14 July, 2021
By Mike Simpson
Whether you’re new to the workforce or have already made serious strides in your field, you’ve likely heard that career planning is important for professional success. After all, having a strategy helps you stay focused and may make it easier to seize the right opportunities as they come along.
But figuring out how to plan your career is often easier said than done. This isn’t something you learn how to do in school, for one. For another, there’s a ton of advice telling you that career planning is critical, but not all of it actually tells you how to do it. Frustrating, right? We totally get it.
If you’re wondering, “What is career planning, and how can I use it to achieve professional success?” you’re in luck. We’re going to take a deep dive into that very topic. So, come with us as we explore the world of career planning.
Basics of Career Planning
Before we dig into the steps you can take to boost your career, let’s take a quick second and answer an important question: what is career planning?
In the simplest sense, career planning is a process where you figure out your short- and long-term professional goals. You reflect on where you are now and decide where you’d like to go. Then, you create a framework that outlines the journey between those two points.
Simple, right? In many ways, it is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy. In many cases, it involves a ton of honest reflection, ensuring you’re aligning your plan with your passions, interests, needs, and preferences. That can be challenging to do.
But even though it can be hard work, it’s a worthwhile venture. After all, people spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over the course of their lifetime. If you’re working full-time, that represents over 43 years of your life.
Think about that for a second. If you had the choice of creating a career that made you happy for 43 years of your life instead of bouncing between dissatisfying roles, wouldn’t you rather be happy? Who wouldn’t?
Plus, people who have formal goals are ten times more successful than those that don’t. Talk about potential.
With career planning, you increase your odds of heading down a road you’ll largely enjoy and excelling as you do. That’s why it’s important.
Another thing we need to point out is that career planning and career development aren’t the same things. Career planning is more about the roadmap. It’s about outlining the path that gets you where you want to be.
Usually, every career can head in a multitude of directions. With a career plan, you choose where you want to go from your available options, allowing you to figure out what it takes to get there. You’re setting goals, giving yourself some direction to guide you as you move up in your field.
With career development, you usually focus on boosting your skills in a way that lets you get to the next level. It’s the more action-oriented part of the equation. You aren’t just identifying opportunities; you’re seizing them.
Generally speaking, career planning and career development are two parts of a larger whole. When taken together, you can make meaningful progress toward your goals. In the end, that’s really what it’s all about.
Career Planning Mistakes
As with all things career, it’s possible to make career planning mistakes. And certain missteps can be a surprisingly huge deal.
One of the biggest career planning mistakes is being too vague. For example, a goal like “I want to make a ton of money” isn’t really giving you much direction. Neither is “I want to help people” nor “I want to excel professionally.”
When it comes to goal-setting, specificity is your friend. It gives you a clearer roadmap to follow. That’s why you really need to drill down as you define your objectives.
Second, being too optimistic or challenging doesn’t work in your favor. Yes, you do want to push yourself and keep things positive. However, you also need to be realistic.
Consider what’s reasonable to accomplish in a certain amount of time. If you want to aim a tiny bit above that, that’s okay, as it could motivate you to really focus. Just make sure you aren’t trying to accomplish the impossible, as that could actually demotivate you.
Finally, not viewing career planning as an ongoing process is a big misstep. While you may understand your goals now, that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future. Maybe something new will enter your field that would be a better fit? Perhaps you’ll get an unexpected opportunity that you didn’t think of before?
Remaining agile is a must. That way, you can adapt over time.
Step-by-Step Career Planning
1. Reflect on Where You Are
You can’t make a career plan without taking a good, hard, honest look at where you are right now.
Spend time reflecting on your strengths and weakness. Figure out your needs and preferences. Define your values. Consider what you are and aren’t willing to do to move forward, such as whether you’d be open to going back to school or taking a lower-paying job if it helped you build crucial skills.
Honesty really is the key. That way, you can be realistic about where you are and genuinely understand what you want.
2. Investigate Career Options
This step is all about figuring out where you want to go. Take a deep dive into fields that interest you. Identify jobs that you’d find engaging, that align with your passions, and have the right amount of potential. Then, dig deeper.
