The way we work has changed massively over the years. Very few people now work in the same job for 40 years or more - and some don't even stay on a single career path. But just what do we mean when we talk about jobs vs. careers? And how can short-term goals improve your long-term career prospects?
First of all, let's understand the difference between a job and a career:
- A job is a single position of employment. It usually doesn't change much over time. When you change job, you'll normally sign a new contract of employment with a new employer.
- A career is all the work you do in a particular industry or sector. You might go through several different jobs within the same field, or be promoted to more senior positions with the same employer.
A job sometimes doesn't give you many options to progress. For example, you might not have any chance to be promoted unless someone more senior than you leaves the company.
Because of this, when we talk about long-term ambitions in employment, we are often referring to our career, rather than our current job.
Progressing in a career opens up more opportunities - a chance to work for different employers, in different roles, and find what you are best at.
To do this, it's useful to set short-term goals so that over time, you work towards your long-term ambitions and give yourself the best possible career prospects.
To give a short summary, here are 10 short goals to help improve your long term career prospects:
- Communication skills
- Voluteer work
- Ask for help
- Instant wins
- Limit distractions
- Salary goals
- Contract work
- "Where do you see yourself?"
What does 'career prospects' mean?
'Career prospects' relates to your chances of succeeding in your chosen career. That can include everything from landing your first job in a new discipline, to gaining the experience and knowledge you'll need to be considered for a board-level position down the line.
There are a few different ways to think about career prospects:
- As a personal goal, to develop your skills and expertise and become the best employee you can be.
- As a competitive attribute, to make sure you are the best candidate when applying for the most sought-after jobs.
- As a mathematical concept, to boost your probability of gaining and keeping employment, being promoted, and earning the maximum income.
In a competitive jobs market, career prospects have more significance for getting the jobs you want and remaining in employment for longer.
In a less competitive climate, you might focus more on the personal aspects of career prospects, such as taking the opportunity to flesh out your CV with relevant training and qualifications, while you decide what you would like to do next.
Not everybody sets conscious goals for their career prospects, either over the short term or over the long term - sometimes you might be content just to enjoy your job for a while before you start to plan your next move.
But remember your career is finite in length. Even if you stay in employment for 50 years or more, the jobs you get later in life will depend in part on the decisions you make early in your career, and throughout your time in work.
How to improve your career prospects
At any stage in your career, there are some things you can do to improve your prospects. Some are short-term gains, while others work towards improving your skills, experience and qualifications over the long term.
1. Communication skills
Effective communication is at the heart of good teamwork, strong leadership, and can also serve you well in job interviews. If you sometimes feel like you struggle to express yourself clearly, consider investing some time, effort and money into improving your communication skills.
There's plenty of coaching and training courses available to help you do this. Some may have a particular focus, such as spoken word, written communication, or different settings like job interviews and boardroom communication. Choose something that is most relevant to you right now for the fastest gains, to get your career back on track as soon as possible.
Networking - where you meet like-minded individuals within your industry or from up and down your supply chain - gives you a better idea of how others in your chosen field are thinking at any one time. It can also give you an in-road to set up new business deals or identify opportunities when you're thinking of switching jobs.
Over the course of a lifelong (or at least decades-long) career, the time you invest into networking can reap dividends as each short-term opportunity adds up to a steeper career trajectory over the long term.
3. Volunteer work
Nobody is suggesting you must work for free in order to have a successful career; however, relevant volunteer work can look good on your CV the next time you apply for a job, and can help you to secure a more competitive position.
If you have spare time in your schedule, think about how you want to spend it. Hobbies are an important part of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, but just a few hours each week helping out a worthy cause could give you a new perspective on your own career, along with something recent and relevant to put on your CV if your main career path has been stagnant for some time.
This might sound like an abstract goal, but improving your productivity at any one time can contribute towards a more productive career overall. Some of the techniques in this area are easier said than done - for example, avoiding procrastination and finishing one task before moving on to the next.
Productivity is a combination of personal discipline, motivation and time management, as well as focusing your efforts on the most rewarding projects at any one time. If you find you struggle frequently with keeping your focus, consider attending a training course on business psychology or reading a reputable self-help book.
5. Ask for Help
Don't be afraid to ask for help from the people around you. That might include colleagues, managers, friends and family - the people who you spend most of your time with, and who are most likely to know what your shortcomings are. Be humble and welcome honesty, especially if it is your own ego that is holding you back in your career.
