4 Reasons Setting Goals Won’t Help Your Career Change (And What You Should Be Doing Instead)

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Image: Markus Winkler

Goal-setting seems like a smart thing to do in a career change. But it might actually be exactly what's keeping you stuck. Natasha explains why big targets can be a false friend to your shift, and what to do to start making progress instead.

I found it the other day, as I was emptying my old storage unit; a green, leather-bound notebook with a string that wound around the body and knotted to close it.

The inside was filled with hundreds of lines of my handwriting, in blue ballpoint pen.

Journal entries, to-do lists, thoughts I'd jotted down while waiting for the kettle to boil… and pages and pages of confused, frustrated outpourings about my work, my life, my future.

Reading those words transported me back to that year – 2012 – in a deeply visceral way that I haven't felt for a long time.

The desperate awkwardness of feeling like a fundamental misfit in a career and a life that wasn't for me; the sense of being caged in and stuck there, trapped by the very life choices I myself had made in the years before; the blinding emptiness of white space ahead of me when I tried to imagine what else I could do.

One page in particular hit me hard.

It was a list of goals.

Big, woolly, hopeful goals. The only kind I had, back then.

And then next to them, in a different pen, clearly written later in a fit of irritation, a series of scrawled, pointy, sarcastic questions…

  • “Have three reasonable career options I'm truly excited about by March.” LOVELY. HOW, EXACTLY?

  • “Start a sideline income to make extra cash” WHICH YOU'LL DO IN WHAT SPARE TIME?

  • “Have £5,000 ($6,600) saved by April.” WHAT FOR, GENIUS?

  • “Hand in my notice by June” YEAH, RIGHT.

Reading the contents of that page was like watching a snippet of the perpetual state of the inside of my head – the never-ending back-and-forth of a hopeful, fierce optimist and an angry, hurt cynic.

I made a lot of lists like this in 2012.

I remember how painful and pointless they felt, once their initial balm wore off.

Unrealistic, hollow-feeling goals, created mostly because I didn't know what else to do. They sounded nice, but I rarely did much about them.

Because it wasn't a question of what I wanted on a grand scale.

It was the specifics I had no clue about.

And even if I did, I still wouldn't know the steps to take to get there.

Sound familiar?

Goals aren't helpful in the day-to-day of a career change.

They can feel productive, in the beginning. They can feel good, as you write them, and then when you look at them in the following five minutes.

But beyond that initial make-feel-nice, they can actually have the opposite effect on your shift.

Here's why.

1. Fulfillment isn't SMART

Anyone who's ever smelled a goal has at some point come into contact with the idea of SMART goals:

Goals, we're told, must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based.

Fair enough.

But finding fulfilling work isn't quite so neat.

Making goals SMART is an organisational task – finding the logical pieces, breaking them into chunks, and putting them together in a way that leads you forward, step by step.

Finding fulfilling work feels more like trying to jump off a jellyfish into an ocean you're not convinced actually exists.

You don't know where you're going, so specificity is laughable.

You're not sure how exactly to measure fulfilment (beyond 'Makes me want to poke myself in the eye / Doesn't make me want to poke myself in the eye'), so that's a shaky one too.

You don't even completely believe it's possible, so how can it be achievable or realistic?

And time-based… if ONLY a deadline could fix this mess.

So sitting down to write some goals for your career change… if it feels ridiculous, that's probably because it is, a little.

2. Extrinsic motivation isn’t that effective

Imagine you've set yourself a goal to lose 10 kilos.

You start going to the gym every day, because someone told you that gym exercise gets faster weight-loss results than anything else.

You hate the gym. You hate the smell of the changing rooms, you hate the perky gym bunny types who take up all the machines, you hate the music they play, and you hate running towards your own reflection in a mirror for half an hour and traveling precisely nowhere.

You start taking a salad and a Thermos of cabbage soup to work every day. You hate salad. You hate cabbage soup. You're starting to hate your life.

But you'd love to have lost 10 kilos.