Not sure how to dig deeper? Luckily, there are plenty of options. Internships, volunteer positions, informational interviews, job shadowing, introductory college courses into subjects, stretch projects… those can all give you helpful information.
Your goal is to get a thorough understanding of what a career path entails. Along the way, try to answer a few key questions. Does it offer financial stability, or is it more erratic? Are professionals in that field in demand? Would the job duties make you happy? Would you need to relocate? Do you have to go back to school?
Every detail is an important part of the equation, so gather up as much information as possible along the way.
3. Narrow Down Your List
As you investigate career options, you can start narrowing down the list. If something doesn’t seem like a fit, cross it off. If something feels like it has real potential, keep it on the list.
When your list gets shorter, examine it to see if any one option stands out. If so, that may need to be your primary goal.
If you have a few stellar choices on the table, see if they have anything in common. Some career paths are pretty close to one another, and have similar foundations when it comes to skills and the like. So, you may be able to keep several jobs in sight for now and focus on one later.
4. Define Individual Short- and Long-Term Goals
Now that you have a target, it’s time to break down the steps you’ll need to do to make that goal a reality. How do you do that? By defining short- and long-term goals that get you where you want to go.
Sometimes, it’s actually easier to work backward. Look at the position you want at the end of your career. Look at its requirements and identify the job you need to hold right before you would be eligible for that one. Then, keep moving backward until you get to where you are today.
When you spot a job that requires skills or education you don’t have, make a note of it. Figure out where on the roadmap you’d need to acquire that capability, degree, or certification. That way, you can insert it as a separate goal on your broader path.
Your main goal here is to identify all of the steps you need to take. That way, you have a functional roadmap.
5. Create a Timeline
Now that you have your roadmap, it’s time to add an important detail: Time. By figuring out when you want to finish each step, you craft a timeline for your career.
Research can be your ally here. Look up the average time it takes to finish your degree, factoring in whether you’ll be going to school only or handling other responsibilities – like working – while you’re attending. Explore minimum experience requirements for the different jobs on the path to estimate how long you’ll need to be in a particular role before you’re likely eligible to move up.
By doing this, you can outline exactly when certain goals will be achieved. Plus, seeing a hard deadline can be motivating, giving you the focus you need to work the plan.
6. Seize a Skill-Boosting Opportunity
If step one of your career plan is to acquire a new skill, a degree, or more training, look for an appropriate skill-boosting opportunity. Sign up for that class, reach out to a colleague who can show you the way, or start studying on your own. Get moving on it right away, putting your initial plan into action quickly so that you don’t lose momentum.
7. Update Your Resume
If the first step on your career path is a new job, and you have the skills to land it now, your next step needs to be updating your resume. Use the Tailoring Method to focus your application on the position you want to score. That way, you can launch your job search with greater ease.
8. Excel at Work
While you may have your sights set on the future, don’t ignore the present. As you move through your career, there’s one thing you’ll always need: great references. If you stop trying to excel in your current role, you won’t have any.
Plus, your job is a resource. You can learn new skills, take on more responsibilities, and strengthen your network. Don’t ignore the power of being exceptional on the job. Often, it makes a real difference.
9. Track Your Achievements
As you’re working, take notes every time you have an accomplishment. After all, you want to be able to talk about your awesome achievements on your resume and during an interview. By keeping a record, you can refresh your memory about what you’ve pulled off, ensuring you can position yourself as a great candidate as you work to move up.
10. Rinse and Repeat
As mentioned above, career planning is an ongoing process. Every year – or every time you make a step forward or encounter a unique opportunity – repeat the whole process.
In many cases, going through it again takes less time, as you already have a strong foundation. Plus, it’s incredibly important for long-term agility, letting you keep everything on track as your goals evolve and change.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, career planning is an excellent tool. It helps you get from where you are to where you want to be. That’s good stuff. Make career planning a regular thing, ensuring you can stay on target or adjust your path when the need arises. In the end, that’s the key to long-term success. You’ll be agile and open, allowing you to move forward with intention instead of relying on chance.
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