people from crafting realistic goals. To address that issue, career coach Meg Duffy suggests looking for inspiration from external sources.

“Sometimes, I do find folks who don’t have any ideas,” Duffy said. “They’re kind of stuck, they don’t know where to start. For folks in that bucket, I usually tell them to go exploring.”

“Just talking to people, even if it’s your colleagues or other folks in the industry, can sometimes get the juices flowing.”

One easy way to explore is by going on Twitter and following prominent people in your field of work. Duffy specializes in coaching software developers, so she encourages clients to follow accounts such as Code Newbie or developers like Chloe Condon, who posts advice on early-career development.

Going to in-person or virtual meetups and conferences is another way to get new ideas, Duffy said. Those events not only introduce participants to new concepts outside the scope of their jobs, but also to others in their field. For software developers, events like virtual hackathons carry a lot of the same benefits.

“Just talking to people, even if it’s your colleagues or other folks in the industry, can sometimes get the juices flowing,” Duffy said.


Don’t Pursue Too Many Goals at Once — Write Them Down and Prioritize

Those who want to tackle too many goals at once may need a different strategy for making their goals realistic. For those who find themselves in that situation, Duffy recommends writing all their goals down on paper before going through and figuring out priorities.

“That way, they’re not carrying it all around in their heads,” Duffy said. “Once we have it down on paper, it’s a lot easier to start organizing things. And then once we can see it, we can start to talk about the ‘why’ behind them a little bit more — like, ‘Why are these goals important? What are you trying to accomplish?’”

Patterns often emerge after reading through the list of goals. One of Duffy’s clients who worked as the sole developer at a small startup listed a lot of goals — software concepts she needed to learn and new programming languages and frameworks to master. Instead of diving in directly and helping her client tackle those goals, Duffy advised her to first work on improving her company’s processes instead.

“Once we have it down on paper, it’s a lot easier to start organizing things.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but Duffy realized that her client was stretched too thin and didn’t have the bandwidth to tackle any of the personal goals she had — all her time and energy were spent on her day-to-day work. The company had intended to hire more developers but hadn’t done it, so Duffy’s client created a hiring process and put guardrails in place that would protect the employees’ time, allowing them to pursue other goals.

Whether it’s wanting to build up your technical skills, looking for a new job or starting a blog about your side projects, writing down goals can illuminate patterns and priorities, helping you figure out how to achieve them.

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Choose Goals That Motivate You

Certain types of goals don’t lend themselves to being SMART. Gorham said an example of this is hoping for a promotion.

“One of the things I’ve realized is that you shouldn’t wait around for a specific title, or for someone to grant you permission to engage in a type of work,” she said. “That kind of leads to this passive mindset where you just keep doing what you’re doing and are not really making progress.”

Realistic goals should be fully within an individual’s control to achieve. Instead of having goals be dependent on external factors, Gorham suggested tweaking them so each is self-contained, to make people feel empowered to pursue them on their own. Software developers who want promotions because they want to be more involved in technical design decision-making, for instance, should volunteer for those types of tasks and ask to join tech design committees.

“I spend a lot of my time and energy and life at work, and I want to be doing stuff that really excites me and that I enjoy doing.”

“I generally found that people are pretty open to that,” she said.

Gorham said the goals most motivating for her revolve around what she does in her day-to-day work, more so than getting promotions or moving up salary bands. Thinking more deeply about the “why” behind goals is a good way to figure out what’s most motivating for you. 

“When I get into the ‘why,’ it’s more focused around, ‘What do I want to fill my days with?’” Gorham said. “I spend a lot of my time and energy and life at work, and I want to be doing stuff that really excites me and that I enjoy doing.”

Last year, Gorham left her position as senior back-end engineer at a large company to work for Fast, a small startup. She liked her old job, but found the scope of her work more and more narrow as she advanced within the company. She wanted to pull back from the “compliance sliver” of her role and do work that would touch all aspects of the business. Moving to a startup was a natural way to achieve that.

“I was really looking to get more breadth again, both technically and in terms of thinking more about why we’re building what we’re building,” she said. “Joining this much smaller startup is much more open in terms of all the work that you can take on and the responsibilities you can take on.”

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Make Goals That Have Clear Deadlines

SMART goals should be “time-bound” — there should be deadlines for when they will be met, so a goal doesn’t get punted down the road forever. But it can be tough to set deadlines for large and broad goals. It’s better to break them down into smaller goals that are each easier to accomplish and specific enough to measure progress for.

Gorham said it’s especially important to estimate how long difficult goals would take, and to split them up so that they won’t take more than a year each. Goals that are longer than a year tend to be less specific, making it hard to figure out whether any progress is being made or whether they’re just languishing

Duffy encourages her clients to stick to one career goal at a time. It’s a good way to avoid getting distracted by a variety of different goals and not completing any. She said pursuing one other personal goal at the same time is generally not a problem, but trying to tackle too many at once can actually impede success. Once a client finishes one goal, they can revisit their list of goals and start on the next one.

“I have struggled with this in the past,” Duffy said. “I loved to try to attack 15 goals at the same time. For me, it does not work — you’re going to burn yourself out, and it’s easy to start out with a lot of energy and then peter out halfway through.”


Ask Others for Help With Your Goals

Other people can also give you the extra push sometimes needed to achieve a goal. Duffy said a career coach or an accountability buddy can help nudge you back on track if you’re going through a progress slump and feeling unmotivated.

But getting help on your goals doesn’t have to mean giving others updates about your progress. It can be motivational just to hear about other people’s goals, and to get new ideas for skills you can acquire and goals you can set through conversations with your peers and colleagues.

“Sometimes there are opportunities that are showing up that you don’t have a lot of visibility into but would fit into a goal.”

“Having other people — particularly around the same level, or maybe one level above — is helpful for just sanity checking or brainstorming ideas,” Gorham said.

Gorham suggested talking to managers as a way to get new ideas for goals you should set. Not only are managers in a position to help you achieve your goals, but they also may have insight into your strengths and weaknesses — after all, they are in charge of their employees’ growth. They may have already thought of ways you can build on your strengths and strategies for working on weaknesses, maybe that you wouldn’t have considered.

“Sometimes there are opportunities that are showing up that you don’t have a lot of visibility into but would fit into a goal,” Gorham said.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Changing Your Goals

Although SMART goals are written to be achieved, circumstances often change, and what you want from your career might change as well. Goals should be flexible enough so you can learn something from the process of pursuing each one, and they shouldn’t make you feel like a prisoner to them.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that what I want in five years might be different than what I think right now,” Gorham said. That’s another reason she’s in favor of thinking about goals in a shorter time frame, then periodically reevaluating them to make sure they are still pointing her in the direction she wants her career to progress.

“What I want in five years might be different than what I think right now.”

After all, achieving a goal is just part of the goal. The knowledge and skills acquired in pursuit of it is what ultimately helps you in your career, and can be carried over to new endeavors and new challenges. Even if something seems difficult, don’t be afraid to try it if it’s something you want to learn.

“I struggle with this too,” Duffy said. “As a recovering perfectionist, it is very challenging for me to be new at something. But I think the great thing about working in software is there’s so much to learn all the time.”

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