We’re coming up on the first week of the New Year, a common kick-off time for all sorts of projects. Maybe you want to lose weight, get a promotion or switch careers. Even when people share the same goal, different strategies will work for each person. Losing weight requires shedding 3,500 calories per pound. That equation doesn’t change. But the process for someone losing those last stubborn pounds versus someone just starting out is very different. Therefore, whatever your goal, start from where you are.
If you are new to this goal, spend your first month just practicing discipline – maintaining a routine, keeping appointments. For example, if your first month is about getting to the gym two times a week, don’t worry about what to do there. Just get to the gym two times a week faithfully. Go, even if it’s too late for the class you want and you end up standing in the lobby reading the fitness bulletin the whole time. Go, even if you end up coming right back. You are practicing the routine of getting there. Once that’s down, you can worry about what you do there.
If you are already good about sticking to a plan, make sure you have plans to stick to. It takes approximately 21 days to make a habit. What is your action step each 21-30 days? If month one is getting to the gym, is month two adding a nutrition piece to the exercise routine? Is month three adding additional exercise? What about months four, five, six, etc? You may have to adjust the plan if certain steps take longer or shorter than expected, but you should have some outline to follow.
If you are in the final stretch, your focus is to keep the momentum and avoid plateaus. If you have been working on a goal for a while, you might be on auto-pilot and not pushing yourself to the next level. Hire a trainer for one or two sessions to draft a new routine. Try a different area within the goal – e.g., meditation, stretching, a team sport. Perhaps you need to switch your goal for a few months. Of course, maintain what good exercise and nutrition habits you have this far, but focus the next few months on a finance or career goal. Do what you need to do to keep it fresh.
A PhD in molecular biology makes key venture capital contacts (and eventually lands a VC job) after tracking down a fellow PhD in molecular biology who is now a senior banker;
An art assistant lands an art director position at a national magazine, after regular contact with her former boss (now editor of this magazine) puts her in the right place at the right time;
A management consultant transitions into recruiting after a former colleague hires her into her search firm;
A little league basketball coach gets a job interview at one of his dream firms because it turns out he is coaching the son of a top executive there.
Many people make introductions, get promoted, or jumpstart career transitions because of networking – having the courage to meet new people and having the discipline to maintain familiar contacts. In most examples, however, the payoff is in the future. You can’t expect your first phone call to lead to a job. Often, networking leads to more and more networking, which eventually yields a success story. It takes persistence, commitment, and an upbeat attitude.
But it does work. So, keep in mind, wherever you are, you are surrounded by a potential network. Your classmates, your colleagues, your friends’ friends at that party could be your next employer, funder, client, mentor, or best friend. Keep yourself open to the possibilities of networking success.
Goals require the ability to both pace and sprint. Pacing is required because goals occur over time. You can’t lose 20 pounds in one day. You need to spread it out over weeks. Your tactics may include elements of diet and exercise, so your focus and energy needs to spread accordingly. But a sprinting mentality is also helpful. As you near the last 15 minutes of a difficult workout, it is helpful to have the drive to push yourself and the energy resources to match.
If proactive career management is a goal, pacing is required to build and properly maintain your network. You’ll be burned out and wear out your welcome if you try to solidify 100 contacts in a week. Pace yourself over the year, and it becomes just two lunches a week, with some time for phone and email correspondence in-between. At the same time, some career goals require a sprinter’s strategy. If you lose your job and need a new one quickly, you need to compress your activities in a short timeframe: increase your networking frequency; work longer at the computer to research industries and companies quickly; and hustle around the city on interviews and meetings.
Financial goals require both pacing and sprinting. Barring a one-time windfall, you need to pace your savings to build a nest egg. You also need to pace your withdrawals to ensure that your nest egg lasts. However, if there is opportunity to take on some overtime for extra money or if you have a large amount of debt to repay, you might adopt a sprinter’s focus. Work the extra hours for a short period of time or cut expenses dramatically in the short-term, in order to make immediate headway in your financial goal.
Therefore, as you outline your goals for the coming months or years, think about where you need to pace and where you need to sprint and allocate your time and energy accordingly. Knowing when to pace means you can conserve energy and be patient. Knowing when to sprint enables you to build on momentum and avoid plateaus.
Whatever your goal you need an outline to follow and a log of what happens to keep you accountable. You need to both budget and track. You are budgeting the time, money and energy you are dedicating to the goal. You are tracking how you actually end up using these resources and the results you get from these efforts. The budget helps you see if your plans are realistic and if you are using too much or too little of each of your resources. The tracking helps keep you honest so you can do more of what’s working and less of what isn’t.
For a job search, your time budget may cover research, networking, job interviews, mailings and follow-up. Your money budget may cover stationery, postage, interview wear, trade dues, and coaching. Your energy budget should plot out when you are at your peak (so you can do your meetings and calls then) and when you are not (so you can use this time for mailings or less demanding tasks). A journal or Excel spreadsheet can track your daily activities, sources of job leads and subsequent results. Be honest about how much targeted networking you are doing versus responding to blind ads. Maybe one feels safer than the other, but it may not be yielding the leads you need. Or, maybe your tracking will prove that you are doing just fine and affirm that you need to stick to it.
