Tips for Setting—and Achieving—Professional Goals

The first quarter of a given calendar year is often focused on goal-setting. But even when you know this exercise is coming, it can be tricky to set goals that are actually realistic. In many workplaces, we arrive on January 2 feeling somewhat more refreshed, but by the time May or June rolls around (or sometimes earlier), we’re feeling somewhat inundated and hoping it’s time for another holiday—ASAP. By this point, just staying afloat can seem like a challenge, not to mention sticking to those goals established earlier in the year.

So, the million-dollar question becomes, how can we set goals that won’t find themselves tossed out the window a few months down the road? And if we’ve been at the same company or even in the same role for a number of years, how can we make each year a bit different in terms of our goal-setting? Here are some tips that might help (in no particular order):

Take inventory, and go quantitative when possible

How many new ideas did you present the previous year? How much revenue did those ideas produce for the company? Recalling what, specifically, you achieved the previous year and taking it one small step further enables you to plan realistically and effectively going forward.

Ask yourself, what in particular about this upcoming year—personally and professionally—do I expect might be different that could affect my performance?

This one is tricky, as you can’t anticipate every curveball that life throws at you. But some things are planned in advance. Maybe your company has decided to restructure and you’ll be reporting to new people or having new people report to you. How can your new goals reflect the change(s) in this reporting structure? Or maybe you’re expecting a child in a few months and you need to plan for maternity leave. Your goal-setting should probably reflect that transition.

Give yourself some room for error. Let’s talk about the aforementioned curveballs for a second.

Undoubtedly, the number one factor that makes goal-setting so tricky is the fact that you can’t predict everything that will happen for the next 12 months, especially if you work within a larger team or organization and there’s a lot of collaborating that takes place. Remind yourself that you may not achieve each and every goal, and some goals might have to be adjusted midway through the year. Some companies encourage their employees to regularly check in with their managers on their progress every 4 to 6 months, but whether that’s an official policy or not, most supervisors appreciate someone who openly acknowledges where she stands in relation to her goals and communicates effectively about any adjustments that might be necessary.

Be specific

We touched on this in No. 1, but I can’t stress it enough. Setting goals that are vague doesn’t help yourself or your company. If it’s too tough to outline your goals in quantitative terms, be as detailed as possible with your qualitative goals. It will likely make you feel better by the end of the year, and your company can also better gauge how well you’ve done in achieving your goals, which could factor into a raise or promotion when you’re eligible.

Did I hear raise or promotion?

You did, so take the process seriously. There’s a reason many companies have their staff set goals. It’s usually not an exercise in vain, and therefore it should be given serious thought. This goes both ways, too. If you feel as though your achievements are not being taken seriously, or you need help setting goals, talk to someone within the organization that you trust—this may be a human resources representative, a manager, or a colleague. Remember to be upfront but also professional during these conversations.

Julie Perry edits nonfiction sports books at Skyhorse Publishing. She is also a part-time tutor in New York City. In her free time, Julie enjoys cheering for her favorite sports teams (especially the Mets), reading, writing and eating lots of sushi. A graduate of Brandeis University, Julie received her Masters degree from New York University.