BY ERIN EWART
February is sneaking up on us. Are you faithfully executing on all your New Year’s resolutions? Or do you have some ideas scribbled on a post-it note that you are semi-implementing and you know that you need to spend more time to actually plot them out? If you’re nodding at option #2, we have something in common!
As most of us have experienced, turning ideas into concrete action can be challenging. Many well-intentioned goals fall by the wayside when the rubber meets the road and life takes over, especially when they focus on the more complex areas of our lives, like our careers.
Recently I shared four questions to ask to give yourself a year end career review, and today I’m following up with some specific strategies and tools to help you take those reflections and make them actionable for the year ahead. Hopefully by now you’ve set aside some time with your beverage of choice to work through the four questions in my first post. If not, start there! Once you’re done with that, take the steps below to turn your reflections into actionable next steps you can implement in the year ahead.
1. Set three goals and break them down
Goals are tricky things. We need them in order to focus, spend our time strategically, and achieve the change we want to see. But they can be hard to define and even harder to implement.
Start by taking the reflections you outlined from the previous post (or those thoughts you’ve captured on sticky notes) and grouping them into areas or themes. What were the things you said you wanted to do differently this year, and what do they have in common? What were some of the more tactical ideas you brainstormed that you’d like to try out this year?
Once you have an initial list of themes or activities, work on fleshing them out into three SMART goals for the year. Why three? There’s lots of evidence that doing things in threes is our natural tendency – plus, trying to do more than that just piles on too much. You can always add more once you tackle these!
Once you have your three goals for the year, break them down into quarterly and monthly milestones. While it may feel a little like you are guessing (because you are to some extent – none of us have a crystal ball), it’s important to lay out some clear checkpoints that you can use to see if you’re on track. You’ll likely adjust these as you go, and that’s ok. The process of mapping them out is worthwhile in itself to help you think through the steps you need to take and a realistic timeline.
In particular with a job search, longer-term milestones may be more high-level, as they’ll be highly dependent on many factors including the time you put in, when the right opportunities open up, etc. That said, you should get as granular and specific as you can with your monthly milestones for the next three months and continue to have a rolling three-month plan as you go (the rule of three again!).
As you’re setting those monthly goals, make sure you’re quantifying them so you’ll know if you achieved them, and try to focus on what you can control, for example how many networking meetings you’re having vs. how many interviews you get. The second is out of your immediate control, but if you’re putting in the time and meeting enough people, the interviews will follow.
Here’s an example of what this could look like:
Big goal: to receive an offer for a new job at the Director level by September
- Quarter 1: do all prep work to launch active search by the end of March
- Quarter 2: in active discussions or interviews with 2-3 relevant organizations by the end of June
- Quarter 3: offer for new role by end of September
Monthly goals for the upcoming quarter:
- January: spend 3-4 hours a week to complete career reflection exercises, research potential organizations and roles, and update resume and LinkedIn profile
- February: create list of 10 target organizations and 15-20 networking contacts and get in touch with at least 50% of them to set up meetings
- March: conduct at least 10 networking meetings and attend 2-3 industry events
2. Block out time to work on your goals and track what you do
Once you’ve broken down your goals, think about how much time you can commit to working on them each week. For job searchers, my guideline is a minimum of 3-5 hours per week if you are currently employed and 15-20 hours a week if you aren’t. While that can feel like a lot, remember that there are 168 hours in week. If you spend 56 sleeping and 50 working, that still leaves you with 62 hours of additional time each week.
Whatever your availability, be thoughtful and realistic about how much time you can put toward your goals, and then block that time out in your calendar. Think about when you are at your best (hint: for most of us, that’s in the morning, NOT after a long day at the office) and make sure you’re using that time. I have never been a morning person, but now I get up most days around six to get some work done, because I’m just too exhausted in the evenings. You know your own energy levels best, but I can probably speak for a lot of us when I say my morning self has lots of ambitious goals that my afternoon and evening self often don’t get around to, so I recommend that you harness that morning self to GSD.