For a career change, your time budget needs to account for time spent on your current career (if you’re keeping it), as well as the specific activities for your transition (e.g., coaching, informational interviews). It is easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day and push off the transition work for a “less busy” time. Your money budget may be the cost of your transition activities or it may be the savings target you set to buy yourself some time off. Remember to budget your energy. If you are serious about switching careers, don’t use up all your energy at your current one. Finally, track every idea, suggestion, activity and result. Big changes take time. Without a system to track progress, you may think you are standing still and get discouraged when actually things are happening.
For other goals, remember that time, money and energy are your personal resources. Other resources include your space, equipment, family and friends. Track your progress and how you’re feeling. Note what you did each day towards your goal. Note any results and see if you can account for the source. Jot down ideas to try or unanswered questions to research.
There is no greater frustration than taking one approach towards your goal only to find that it doesn’t work. You diligently adhere to your plans but the strategy was wrong to begin with. One way to avoid this is to test your strategy by working backward from the goal. For example, if you wish to lose ten pounds, that’s 35,000 calories. If your strategy is to walk one mile each day and one mile at your current weight burns 100 calories, then you need 350 days or almost a year to hit your goal, provided that nothing else changes. If your metabolism slows or you eat more or differently, then you may not hit your goal. Your strategy may not be the right one at the outset. Fix it now – by identifying other activities to burn more calories or by incorporating dietary changes – to have a better chance of hitting your goal later.
If your goal is a new job, note that 15% or less of jobs are filled by advertising. Word-of-mouth or networking is the most effective method. If you don’t know where to start, work backward. What is your ideal job – what industry, company, department? Who do you know in that department? Who do you know in the company – they may be able to refer you to someone in the department? Who do you know in that industry – to get to the company to get to the department?
If your goal is a new career, work backward from your role models in that career. You can’t become them overnight, but they will tell you where to start. Find out the preceding jobs and the education background of top people in your dream career. This reveals what type of training and experience you may need. This saves you from going after degrees or jobs that aren’t necessary or helpful.
Save yourself from strategies doomed at the start by working backward from your goal to outline the necessary steps. The right strategy is just as important as execution.
We all get choices that take us in completely different directions: career in one industry v. another; entrepreneur v. employee; stay-at-home parent v. career outside the home. These decisions encompass so many variables that it is hard to consider each tradeoff on its own (i.e., compensation, career growth, work/life balance). Rather, these choices lead to other choices that can impact our entire lives. Instead of reviewing each option in light of what it offers now, imagine taking each option from start to finish. Write competing biographies based on each choice that you have, and choose the life you want.
WRITE ABOUT THE TRIALS YOU WILL FACE. If you are choosing between industries (e.g., journalism v. law), research each industry’s typical career path, growth trajectory, and professional requirements. Write a biography for yourself in each industry based on what is realistically required for what you want to achieve. Once you write down all the work that will go into each career, do you still want both of them? Which of these paths resonates with you? Which of these journeys do you want to take?
WRITE ABOUT THE UPSIDE AND THE DOWNSIDE. If you are thinking of starting your own business or taking a job, your biographies should include your business and your target career at its highest and lowest points. How do you feel when you “make it”? What do you lose when things don’t work out? Which of these risks do you want to take?
WRITE ABOUT THE LEGACY YOU WISH TO LEAVE. If you are conflicted about work/ life balance, write about what would happen if you took time off now or later or not at all. What is your ideal day in each scenario? What obstacles come in your way and how do you solve them? Do you have regrets? Which dreams do you want to pursue?
It is tempting to make a decision for its short-term value without considering the path it clears for us in the long term. If we make each decision for the short term, we risk combining a haphazard series of events, rather than crafting a life of meaning and purpose. If we write our biographies now, we write a roadmap for our future and make a conscious decision on where we go.
How has your career changed since last year? Where do you want to be by next year? If you don’t have a career plan in place, then you are choosing to let circumstances dictate your fate. But, if you’d rather choose more money, more growth, more freedom, more security or a combination of the above, then craft a plan now.
If you are happy in your current job, then your career plan may not include any major moves this year, but should include basic career maintenance. Check in with your manager to outline upcoming assignments and get feedback on developmental areas. Keep networking; check in with old friends and colleagues to wish them a happy new year. Work on your life outside of the job – solid finances, physical fitness, strong relationships, emotional fulfillment.
If you are unhappy in your current job, then plot a career transition plan. This could be changing jobs within the company, looking for a new employer or trying a new career. A new job/ career search can be a full-time job in itself, so be prepared to scale back on other activities while you balance your current job and future job/career search.
If you are unemployed, then you also need a career transition plan, but with different constraints. You may have more time to devote to your search, but you may have more time urgency and less money. This career plan needs to balance traditional job search strategies with strategies for getting through a job loss.
