Setting Professional Goals

Setting Professional Goals

Two of the things I have found most helpful in my professional life are:
1.  Setting well-defined, detailed goals based on the things that I want for my life.
2.  Literally mapping out my plans for how to get to my goals.

Neither of these should be novel concepts to any of us, but let’s be honest – how many of us actually follow through on things like this?

Where are you trying to go?

If you have not already done so, I recommend that you start brainstorming what your ideal professional life looks like (including your work-life balance). WRITE THIS STUFF DOWN.

Do not let other people or society at large dictate your goals. I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t worry about what you “should” want or are “supposed to” want or about what the people you know want. Think long and hard about what YOU want. And your goals should not be vague things like “make more money” or “have more time off.”  They need to be detailed.

For your professional goals you may be writing down things like “I want to have a highly skilled team of X number of people” or “I want to bring in an average of X dollars per hour” or “I want to see an average of X new clients every week” or “I want to come in to work at 10am instead of 8am.”

My main goal from 2015 was “I want to spend less time in my car driving to and from work”. My main goal from 2016 was “I want to get rid of my student loan debt and business debt as soon as possible.”

The list could be endless, but the point is you need concrete and detailed goals (see the definition of SMART goals, below) that are uniquely yours, and you need to write them down.

Me looking at a frozen lake with a lot of foot prints in snow
If you don’t care where you end up, it doesn’t really matter which way you go.


Since writing the first draft of this post I realized how much I loved the “SMART” goal-setting philosophy. There are several versions of this acronym out there, but for my purposes SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable goals for which you are Responsible and Time-bounded. This is basically the criteria I use for all goal-setting at this point in my life.

How will you get there?

This can be a little more complex, but hang in there. This is the “Actionable” part of the SMART goals. Most actions are usually easier discussed than done, and the actions surrounding your professional goals are no exception.

At this point, if you are feeling like you need help, you might consider finding a professional mentor or working with a consultant or a life coach (or all three). You’ll map your plan to reach your goals, including timelines and including relevant financial data. And you also WRITE THIS STUFF DOWN. If you are a visual person, make a vision board too.

If you are like me and fixate on things that might not go your way, you also make a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Massive Catastrophe Plan so you can sleep better at night.

Obviously your plan on how to reach each goal has to be within the confines of reality. This does not mean you should not take risks or that you should quit in the face of every obstacle. It means that you work hard on those things that you can control.  You accept the fact that there things you can’t control, and you do not lose sleep over them.

What about things you can’t control?

Of course there is a lot that we can’t control about the future. We can act and plan intelligently based on the information we currently have, but life can get crazy.  Some of the information you have now will prove to be incorrect in the future. You might get partway through one plan and have to re-structure it based on changing circumstances or changing goals. That’s okay. You can adapt.

But if you don’t have the plans and the timelines in place at all, you have no way to gauge where you are relative to your goals, and thus no way to course-correct when it becomes imperative.  Also – very important – if you don’t have your own plan you will find yourself constantly looking around you, comparing yourself to others, and losing out on both confidence and happiness.

Running as a Metaphor

In 2004 I realized I was not in the physical shape I wanted to be in for the rest of my adult life. I got it into my head that I wanted to run a marathon. If my fitness goal had been “be better at running and get skinnier” that would have been borderline worthless because it doesn’t mean much. If my goal had been “lose 50 pounds and run a marathon next week” that wouldn’t have helped either because it’s not realistic and might have killed me. I set my goal as “run 30 miles every week, lose 10 pounds in six months, and run a marathon by the end of the year” and that was something real to work with. I wrote out my plan and then put it on my calendar. I knew if I hit the necessary milestones each week and each month, and I could adjust my plan if I was hitting them more slowly or more quickly than planned. I ran with people who were great at running and even worked with a coach for a few months. When I did hit my goal of running that marathon, I celebrated! I had done what I set out to do!

Climbers on Matterhorn summit
Know where you’re trying to go. Celebrate when you get there.

Remember: You have to be able to set your goals and enjoy pursuing your goals without being derailed when other people do things differently than you.  I still have a blast with distance running (and since then have ended up doing ten marathons instead of just the one) but I am not a great runner. I have friends who are true elite runners and can cover 100 miles of difficult trail at high elevation without batting an eye. I have friends who can run two miles in about the time I run one. I can be happy for them and maybe even learn from them, but I am not going to let it make me any less excited about my running accomplishments or less confident in myself.

Work-Related Examples From My Own Life

As mentioned before, I decided a while ago that I disliked both my car commute and my student/business debt situation. Both of those things were negatively impacting the fun and flexibility I wanted to have in my professional life.

Goal 1:  Spend less time car commuting to and from work (preferably zero time).

Plan A: buy house walking distance from practice (this has so far failed miserably so we moved on to…)

Plan B: get good bike gear and bike to work April through October (this has so far been awesome, 2 years running, thousands of miles biked).

Goal 2:  Pay off student debt by the end of 2018 and business debt by the end of 2020.

Plan A: learn more about amortization schedules, do the math to know appropriate monthly payments needed to hit goals, make said payments monthly, pay loans before other expenses or optional spending every month – no exceptions. Evaluate progress in detail every six months, call lenders every six months to confirm balances, and update excel spreadsheets tracking goals every six months. (This is so far working well, with the end results to be determined at our “deadlines” get closer. You can read more about our efforts to destroy our student debt here).

Plan B: Move student debt and business debt repayment back by no more than one year only if the ideal real estate investment becomes available (something we’ve been waiting on for awhile).

In summary: You can’t know if you are on your way to your goals or hitting your goals if you don’t have them well-defined. And I think that’s part of what makes lots of people (including many doctors and other high-income earners) discontent and insecure. They haven’t defined for themselves what they want. They are letting outside voices tell them what they want which is almost always some version of “you want more.” They are constantly trying to do more and get more without really asking themselves what their goals are.

Set your own goals. Make your own plan. And good luck to you!

“The best time to start was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

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