Once you’ve blocked out times, break down your weekly time commitment into specific tasks and determine how much time you’ll spend on each. To use the monthly goal for January above, if you had five hours a week, that might break down like this:
January Goal: spend 3-5 hours a week to complete career reflection exercises, research potential organizations and roles, and update resume and LinkedIn profile
Time Breakdown: 5 hours per week
- Career reading and reflection exercises – 1 hour
- Map out work accomplishments – 1 hour
- Update resume or LinkedIn – 1 hour
- Review job alerts and descriptions – 1 hour
- Research organizations and contacts – .5 hours
- Post an article on LinkedIn and add 3-5 new connections – .5 hours
Finally, once you commit to this plan, try tracking your time with a tool like Toggl to see if what you estimated is realistic. There’s nothing that will keep you honest like actually setting a timer while you’re working. It makes you much more conscious of those “quick” social media or email breaks and can be very revealing to see how much time you’re spending on different tasks vs. what you anticipated. As mentioned above, we have more free time than we think, but we often aren’t very conscious or aware of how we use it, and time tracking is a very revealing way to understand where our time is going.
3. Use systems and tools that work for you to stay organized
I always say that a job search is just like any other project: you need a plan and good systems to track your goals, progress, and the information you’re collecting along the way, like who you’ve talked to, organizations you’re targeting, and jobs you’re interested in.
Here are the tools I most often recommend for job seekers, which are relevant for other types of goals and projects as well:
Project planning/tracking: a simple Excel or Google sheet works just fine as a project planning and tracking tool. Start different tabs for different types of information (goals, networking outreach, job postings, etc.) and make sure you’re faithfully updating it and using it as your primary system for tracking. If you want something with more bells and whistles, try the free version of project management systems like Trello or Asana.
Note capture: if you’re job searching you’re going to be doing a lot of networking, and it’s important to have a central place to capture notes from those conversations in addition to listing them in your tracker. I like online apps like Evernote or Google Docs for this, since you can access them from anywhere; you could also try out a free CRM like Streak that integrates with Gmail. Make sure you’re also saving copies of job descriptions that interest you in a central location for future reference, as organizations will remove them once they expire and the links you save will no longer work after that.
Email management: you’ll be doing a ton of email outreach when you’re job searching, and it’s easy for that to get out of hand quickly. You don’t want to miss following up with an important contact, so having a good reminder system in place is critical. Boomerang is a great tool that integrates with Gmail and allows you to delay sending emails, set reminders to follow up, and even see when your message has been opened.
Regardless of what tools and systems you decide to use, the most important thing is to find the ones that work well for you. Having a fancier system isn’t better if you’re not going to use it.
4. Set aside time to review how you’re doing
This piece is really important and is one of the reasons that even well-planned goals fall by the wayside as the year progresses. We start out with great intentions, but work and life get in the way. As with most things, putting structures in place can help with this. Aim to set aside about 30 minutes each week, 1 hour each month, and 1-2 hours each quarter to reflect on your goals, how you’re progressing, and anything that needs to change.
During this time, check in on the quarterly and monthly milestones and goals you set, and adjust them as needed. If you aren’t where you planned to be, try to get to the root of why, and what needs to change. Also take some time to think about whether those three big goals you set for yourself for the year are still the right ones – things change, and our goals can too.
This time is also a great opportunity to note down your successes and accomplishments as well as lessons learned, and to make updates to your resume and LinkedIn profile. Even if you’re not actively job searching, regularly keeping these materials up to date is much easier than trying to do it all at once when you decide to look for a new role, and will ensure that you’re ready if a great opportunity pops up.
5. Find accountability partners
I can’t emphasize this one enough. In fact, this is probably the most important thing you can do of all the items on this list. The job search process is emotionally draining and can be very isolating, and it’s important to surround yourself with support.
Having an accountability partner has been shown to increase your odds of achieving your goal by up to 95%. It’s why people get personal trainers and hire coaches, and it’s one of the primary reasons I decided to start a group coaching program. And while a coach can certainly be a great accountability partner, I always encourage my clients to find other people in their lives who can also play this role.
If your goals relate to your current position, this might be your manager or a peer on your team or in another part of the organization. If you’re job searching, other people who are also going through the process make fantastic accountability partners. Family members can certainly provide support, but it’s ideal to find someone who’s not so closely tied to the outcome and can be more objective.
If you don’t have any friends who are in the same boat, find job search meetup groups in your area, ask other job searchers you meet at networking events if they’d be interested in starting an accountability group, or use apps like Shapr to meet others who share your interests.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that setting and achieving goals is a challenging process, and one that I continue to work on myself. I encourage you to find a balance between setting ambitious goals and putting good structures in place, and being flexible as you navigate unexpected twists and turns – life happens!
If you find that you’re slipping off track, don’t beat yourself up but do dig in to what is keeping you from making the progress you’d like and identify some small steps you can take to get heading back in the right direction.
Like many areas of life, setting and achieving goals is something we can all constantly get better at, and I hope that these tips help you do just that! If there are other strategies or tools you’ve used and found effective, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.