If the entrepreneurial bug has bitten, then you need a business plan. Do you want to build a company or freelance? What kind of company do you build – product or service, small or large, something to keep or a quick sell? Whether you have a job or not, moving into entrepreneurship requires a plan for researching your questions, starting the business, and growing it.
You are more productive when you take periodic breaks. Since the frenetic pace of office life today often means that well-intentioned breaks fall by the wayside, you need to proactively build in these office breaks:
MAKE PLANS FOR YOUR LUNCH HOUR. You are less likely to forget lunch or to work through lunch if you arrange to meet people or make other plans during your lunch. Obviously if your office culture requires working through lunch then you do it but more typically you can and should break away. If you feel guilty about leaving work, schedule networking lunches with colleagues and feel good knowing this is a “working” lunch.
BLOCK YOUR CALENDAR FOR CATCH-UP TIME. I block my Outlook calendar for the first two hours of Monday morning and the last two hours of Friday afternoon. Monday morning, I use that block to get through emails and orient my week. Friday afternoon, I review the important, but not urgent memos and emails that I saved throughout the week. This way, I don’t start and stop my work all week when these issues arise, knowing that I have Friday set aside.
RESERVE STRATEGY DAYS. Every month, I block my calendar for a whole day. I use that day to catch up on longer projects that have been set aside and can’t be done in my Friday blocks. I may end up taking that day off as a vacation day. Because I haven’t scheduled anything, I have an easy vacation option if I need some out-of-office time.
SCHEDULE TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES ON AN ANNUAL BASIS. Look up your company’s offerings, and sign up now as far in advance as you can. This way, you reserve your space in the class AND the space on your calendar. If you are self-employed, think of workshops or conferences you wish to attend, and reserve for these. Last resort, block off a few hours each month for Training, and read business books or trade magazines during this time. You need a break from the day-to-day and time to invest in your development.
PENCIL IN VACATIONS, DOCTOR APPOINTMENTS, AND OTHER PERSONAL COMMITMENTS. By scheduling in advance, you avoid double-booking or letting important events lapse or forgetting altogether. Don’t forget personal enrichment: Build in a lunch date with your significant other. Think of 6 friends you’d like to stay in touch with, and block a lunch a month for each.
OVERLAY THE SCHOOL CALENDAR. If you have school-age children, put their important events in your work calendar and plan accordingly. Now you know when you have to leave early or when you want to take a vacation or day off.
Venn diagrams are visual representations (in overlapping circles) of the commonalities among two or more categories. For example, one circle of red things might include tomatoes, and one circle of white things might include soap. The venn diagram of the two includes things that are both red and white, such as candy canes. When clarifying your mission – your life goals – you may think effectively of a venn diagram of what you want and what is attainable. You think $1 million because it’s high enough to fulfill your wish list but still real enough to imagine. But did $1 billion instinctively come to mind? If so, steer clear of your venn diagram and focus exclusively on that circle of what you want.
This doesn’t mean that your goal should be $1 billion. But that is a more accurate starting point than $1 million. If you focus just on what you think is attainable, you may underestimate. You may knock out some options entirely just because you can’t imagine them for yourself. Once you have $1 billion or whatever resonates in your gut as something you want, then you can start chiseling out steps to the goal.
Why do you want $1 billion? Is it to have certain things that this money can buy (e.g., travel, fine furnishings, a big house)? Try to isolate if there is something more specific than $1 billion. Perhaps that more specific item is what you want rather than the actual money. An item is frequently not your life’s goal, but at least you’re getting closer to how you really feel. Is the $1 billion supposed to buy freedom (e.g., time freedom to do as you please, financial freedom to live a certain lifestyle)? If the cash is buying a feeling (security) or a value (freedom) then this is another clue to your life’s mission.
To be successful, you need a mission that you can plan against. One tactic to find your mission is to identify why you want what you want. But to find the why, you first need to be honest about the what. This means steering clear of the venn diagram that overlaps what you want with what is possible. When carving a mission, everything is possible. Focus first on what you want.
My mother said to me, “If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general; if you become a monk, you’ll end up as the Pope.” Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso. – Pablo Picasso
Picasso stayed true to his passion and in so doing his very name became synonymous with being the top in his field. This quote is not only about striving to be the best. Picasso didn’t become a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo. He became his best self and made that mean quality. Therefore, we can both be our best and stay true to who we are.
Too often people focus their goals on changing themselves – thinner, richer, happier. However, it is really by knowing ourselves and strengthening what is already good about ourselves that we tap our best potential. If you’re prone to bad eating habits but disciplined about going to the gym, focus your strategy on exercise. Focus on what’s working, and let your confidence and expertise in that area propel your progress.
Instead many people focus on curing their weaknesses, and therefore try to activate the hardest part of the solution. While there is value to addressing developmental areas, harnessing one’s strengths yields powerful results often faster, easier, and more enjoyably than browbeating one’s weaknesses. Stay true to who you are, be the best of you, and let your best you achieve your goals.