You've likely heard quite a lot about the importance of goal-setting before and the role it can play in your success. In fact, it seems that in modern society, we are constantly being encouraged to think about what target we need to hit next or milestone we want to achieve.

In life, prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve our goals is to ensure they're SMART - specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound. This is with good justification too as there are countless stories of successful people who followed this framework and are more than happy to share their "blueprint."

However, there is an inherent survivorship bias in this outlook. What often goes unnoticed is that there are many more people that had the same goal who didn't achieve it. In any interview process it would be fair to assume that every candidate wants to get the job but often there is only one person who succeeds. So if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then surely the goal can't be what differentiates the winners from the losers?

Unfortunately, an often overlooked part of the process is the science and strategy behind how to accomplish your goals, particularly when it comes to the early stages of your career. That’s what this guide is here to offer.

What is goal-setting?

Goal-setting is not simply about choosing the rewards you want to enjoy, but also the costs you are willing to pay in order to get there. While asking yourself  broader questions such as "what you want to achieve" or "what success looks like" will help you picture a final destination, it gives very little thought to the journey involved.

Having a goal is the easy part. Anyone can sit around and think about losing more weight, earning more money or getting their dream job but not everyone has the capacity to endure the work and pain it'll take to achieve those goals. Therefore, the real challenge is not determining if you want the result but if you are willing to accept the sacrifices required to achieve your goal. Essentially, do you want the mundane process that comes before the excitement and glory of the outcome?

As a graduate, it can be easy to sit around and think what job you could do or would like to do but it is an entirely different thing to accept the tradeoffs that come with getting it. The reality is everybody wants a great job but few people are willing to put the work in to actually get one.

How to set goals

  • Get laser-focused

What often looks like a problem of goal setting is actually a problem of goal selection. What we really need is not bigger and better goals, but better focus. In life, it's natural for goals to emerge and for us to get excited about new opportunities. This can often lead to what psychologists refer to as “goal competition" which suggests that one of the greatest barriers to achieving your goals is often the other goals you have.

For example, imagine you have five goals, one of which is to find a new job. In theory, you'd split your time proportionately between each goal and progress would be relatively linear for all five. However, given they are competing with one another for your time and attention, both finite resources, it's natural to have to reorganise your priorities to the goal or goals that are most important.

The well-worn excuses of "there aren't enough hours in the day" or "if only I had the time" is more indicative of someone who simply needs to focus more on their most important one or two goals than people who are actually time-poor.

  • Break it down

When talking about the idea of change, Desmond Tutu once said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” With that in mind, the next step is to map out a series of smaller and more attainable goals. Creating a habit of getting incremental wins is key to ensuring you gain and maintain momentum towards reaching your final goal.

However, it's absolutely crucial to choose these goals wisely. If you set a long-term goal of getting a new job, you may be tempted to create a micro-goal of getting one interview each week as typically the more interviews you do the greater your chances of a landing a job are. Unfortunately, the number of job interviews you get isn't really within your control. Unresponsive recruiters, hiring managers and a number of other factors affect the scheduling of interviews and sometimes there's nothing you can do.

Instead, you should look at other steps that you can take towards that objective that don’t depend on other people. Since having a relevant skillset and networking well are both keys to a successful job search (amongst many other things), you may want to set a micro-goal of spending an hour every week taking online courses or growing your professional network.

  • Implement a system

The systems you develop are what actually triggers progress. If your primary goal is to get a new job and you've broken that down into smaller and more achievable goals, the system you implement is where the rubber really hits the road.

One of the reasons people often fail to reach their goals is that they set up systems to override some of their more ingrained habits. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to harness your everyday behaviours to increase your odds of success, which can be done through the creation an environment where reaching your goals is easier to do.

For example, if your long-term goal is to be healthier, something as simple as drinking more water might be a smaller goal that would fall within that larger goal. The system you could implement is to leave a pint glass next to your bed every night so when you wake up in the morning, you have easy access to it.

Similarly, if your goal is to get a job, one of your smaller goals may be to up-skill by spending 30 minutes every morning doing online courses or certifications. In order to give yourself the best chance of success, your system could be to set your workspace up the night before so you're ready to hit the ground running the following morning.

If you want to take this a step further, write them down physically or schedule the time into your calendar to do them. Research has shown that you are up to 3x more likely to stick to your goals if you utilise implementation intentions. These are specific plans for when, where, and how you will perform the behaviour(s) that will help you get towards your goal. An example would look something like this:

  • "On Monday morning at 10am, I will spend an hour reformatting my CV."
  • "On Tuesday afternoon after my lunch, I will spend 30 minutes connecting with people at companies of interest to me to arrange informational interviews."
  • "On Wednesday evening, I will spend two hours researching companies in my industry that are currently hiring."

Conclusion

Looking for a new job can often feel like a full-time role itself and it's not uncommon to grow weary of the process. While goals are useful for setting the direction, systems are what actually leads to progress. In fact, the primary benefit of having a goal is that it tells you what sort of system you need to put in place. The system itself is what actually achieves the results.

Periodically, take some time to reevaluate both your short and long-term goals to see how you're tracking and don't be afraid to make changes to either as you go. Your needs will change over time and that's a good thing as you learn more about yourself and develop.


Ian from Gradguide

Gradguide is a career guidance mentorship and graduate recruitment network designed to help bridge the employment gap from college to technology company. We pair graduates with a mentor to help improve their CV & LinkedIn, upskill, find the right roles to apply for, prepare for interviews, and seek referrals to some of the world's leading tech companies.

If you, or someone you know, is a recent or soon-to-be graduate and would be interested in getting involved, you can apply to our next cohort here.