How to set and track professional goals: Personal experience

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We set goals because we want to get better at something. In my experience, trying to get somewhere without proper goal-setting is like steering a ship without a destination in mind — lots of action without meaningful results.

That’s why establishing good work goals is important. If we know where we’re going, we have a better chance to get there (and faster). Goals keep us focused, highlight what’s missing, and motivate us to make progress.

Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of approaches and techniques for setting goals and zeroed in on the best ones. So, if you’re looking for a system to track goals, here’s how to get started.

What are professional goals?

Professional goals are objectives that you want to achieve to improve in your career. They allow you to get on the right trajectory and benefit from compounding incremental improvements. 

Without a good action plan for professional goals, you might feel like you’re being pulled in different directions and not making significant progress in any of them. In fact, a meta-analysis of over 1,000 studies found that “setting high and specific goals is linked to increased task performance, persistence, and motivation, compared to vague or easy goals.”

That’s why defining your goals, creating a plan, and sticking to it brings results and helps you move faster in your career.

How to create an action plan for professional goals

Once you start thinking about work goals, it’s easy to brainstorm enough of them to last you a lifetime. But, contrary to our desires, having too many goals at once won’t accelerate your rate of improvement but slow it down. 

To identify goals you really want to make progress towards, use a popular goal formula, such as SMART:

  • Specific. Avoid any ambiguity and possible misinterpretation in your goal statement (e.g. write a blog post vs. get better at writing). 
  • Measurable. Mention how you are going to track your progress (e.g. visits to the website). 
  • Achievable. Setting goals you know you can’t achieve will result in a 100% failure rate (e.g. find 30 leads a month, up from 10 vs. 100 leads).
  • Relevant. The best goals have the potential to help you now, not a future version of yourself (e.g. increase monthly recurring revenue by 15% vs. annual revenue).
  • Time-bound. Deadlines help you focus and bring all the pieces together (e.g. within 30 days vs. in the near future).

When you have a list of goals ready, create a three-step action plan to achieve them: 

  1. Prioritize goals. Start with those that are most relevant to what you need to do now. 
  2. Identify the right resources. List everything that can help you move towards the goals you set out (e.g. tools, training, people, capital). 
  3. Focus on the gaps. Notice the difference between the resources you have and your goals. Your challenge is to leverage resources and make that gap disappear.

A few other tips to make achieving goals easier:

  • Make sure your goals don’t overlap (e.g. you don’t want to learn multiple foreign languages or musical instruments simultaneously). 
  • Emphasize consistency (e.g. a 10-minute daily practice is better than one hour every Sunday).
  • Provide a gradual increase in difficulty (e.g. practice public speaking in front of a mirror before recording yourself with a camera). 

Every plan, however, starts at the goal level. Knowing the key principles of professional goal setting will help you pick the right objectives and propel your career forward at the pace that you want.  

Types of professional goals

There are two main types of work goals that you should be thinking about: performance goals and development goals. 

Performance goals reflect specific outcomes that your organization (or team) wants you to achieve, or that you feel will help you get recognition at work. They tend to be measurable and short-term. 

An example of a professional goal statement that relates to performance is “sell 1,000 products this month.” Even though the statement is short, it contains all the key bits of information you need to spring into action. Notice that your performance goal doesn’t have to explain how you need to do something. You’ll figure out the best strategy as you go. 

Development goals promote self-improvement, such as acquiring new skills and exploring other domains. They can be inspired by others or self-initiated. Unlike performance goals, which are specific, development goals tend to be more broad, long-term, and not have a defined result. 

Common examples of development goals are “to become a better writer” or “improve public speaking skills.” While you know you can work on these skills and get better at them, they are more akin to continuous learning rather than the “done and dusted” approach.

Professional goal examples

When you set goals, it’s important to frame them clearly. If you won’t remember what you mean two months later, completing the goal would be a problem. 

Note that good work goals will depend on your industry, profession, and vision for the future. In my experience, noticing the difference between where I am and where I want to be, and breaking down that gap into actionable steps is the best source of goals for professional improvement. For example:

  • Improve public speaking skills to present Q2 results at the company meeting in August. 
  • Spend 80% of work time in the state of flow.
  • Complete the intro-level machine-learning course from Stanford. 
  • Find a mentor to help me move into a leadership role.
  • Redesign the product signup page to get 1,000 trial users next month.

The closer your goals are able to follow the SMART pattern the easier it would be for you to come up with a plan, execute it, and succeed. 

Goal and action-setting

It’s easy to set professional goals based on your wants and needs. For example, you might imagine yourself presenting at the TED conference next year. 

However, it’s important to have all the foundations right before you start working on your goal. This might include:

  • Assessing your current skills.
  • Identifying your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Setting realistic targets.
  • Creating a step-by-step action plan.

Correlating your situation with your desired outcomes allows you to pick good work goals that are equally aspirational and achievable. 

