How to Set Goals at Work to Be Your Best Self

UPDATED: March 7, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 7, 2024
Woman at her work desk with sticky notes on the wall behind her because she's learning how to set goals at work

Setting goals at work can help you stay motivated and achieve personal and professional growth. Many people are familiar with setting personal goals. However, setting professional goals is slightly different, and learning how to set goals for yourself at work can take practice. 

Below, we look at how setting the right professional goals can help you get ahead and offer suggestions to maximize your time at work.

Understanding personal vs. professional goals

Setting personal goals can be a great way to help you achieve long-term progress on things that are important to you. Personal goals can also be an excellent way to handle a difficult situation or gain a little control when things feel chaotic

Professional goals, however, need to be more intentional and have a purpose beyond personal fulfillment. Instead of doing something just because you are interested in the topic, a work goal should help you progress in your career. It may be filling a gap in your company’s skill set or developing an area of weakness pointed out in a performance review.

Understanding the differences between the two and using them effectively can make a big difference when trying to get ahead in the workplace. 

The right goals at work can help you get promoted 

Setting yourself up for success takes forethought and good planning. When setting goals at work, be strategic about what you hope to gain from your effort. While acquiring new skills is admirable, if your company doesn’t need that skill set, it won’t help you get far. 

Pyramid of Success offer

One of the best ways to know what kind of goal to set is to identify a problem in your workplace and determine what skills it will take to solve it. While you may not be able to fix systemic issues on your own, reflecting on the skills needed to solve a problem can clue you in to the type of skills to pursue.

Once you identify the skills you need, you can begin setting goals to help you fix the issue. Use a goal-setting method like SMART, HARD or FAST goals to help you make specific, actionable progress.

Personal work goals vs. performance review goals 

It’s important to remember there are some differences between the personal work goals you set for yourself and those that are part of your performance review. 

Goals received in a performance evaluation should be part of a broader discussion and have frequent progress updates. Work with your manager to develop specific goals based on goal-setting theory so that you are on the same page about what you need to accomplish and what success looks like. 

If you use personal goal setting at work and it’s not tied to a performance review or formal discussion with your manager, you’ll need to decide how much you will share with management and when. 

Looping your supervisor into your progress can be a great way to communicate your willingness to help your company succeed. However, if you don’t achieve the goal or don’t achieve it fast enough, it could be detrimental to your career.

Not all goals need to be about getting ahead 

It can be easy to get sucked into the idea that all of your goals have to be about getting ahead or producing results. Some goals can (and should!) be about your well-being instead of reaching the next level in your career. 

Spend time setting intentional goals for yourself that focus on your mental health and work-life balance, not just your productivity. These might be logging off by a specific time each evening, turning off work notifications over the weekend or even going for a walk on your lunch break every day. 

Just like with any objective, try to focus on one small step at a time to help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. Set actionable and measurable goals (preferably with a deadline) to help you succeed.

Five goals to consider setting at work

While there are any number of goals you can set for yourself, consider the following to help you be your best at work. 

1. Don’t work on days off 

While being dedicated to the job is admirable, everyone needs to unplug now and again. Taking time off can help you reset, allowing you to return to work, recharged and ready for the week ahead. 

How to do it: 

  • Before you leave for a long weekend or a vacation, set your away message on your phone and email and turn off notifications from Slack or Teams on your devices. 
  • Coordinate with your coworkers to hand off any projects needing attention.
  • Set an email notification letting people know you are unavailable over the weekend and will respond when you’re back in the office on Monday. 

2. Improve your soft skills 

Soft skills can be hard to identify and measure, but they can be the secret to getting ahead at work. It’s not easy to know if you’re making progress on soft skills, so stop and reflect on what success looks like for you so you know where you’re headed.

How to do it:

Identify the areas where you need to improve in various spaces like:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Time management
  • Project management
  • Problem-solving
  • Adaptability and flexibility

Once you’ve identified the areas needing improvement, create an action plan to help you take steps forward. To achieve this work goal, consider taking a class, finding a mentor, or seeking opportunities to practice in the areas you want to progress.

3. Look up from your screen

While screens are a daily part of life for most of us, taking periodic breaks is a good idea. Build time into your work day to look up from your screen and give your eyes, neck muscles and brain a break (do this multiple times daily!). 

How to do it: 

  • Set reminders in your calendar or phone to take a five-minute break and look up from your screen.
  • Step outside or move toward a window for some sunlight and look into the distance to stretch your eye muscles. 
  • Gently stretch your neck, shoulders, arms and wrists to loosen up before you sit back down. 

4. Make time for creativity

While creative endeavors aren’t usually seen as a business skill, learning to apply innovative solutions to problems in the business world is a prized skill. While it might feel strange, you can learn to be creative.

How to do it: 

Start by making some quiet time to let your thoughts run free. If you currently have a problem you’re trying to solve, ask yourself what the perfect solution would look like and see if you can work backward to develop a step-by-step plan. If you aren’t currently dealing with a problem, reflect on previous issues and see if there were other ways to solve them. 

Outside work, you can achieve this goal by exploring hobbies like cooking, drawing, yoga or playing an instrument. Whatever creative outlet you choose, giving your brain the space to focus on a new challenge away from work can help you see patterns and solutions you might otherwise miss.

5. Learn new technical skills

Learning a new hard skill, like programming, finance or other industry-specific information, will help you stay up-to-date in your current position and potentially get ahead. 

How to do it: 

  • Read magazines, attend trade shows and take classes to help you stay aware of any new changes or developments. 
  • Take a class to learn a new technical skill, especially if you see a need for those skills in your company. 
  • Consider earning a certification or getting a formal degree in a specific skill like programming, which might lead to career advancement or new opportunities.

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