Picture yourself one year from now. It's December 2012 and you are just coming off your most successful year to date. What do you see? A new job? Your own company? Graduating with honors?
Since ambiguous goals are never achieved, take some time over the holidays to really analyze what you want most from your life and career over the next 12 months.
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To get started, sequester yourself in a quiet spot and write down a few initial ideas. It may help to get outside your everyday surroundings for this. Personally, I do my best creative thinking at bookstores but, then again, I'm a writer. Next, add some framework to your vision by following three steps.
1. Create a clear statement of what you desire most: Your notes should give you a good 10,000-foot overview of what you hope to achieve next year. Now you need to distill them down to one, actionable sentence.
For example, "In 2012, I will work for the headquarters of a top retail chain in their recruiting department." Specific enough to give you focus and clarity, but vague enough to cover multiple companies.
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2. Outline the plan you're going to use to reach that goal: Don't be intimidated by the word "plan." A plan is nothing more than a list of activities arranged by priority and sequence. It doesn't have to be a Broadway production.
For the past two years, I've been using a template I picked up from Chris Brogan, über-blogger and author of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust. It's an Excel spreadsheet with action items listed vertically in the A column and the months of the year listed horizontally across the top. When an action item is complete, I place an "x" in the column where they meet. That's all. (When it comes to productivity, I find the most effective ideas are usually the simplest.)
One thing to keep in mind as you list your action items, though, is that if it's not a measurable, quantifiable objective, it doesn't belong on this doc. So, for the purpose statement above, you could list the human resources / recruiting directors you're sending a résumé to in the A column, or make a note to reach out to specific former employers for referrals, to update your LinkedIn profile—you get the idea.
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3. Review and update your plan all the time: This isn't something you create and file indefinitely. Your career strategy should be a working, breathing part of your every day.
I review my plan constantly, and I'm always making tweaks based on new goals or information. Not only does this keep me focused on the right things, but it's incredibly convenient to have where I'm going, how I plan to get there, and when I want to arrive all in one place.
In the coming weeks, as you're out toasting the beginning of a brand new year, celebrate the fact that having a plan means you don't have to settle for the opportunities and things that are right in front of you. Just the simple act of knowing what you really want will put you miles ahead of the game, allowing you to reach higher than you probably would have otherwise.
It's not always going to be the easy choice, the fun choice, or the safe choice, but—if you know where you're going—it will be your choice. Now, what would make 2012 your best year ever?