It's easy to meander through life. One moment you're a bright 20-something with opportunities galore. The next you're a miserable 40-year-old, crying into your coffee, working the same dead-end job you had at 30. If you want to avoid drifting, you must determine career goals earlier, rather than later, in life. With clear targets in mind, you can stay on track for success.
Set aside time -- at least a couple of hours -- to start the process. Determining your career goals isn't something you can do in five minutes while watching TV. It can involve serious self-examination, as well as consultation with mentors and advisers. To start the process right, you need enough time to quietly concentrate, consult and do research. After all, it is the rest of your life you're planning.
Visualize where you want to be in a set number of years. Don't just say "rich" or "happy." What would be your dream situation in five years time? For example, you could say: "I want to be respected in the field of interior design, on the way to being an expert. I want a job where I can keep learning, that pays enough money to allow me to afford a three-bedroom house in a nice area. I don't want the job to swallow up all my free time, but I do need something challenging." Take note of any qualifications or specific skills you would need to reach this career goal.
Write down a list of your main strengths. The California Board of Equalization suggests picking out skills developed in jobs, hobbies and education. For instance, if your weekend skydiving trips have given you nerves of steel, put down that you're calm under pressure.
Use a personality or aptitude testing tool, such as the Myers-Briggs test, to find out more about your strengths and weaknesses. These give you general feedback on your personality type, which may help you to identify roles that match your skills and abilities.
Match your skills to the qualities needed for your dream career role. You may find this revealing. For example, if your main skills are in language and writing, but you are sure that your dream career focuses on math, you might need to start retraining.
Look at the areas where you're weakest or lack qualifications and work out how you can take steps to improve. For example, if you need a degree for your dream role, plan how to get an appropriate degree in the next few years.
Get SMART. This acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based. It's a tested method for determining career goals. In a nutshell, it means taking the "dreaming" out of your career planning, and replacing it with concrete steps. For example, if your career goal is to work in marketing, make this more specific by saying, "My goal is to work as a marketing manager at a mid-size American brand based in New York, leading a team of 15 to 20 people, with a focus on Internet marketing, in five years. "
Set a number of targets to reach along the way to your career goal. This keeps you on the road-map to success. Think of your journey as a series of small steps, not one large leap. For example, you won't become a website designer tomorrow with zero experience. But, if you spend two hours a day for the next week learning HTML code, then two hours a day the week after that learning how to use graphics software, and continue to add and practice skills like this for a year, you'll find that little steps lead to big results.
- Try to fit things you really love doing into your career plans. For example, if you love working with children, then perhaps being a teacher is your true calling. The more you enjoy something, the more likely you are to put in the effort needed to succeed.
- Speak to people who have achieved goals similar to yours. Ask them for advice and guidance. Many will be happy to offer help. You may even find someone who will act as a career mentor.
- Avoid totally unrealistic targets. Ambition is good -- but saying you want to be walking on the moon in three years is a path to disappointment.
Based near London, U.K., Peter Mitchell has been a journalist and copywriter for over eight years. Credits include stories for "The Guardian" and the BBC. Mitchell is an experienced player and coach for basketball and soccer teams, and has written articles on nutrition, health and fitness. He has a First Class Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) from Bristol University.