Forget Goal Setting: Establish Career Checkpoints Instead


One of the most common suggestions given for anyone who needs or wants to accomplish something in their career is to set goals. The typical recommendation is to set short-term and long-term goals, with the purpose of setting specific deadlines. With goal setting people usually start out strong and with good intentions to reach for completion of those goals. Some will follow what they have mapped out while others may fail to even reach the short-term objective – and then the goals are abandoned. While goal setting can be effective there is another process that ensures more interactivity and involvement in the career development process. It is a strategy that uses checkpoints as the primary indicators of progress. This method encourages the development of a career plan that engages you and promotes ongoing personal and professional development.

Goal Setting Challenges

When a goal is established it defines specifically what needs to be done and usually with a short-range and long-range completion date. It is helpful from the perspective of clarifying the ideas a person holds about their career. However, one of the primary issues that I find as I work with my career coaching clients and students is setting unrealistic or unattainable goals – and not even being aware of it. Then there is a feeling of discouragement, usually accompanied by negative emotions, when those goals are not met or even when they are abandoned. Another problem is becoming fixated on the goal dates and ignoring other important priorities or taking shortcuts, along with accepting less than the desired results simply to meet a deadline. Another common challenge is not knowing how to set goals so that they are effective. For example, making the statement “I will do” is generally not enough. There is a popular goal setting method referred to as the SMART method and it is helpful to a certain extent if someone is willing to invest the time to use it correctly. However, there is a much simpler and potentially more effective method you could consider utilizing in its place.

Developing Career Plans

This should always be the first step whenever you are interested in the development of your career. Instead of going from one job to another, or responding reactively to the conditions or circumstances of your career, establish focus for the purpose of your job or career. This begins by defining what you want for your career, how you want your career to evolve, and what you are working towards with your current job. In other words, there is always something that you want for your career, even if it is to establish stability. Then instead of setting a goal develop a plan by stating: “I will start to work right now on” or “I plan to accomplish the following”. This allows you to begin your plan, try it out, self-assess your progress, and then make changes as needed. This puts the emphasis on what you’re doing instead of a specific deadline that you must meet.

Establishing Career Checkpoints

After you have established a plan for your career the next step is to review your current job and consider what you have learned from it that is relevant to the job itself and your future plans. From that point forward you can then establish your checkpoints, which are aligned to your career purpose. Checkpoints are reminders to keep working on your plan, while being proactive – instead of fixated and frustrated. Establish a monthly checkpoint for yourself if you want to make changes right away and put that plan into motion now. If you are content with where you are at right now in your job or your career then develop a quarterly checkpoint to ensure that you are still learning and your job is aligned with your plan. An important reminder is to make this more than a mental exercise if you are going to develop it as an effective strategy for your career. For example, write out your plan and your checkpoints. Then utilize technological tools of some kind to create reminders for yourself. The purpose is to keep your focus on what you’re doing with your career or current job.

Developing Follow Through

An important part of the checkpoint process is to be actively engaged in a process of self-reflection and self-assessment. This is a time to make adjustments and refine your plan as needed. As you examine each checkpoint consider if you are making progress, what you have learned, and what more you need to do. One strategy that I recommend is to use a journal to free write your thoughts, which is a form of focused thinking that even though it is unstructured in nature it can help to generate inspired ideas. As you work on your follow-up make it an enjoyable process rather than something you dread doing. If you can associate positive feelings with it you will be encouraged to maintain it as a work in progress, which will help you accomplish anything that is listed within your plan.

What you can also do to support your progress is to consider what you are focused on. For example, are you always looking at problems or issues in your present job? You will likely find that if you become solution focused and realize that you always have choices, your career plan will become a meaningful tool of professional and personal self-development. The internal dialogue that you establish for yourself can either support or derail your progress. It is natural to have questions at times, or even a negative thought; however, the challenge is not following it and focusing on it for an extended period of time so that it becomes a self-belief. You can always self-correct your habits of thought with practice and the right mindset.

By developing a supportive mindset of your own progress you will begin to view your career as something you are in control of and its evolution can be shaped by the proactive action you take. It can also be helpful to tell a colleague or friend about your checkpoints to gain their support. They can remind you about the plan you’ve established and help keep you motivated. It is also a method of helping you to think through what you are planning to do so that it is approached in a realistic manner. You may also find that reading motivational books can help you develop and retain a positive mindset. The point is to never give up your self-motivation or belief in what you are able to accomplish in your career. You have an ability to establish a meaningful purpose for your career through the development of a plan that is connected to your interests and checkpoints as a means of follow-through.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has a lifelong love of helping adults learn and providing guidance with professional self-development through his work as a college professor, trainer, career coach, and mentor.