So you put up with it. You eat the soup, holding your nose and visualising your life once you've hit your goal. You endure the gym, wishing you could just hit your goal and never have to go back again.

What are the chances of you hitting your 10-kilo target – and, importantly, maintaining it afterward?

Pretty low, no?

Goals rely on extrinsic motivation; something you do in order to reach an external, tangible result or outcome.

They feel heavy, looming over you menacingly until you've hit them. The process of working toward them often doesn't feel enjoyable, despite the rewards at the end.

So you're less likely to take the steps you need to take to achieve them.

And extrinsic motivation has repeatedly been shown to be less effective than intrinsic motivation, which is driven by enjoying the activity itself.

Extrinsic motivation: “If I walk five miles today, I can have that piece of chocolate cake.”

Intrinsic motivation: “I love dancing – I'm going to dance in the kitchen just because it feels great.”

Extrinsic motivation: “If I spend the next month learning about the political system in Uzbekistan I'll look really smart at the university dinner party.”

Intrinsic motivation: “How DOES the inside of my remote control work? This is fascinating…”

In other words, given the choice between rewards or enjoyment, you're far more likely to do things you enjoy.

So, ironically, you're more likely to lose 10 kilos by throwing the scales in the bin and going dancing every weekend than you are by trying to haul yourself to the gym every day.

And in your career change, you're (albeit counter-intuitively) more likely to find fulfilling work by doing things you enjoy than you are by setting yourself a goal to change career.

3. Pressure encourages procrastination

There's a fair amount of pressure involved in goal-setting.

Either you hit your goal, or you don't.

There's no room for the grey area on the way.

And if you don't hit it, you've 'failed'. Unpleasant. Scary. Dunce hat. Ugh.

Procrastination is based in fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change: all fears that grow from an attachment to a specific outcome… otherwise known as 'a goal'.

In career change, this often looks like vacillation, over-thinking, endlessly weighing up options, researching things to death

Sound familiar?

What if you get it wrong? What if you don't hit your target? What if it never happens?

High stakes creates high tension – and the higher the tension, the less likely you are to act.

So if you've set yourself a goal and you're getting stuck in procrastinatory whirlpools, this might be why.

4. You are not the boss of everything

Unfortunate, but true.

No matter how hard you try, or how much effort you put in to achieving a goal, sometimes the world just gets in the way.

Maybe you twist an ankle and can't train for the marathon.

Maybe the taxman slings you an unexpected curveball and your savings goal hits the deck.

Maybe your company withdraws its plans to offer a round of voluntary redundancies next month, like you were expecting.

Maybe your kid gets sick and you spend your week curled up on the bathroom floor mopping brows and blowing noses and you don't get your LinkedIn profile up to date like you said you would.

These moments hurt. Partly because they throw a spanner in the works and we have to deal with the possibility of failure.

And partly because it forces you to realise that you can't control results.

You can control what you do, but not what happens next.

  • You can create a perfectly written LinkedIn profile, but you can't control whether or not people will read it.

  • You can reach out to someone you admire, but you can't control whether or not they'll respond.

  • You can go to an event you've never been to before, but you can't control whether or not it'll spark a new career idea.

Trying to consistently hit your goals when you're only responsible for part of the party is a pretty heavy expectation.

Don't just set goals, build habits.

Looking back at my notebook from 2012, I'm pretty proud to say that I achieved a lot of the goals I set.

I found a way to work from anywhere in the world, live in amazing places for free, and do work I was completely in love with.

That wouldn't have happened without giving myself the space to dream ridiculously big and commit to things I had no idea how to achieve.

So none of this is to say that goals are bad things and you should avoid them.

They're not.

For a lot of us, a goal can be the tool that sets our direction and inspires us to keep going.

But when I look back at the way my career change actually unfolded, it didn't happen in a series of big tick-boxes.

It happened in micro-shifts, in consistent actions.

You could call them systems, or you could call them habits.