If your current workplace offers an evaluation process, engage fully with it and try to act on the priorities it recommends, especially if they have clear benefits for your future career. If you're not due for an evaluation yet, ask your manager if you can have one. Explain that you are not expecting a pay rise, but that you would like to set some short-term goals to do better in your job, and need to know where to focus your attention.
Why are short term goals important for career prospects?
Short-term goals allow you to target specific parts of your career prospects. If you're going to work in the same career for 40-50 years or more, short-term goals are a way to break your progress down into manageable chunks.
They can also help you to identify areas of personal development that you might otherwise miss. That could mean retraining to gain a specific skill you need to progress, or spotting the parts of your current job that leave you feeling cold and dissatisfied.
You can think of each short-term goal as a single rung on your career ladder. Some of them will help you to reach higher. Others may broaden your career prospects into new areas related to your current discipline. Some may simply make you feel happier in your existing role.
Nobody can tell you which short-term goals are the most important for you. It's a personal decision based on what you want to achieve in your career - for many people that's more money, but you might also want more autonomy, less stress or better promotion prospects.
Whatever you choose to target, make it manageable. 'Short-term' could mean anything from a training course that lasts just a few days, to a goal that will take you over a year to complete, but you should have a clear idea of how you're going to get there.
What short term goals can improve my career prospects?
Short-term goals are, by definition, quick wins. Individually they are unlikely to change your world in a noticeable way, but together they can add up to significant career success. You can even mix in some personal goals.
For example, we mentioned volunteer work earlier. While that takes place outside of your normal working life, it can boost your self-esteem, self-discipline and motivation, as well as looking good on your CV, all of which transfers the short-term benefits from your personal life on to your long-term career prospects.
6. Instant wins
You might find there are some 'instant wins' that will improve your productivity or your mental state during your working day. These can be quite simple - cutting out caffeine just before bed, or making sure you drink enough water throughout the day. Don't underestimate the value of a new alarm clock, if you have trouble getting to work on time.
Short-term goals can range from the basic to the ambitious, but taking care of the little things first allows you to build some momentum so that you feel the immediate benefits of the changes you make - and that can stand you in good stead as you start to think about the decades still to come.
7. Limit distractions
The modern world has far too many different information streams for most people to cope with simultaneously. One solution is to limit the amount of information you are exposed to at any one time. Install an app or browser extension to block distracting websites - such as personal social media accounts and entertainment news sites - during the hours when you want to focus on work.
You can streamline your physical space, too. Clear your desk of clutter and distracting objects. Learn how to activate the 'Do Not Disturb' setting on your phone - you can usually set it to activate automatically on a schedule, so you don't have to remember to do it manually each day. Clutter in all its forms can add to stress levels, so keep things clear, clean and simple, and let your mind focus on the task at hand until it's completed.
8. Salary goals
Many people are motivated by money, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact you can use it to your advantage when considering your next career move. Speak to your recruiter about salary levels in your sector and how you can realistically 'level up' in your next role.
The answer could be an underserved skill that you can gain by taking a short training course, which gives you the competitive edge to walk into your next role at a substantially higher salary. This in turn can carry forwards into future jobs, leading to a much higher compound income over the course of your career as a whole.
9. Contract work
If you've only ever considered the long-term security of a permanent job, ask yourself whether contract work might be more rewarding, especially at times when the job market is relatively stable and you can be confident of finding more work once your initial contract expires.
Contract work gives you the chance to experience different companies and cultures in a relatively short space of time, supporting your short-term goals while filling out your CV with a succession of relevant appointments. As your career progresses, contract work gets even more lucrative, with interim executive roles often paying highly for your expertise.
10. Where do you see yourself...?
It's one of the interview cliche questions many people dread, but "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?" is a question you should ask yourself from time to time. It doesn't have to be five years - it could be one, three or ten, or any other number - but by asking yourself this, you set a crucial end point for any short-term goals.
By defining an end point, you can keep yourself motivated and disciplined (and avoid harmful procrastination) so that even if you find it difficult to stick to a long-term career trajectory, you can make your short-term goals more manageable. Ultimately, that's the whole point of setting shorter targets and you can follow those breadcrumbs along a steeper and more successful career path overall.