Going back to the example above, what if you’ve never been invited to present your work publicly before? A more achievable set of goals could be:

  • Think of and create interesting presentations
  • Get on the circuit of local conferences
  • Start developing a professional network

Practicing these and other skills could bring you closer to getting a TED invitation down the road.

Another critical part of the process is frequent reviews and adjustments. Since professional goal setting happens before you start working and receiving feedback, you get a more realistic view about your goals well into the process.

Establish recurring checks on the way to your goals and make necessary adjustments based on the most up-to-date information.

Goal setting and tracking tools

Our discussion about goals can’t be complete without highlighting the best goal-tracking apps, and how they can keep you inspired and help you monitor your progress.

Diarly: Journal your progress

Diarly is an easy-to-use (and habit-forming) journaling app for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. You can use it to brainstorm ideas for professional goals, track your progress, and reflect on your growth. Diarly is encrypted to keep your notes safe, syncs across your devices, and allows you to break down goals into daily to-dos for effortless monitoring.

Diarly, а habit-forming journaling app

2Do: Never forget any task

2Do is a flexible task manager that lets you tackle projects of any size. You can create tasks, add subtasks and checklists, set reminders, and color-code categories for quick visual references. Everything in the app can be controlled with hotkeys, and all data always remains securely backed up and synced across devices.

2Do's task manager

Trello: All tasks in one place

Trello started the Kanban trend in project management software, where every task is turned into a card and moves across the board, through a series of labeled columns, such as To-Do, Doing, and Done. 

The flexibility of Trello allows you to move your tasks through different stages or label each column as its own goal and add and track tasks contained within it. Each task supports descriptions, deadlines, checklists, images, attachments, comments, and more.

trello task manager

MindNode: Flexible mind-mapping and brainstorming

MindNode is a mind-mapping app that makes it easy to crystallize ideas and see how a succession of to-dos or goals can lead you to where you want to be. The app does all the manual work for you, with automatic connections between thoughts, a beautiful interface, over 260 stickers, customizable fonts, and more. When done, you can share your mind map with others or send tasks to other to-do apps. 

MindNode mind mapping feature

Coach.me: Personalized habit tracking

Unlike other habit trackers, Coach.me combines a free tracking app with a paid personalized coaching service, which can take your goal-setting to a whole new level in terms of support and accountability. 

To start, get a step-by-step plan from your coach, add the habits you want to build, and set weekly targets. The app will automatically remind you to keep going and celebrate milestones!

Coach.me habit tracking

Be Focused: More productivity with fewer distractions

Be Focused is a timer that uses the Pomodoro technique. The app lives in your menu bar and helps you stay concentrated on the task at hand. Add all the tasks you need to do into the app and click play to activate the focus timer for 25 minutes (or set a custom interval). In adcdition, you can block distracting websites and track your task completion over time. Plus, use Be Focused on your iPhone when on the go.

Numerics: Bring all business metrics together

Numerics lets you track KPIs from all the business tools you use at once, no coding or manual integrations required. Just select the app you want to bring into Numerics and pick the correct metric for tracking. This way, you can create custom dashboards that show you everything from your new leads to MRR fluctuations.

Numerics business goals tracker

iMeetingX: Turn meeting notes into action

iMeetingX is the tool you need to prepare a meeting agenda, keep meetings on track, and be clear on the next actions. If your professional goals involve multiple people working together, iMeetingX will bring clarity, keep agendas, assign tasks, send invites, and more. This is a perfect example of all-you-can-do goal-setting software. 

meeting notes summarizer

Headway: Fill your day with actionable insights

Headway solves the problem of continuous learning on a busy schedule. Lack inspiration? Scroll through daily insights or listen to microlearning sessions from hundreds of best-selling non-fiction books and get that much-needed inspiration. Or dive into 15-min book summaries to learn something new every day. Headway keeps you motivated and makes it more likely for you to reach your goals.

Headway app book summarizing

Awesome Habits: Effortlessly make or break habits

Awesome Habits makes it clear that grand changes start with incremental steps, such as tracking your daily habits (whether you want to break negative ones or acquire some new skills). If you get 1% better on a daily basis, nothing will stand between you and your dreams. The app features a beautiful interface and keeps you motivated to complete goals through widgets and reminder notifications. 

Awesome Habits

What’s a good action plan for professional goals? 

As you can see, setting professional goals is nothing more than being aware of your current situation and using a systematic approach to break down everything you need to do into sizable chunks. This is where having access to high-quality software can help you. Try Diarly for journaling, 2Do for task management, MindNode for mind-mapping, Be Focused for tracking in Pomodoro-style, Numerics for dashboard monitoring, iMeetingX for collaborating, Headway for quick inspiration, and Awesome Habits for habit formation.

Best of all, the apps mentioned above are available to you at no cost for seven days. All you have to do is start a free Setapp trial. Setapp is a curated platform featuring more than 240 outstanding Mac and iOS apps to help you with any professional goal you can imagine. Explore the whole collection at no cost today and discover a few new favorites!

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