Here's why they work so well:

1. Habits have a 'how'

“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).”  Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Have you ever thought to yourself: “I could make a career change in no time, if only I knew what steps to take”?

It's the classic career change conundrum – you know the high-level result you want, but you don't know specifically what it looks like, nor the actions to get there.

So you end up with these gloriously intangible goals, much like the ones I listed out in my book in 2012, and then you sit and stare at them, and feel bad that you haven't got there yet, and beat yourself up for not knowing how.

But you can get your hands on a habit.

Because if it's a habit, you know what it is and how to do it.

So you might actually do it, rather than just set it, like a goal.

2. If there's only so much you can do, you can at least do a lot of that.

We've already established that you're not the boss of everything.

You can't control results, but you can control your actions.

So shifting your attention away from the lofty, the far-off and the at-least-50%-out-of-your-hands and toward the tangible, the manageable, the consistent and the completely-under-your-control is probably a smart move.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Steven Covey has a great way of explaining this.

Picture a circle.

Inside it, cram everything you care about: your declining eyesight, the refugee crisis, climate change, the housing market, whether your kid is having a good day at school, what the recruitment agent is going to say in your meeting tomorrow, how good your hair looks today, the location of your car keys, whether or not you're happy in your future career… there's a LOT in this circle.

Covey calls it your Circle of Concern.

Inside your Circle of Concern is another circle.

This one is called your Circle of Influence.

And inside your Circle of Influence are only the concerns you can directly impact or control.

Goals tend to live inside your Circle of Concern and outside your Circle of Influence. They rely on factors that are only partly in your control. And they're focused on outputs (what happens next) rather than inputs (what you actually do).

But your hairstyle? The house you choose to buy? The skills you develop or what you spend your Thursday evenings doing? Whether or not you experiment with that idea that's been rolling around in the back of your head for months? In these matters, you're the boss.

If you operate within your Circle of Influence, you'll make the biggest impact.

And the more time you spend working and playing inside of this circle, the larger it grows.

3. It's hard to pick a fight with a mouse

Where goals can feel high-stakes and paralysing, habits can be as small as you need them to be.

In fact, Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg recommends starting with 'tiny habits', actions so small that they're almost laughable. Instead of trying to start a habit of flossing twice a day, for example, he suggests just starting by flossing one tooth.


You can find a lot of good reasons why the goal of quitting your job in 3 months' time, regardless of what happens between now and then, might not be the best idea. You can argue your way in and out of that for hours.

But it's hard to argue with a habit of putting whatever coins you have in your pockets into a savings jar every day when you get in the door.

Insignificant though actions like this might sound, they're actually incredibly powerful.

The hardest part of anything is just getting started, and once you’ve started getting into action with a habit, they have the capacity to snowball.

Maybe you want to write a novel. You decide to set up a tiny habit of writing just 300 words a day. You figure, to complete a book at that rate, it'll take about 300 days. Except… it turns out that writing 300 words is really easy, and even on your busiest days, you're getting it done. In fact, on a lot of days, you find yourself overshooting the 300 word mark and just continuing to tap away, writing 800, 1,000, 2,000 words in a day.

You can't argue with small.

4. Progress happens fastest when it's consistent

Goals set you up for a jerky journey.

You create a goal, circle it for a while, make a big leap forward, and then, once you've achieved it, you have to come up with the next one. If you don't achieve it, you then have to deal with the emotional fallout.

Mapped onto a piece of paper, your forward movement looks like a game of leapfrog with a very nervous teammate.

But habits by their very nature are ongoing and consistent. They tell you what to do and when, and are active regardless of output. Small steps, taken consistently, move you forward faster.

“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It's not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.” – James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

And good news for your achy willpower muscle: once you've formed them, habits pretty much operate automatically.

In fact, once we've got going with a habit, our brains actually adapt to make it easier to complete. After about 30 days of practice, carrying out a habit becomes easier than not doing so.

