Professional Goal Setting for 2021

Hit your goals (with pic of arrow hitting bullseye target)

What are your career goals?

Maybe you want to make more money or get a promotion or find a less stressful job.

Maybe you’re just trying to hang on after a rough year. 

Each year, I go through a professional goal setting exercise for myself. I also do the same thing as a manager - helping my team work through and identify goals and how to achieve them.

There are many different ways to approach career goal setting. Let’s look at the 2 main strategies I like to use.

Setting professional goals for your career is pretty similar to setting goals in other areas of your life.

Isolated Goals

Most of us have - or at some point have had - personal goals that are stand-alone or isolated.

That is, there’s something we want to achieve that doesn’t impact any larger or longer term goal.

These are usually relatively short in duration - a year or less, often not even that long. 

This is the first goal setting approach to use.

For personal goals, I’d put goals like “read x # of books this year” or “lose x amount of weight” in the stand-alone column. Yes, they can contribute to broader goals, but a lot of times they’re treated as individual items.

Professional goals can fall into this category.

Maybe there’s a training you’ve always wanted to take, a software you’ve wanted to learn, a skill you’ve wanted to build.

These goals might help you out in your career, but they also could just be things you’re personally interested in that just so happen to have a broader impact.

Sometimes this is enough of a reason to have a goal.

Goals don’t always have to connect to something bigger.

Strategic Goals

The second type of goal setting I’ll call the thinking from the future approach. 

With this approach to goal setting, you’ll start by thinking long term. I usually do this as a combination personal and professional exercise, but keep it to a professional exercise when I’m doing it as a manager.

Here are the steps I took when I went through this recently. 

1. Set aside a few hours for goal setting.

First, set aside a few hours to dedicate to this activity. It’s not something you want to rush.

In the future, you won’t need as much time, but the initial process can take awhile.

2. Think about the life you want.

Next, start out thinking about what you want life to be like.

What would your ideal day/week/year look like?

Don’t get too hung up on where you are now, but still keep it somewhat realistic - i.e. this isn’t about if you had unlimited money, what would you do.

Think about this in broad terms and don’t get too specific. We’ll bring everything more into focus as we move through the process. 

Some items you may consider here: 

  • I want to create or contribute 
  • I want to have an active lifestyle
  • I want to learn and try new things frequently
  • I want to feel stability in my lifestyle

3. Add more detail.

From here, start to get more specific about what this might look like for you and whether you’re going to focus on achieving your high level goals in your profession or in your personal life. 

Your goal of creating or contributing could be professional.

You could be in an artistic role, one that requires you to write, one where you’re producing some sort of food or physical good.

It could also mean working as an engineer designing new products or creating solutions to problems. 

Your goal of creating or contributing could also - or alternatively - be personal.

Maybe you like to cook or bake, draw or paint.

You don’t have to find fulfillment for every goal in your job. 

4. Think from the future.

Focusing on the goals that do relate to your career, it’s time to move into the  “thinking from the future exercise”.

Thinking from the future means focusing on the future state and working backwards.

If your goal is to be a data analyst, think about the step that would come right before that.

What training or experience do you need to be in that role?

Don’t worry about where you are currently.

Maybe you identify your focus is a no code data analyst role so having certification in a software would be helpful here.

Next, what’s the step right before that?

If the step you just listed was software certification, the step right before it could be getting training in the software.

Repeat this exercise until you get back to where you currently are. 

5. Write your plan.

Now take the steps close to where you currently are and use them to set your professional goals for the next year.

We started the exercise at a really broad level, specifically not defining anything too much.

Short term goals should be very defined - SMART goals.

They should be specific, measurable, achievable - even if they’re a stretch, relevant, and time bound.

If you’re setting professional goals for 2021 using this method, the relevant and time bound elements are already settled.

The time frame is a year and you know they’re relevant to your long term goal. 

Get specific - what exactly do you want to accomplish?

Make it measurable - how can you tell if you’ve achieved the goal?

Make it achievable. It’s great to stretch yourself, but if your goal for this year is to move from an entry level position to a SVP role, it’s highly unlikely to be possible. 

A good SMART goal for an analyst for 2021 could be: 

Get certified as a Tableau Desktop Specialist

It’s specific - a clear certification

It’s measurable - you get the certification or you don’t

It’s achievable - anyone can do this with some minimal time investment

It’s relevant - data viz and Tableau are useful for analysts

It’s timebound - the goal is to do this in 2021

Combine the results of both approaches and these are your professional goals for the next year. 

Avoid Too Many Goals

If you find that you have a long list of goals, spend some time sorting out which few will be your priority. Even if each goal is achievable on its own, sometimes too many items aren’t achievable as a group.