As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power Of Habit:

“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realise – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

5. The nature of your life is dependent on the nature of your habits

Philosopher William James described habits in this way:

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits practical, emotional, and intellectual systematically organised for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Habits, not goals, shape your daily experience of the world.

The time of day you wake up. The way you brush your teeth. How you get to work, the turns of phrase you use, the way you automatically respond to a certain turn of events.

Goals are interruptions to your status quo.

Habits, on the other hand, build, shape and create the form and direction of your life.

And if that's true, then whether or not you shift into fulfilling work is entirely dependent on the habits and consistent behaviours you choose to cultivate.

Or, said another way, choosing and building a powerful set of habits can make a shift into fulfilling work inevitable.

Now that sounds pretty good, no?

How to build helpful habits in career change

1. Create opportunities to be gloriously surprised.

All you can control is what you do, not what happens next.

So, as you start designing some new habits and behaviours, let go of any thought of whether or not it'll 'work' or be 'worth it'.

Perhaps you consider starting a new habit of going to one new, interesting event per week.

But then the doubts come in:

“There probably won't be anyone interesting there.”

“You don't WANT to work at the circus – why go to a workshop?”

“You've had a tiring week – no point going if it's just going to be a waste of time.”

Your job is not to make it worth it.

Your job is not to know the outcome.

Your job is just to keep opening the door to the possibility of something fantastic that you didn't see coming.

You can't control whether it happens or not.

But one thing is for sure: without an open door, it ain't coming in.

2. Choose pleasure, not pride

Intrinsic motivation is far more effective than extrinsic rewards.

In her book Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin uses this example:

“If I tell [my daughter] that she can watch an hour of TV if she reads for an hour, I don't build her habit of reading. I teach her that watching TV is more fun than reading.”

So where possible, set up habits that will feel good to do, not just to complete.

This doesn't mean it won't take any effort to get started with them. Setting up a new habit involves some change, and it'll take willpower to get the ball rolling.

Perhaps you know that talking to new people often feels a bit awkward to start with.

But once you’ve opened a dialogue, you always enjoy the conversation, and you're thrilled to have made a new friend you can learn from.

It'll take some effort to push past the initial hump of always reaching out to people you encounter who do interesting work. But the more you do it, the smoother that initial hump will become, and the more enjoyment (and great conversations, and new insights) will follow.

Following a pleasurable feeling – and setting up a system to do more of it – is always going to reap greater rewards than fighting against an unpleasant one.

Plus, if you want to find fulfilling work, doing a lot of things that feel unfulfilling is unlikely to get you there.

Follow the hints and the feelings that tell you what you love, what comes naturally, what elicits a sense of flow.

3. Do more of what works

Often, habits are pitched as things to be changed, to quit, or to fix.

You're giving up your smoking habit.

You start running every morning (to fix your low fitness levels).

You're stopping drinking coffee in the mornings.

But when you're trying to create a habit in order to fix or stop something, it takes more effort, and reminds you of the negative element you're trying to get away from.

Plus, stopping something gives you less of something in your life, but it doesn't necessarily replace it with anything. You want good stuff, and more of it.

The most effective habits start with the questions: “What do I know works well for me?” and then: “How can I do more of it?”

So take a look at the things you've done in the past that have given you more clarity or more progress when it comes to your career change.

When have you found new insights to explore, and how did you find them?

What was different about that conversation that led to a new opportunity, from the other conversations that fizzled out?

Sure, you know that for extroverts, going to networking events works brilliantly. But you're way better in 1-1 environments. So how do you have more 1-1 interactions with people in your day-to-day?

Look for what works, and then focus on building a habit that has you do more of it.

4. If in doubt, change your environment

Stanford behaviour scientist BJ Fogg says he's learned that only three things will change your life in the long term.

Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps

Epiphanies are hard to come by, and they're out of your control.

Baby steps are the mouse-sized micro-habits you can build with very little effort over time.

And if you're not sure what baby steps to take, create the habit of taking them into new environments.

If you're struggling for ideas on your future career, or struggling to find the right steps to take, remember one of the simplest principles of systems theory:

New inputs = new outputs.

If you want new ideas, new insights, new possibilities, build the habit of filling your environment with new experiences.

Adding new people (with new perspectives and new ideas) into your social circle.

Taking yourself into new places and surroundings.

Giving yourself new experiences.

Build habits that change what surrounds you, and you'll watch your perspective on the world, and the opportunities you can see, change along with it.

5. One thing at a time, and one thing only

Set yourself up for success.

Start small.

Overcommitting to a whole bunch of new habits has the same impact as setting yourself a scary goal – it feels overwhelming, paralysing, and invites fear of failure and procrastination.

Get into the groove of just one small, consistent new behaviour.

Get curious about it.

A tiny drip of water, over time, can crack open a whole boulder.

Don't underestimate the power of one thing done over and over again.

“The best thing I ever did was to commit to one small action each day (less than five minutes). Sometimes this lead to further leaps, other times that was all I did. This might have been making a list, sending an email, commenting on a post, a bit of research, etc. When I combined that with trying to make the small action something that was slightly out of my comfort zone as well, good things started to happen.” – Amy, Career Change Launch Pad graduate

6. Get trigger-happy

New habits are often difficult to get going with because they require not only that you change your behaviours, but also that you remember to do them.

According to Zen Habits writer Leo Babauta, the often-overlooked key to building a new habit is to tie it to a trigger – an event that will remind you (eventually automatically) to carry out your habit:

“Habits become automatic after we've created a bond between the trigger and the habit – the stronger the bond, the more ingrained the habit.”

Babauta recommends finding an action or event that's already ingrained into your routines in life.

For example, if you need to remember to take a daily medication, keeping the box on top of your toothbrush will help you tie the action of taking your pill to your already-automatic (we would hope) routine of brushing your teeth.

If you want to build a habit of staying in touch with old friends, use an already-ingrained habit (opening your email client for the first time in the morning, checking social media on your commute) to act as a trigger to send one checking-in message to someone you haven't been in touch with for a while.

Need to start injecting your weekly routine with something fresh and new, to inspire new ideas and broaden your experience of the world? Every time you see a vaguely interesting event coming up in your local area, put it into your calendar.

Consistent triggers make new habits feel natural, faster.

7. Work with the way you work

A habit is an expectation you've set for yourself (or, sometimes, that someone else / society expects of you).

And according to author Gretchen Rubin, there are four primary ways, or 'tendencies' with which people respond to those expectations.

By knowing your 'tendency' (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel), you can pre-empt the ways in which you might get stuck building or maintaining your habits, and set up systems and approaches that help you get things done.

You might, for example, need to rely on accountability more than others, and tell multiple people about the habits you're trying to build.

Reminding yourself of the greater good you're trying to achieve might be the primary kick in the behind you need.

Or perhaps deadlines are the only thing that will get you out of analysis paralysis and moving forward.

Take the Four Tendencies Test here, and use the results to craft your approach to habits in the way that works for you.

Some examples of great career change habits

  • Do one thing you've never done before every week
  • Talk to strangers
  • Say 'yes' to invitations when you'd normally say 'no'
  • Run one Shift Project every weekend
  • Whenever you encounter someone doing work you admire, reach out and tell them
  • Check in with someone in your network every week – congratulate them on an achievement, ask how they're doing, thank them for something they did for you years ago…
  • Ask people about their work – and consistently go two questions deeper than you normally would in a conversation
  • Mention your career change and the actions you're taking toward it every time you see your friends and family (let them know you're keeping yourself accountable)
  • Every time you have an 'unrealistic' career idea (aka an Underdog), go find out a little bit about it. Just in case.

Finding fulfilling work is a revelatory process

It's what makes it magical. It's what makes it nerve-wracking, too.

If only a career you love was the output of a nice, neat algebraic formula, setting goals and project-managing, the whole thing would be smart and simple.

But it's not.

It's messy, and it's full of surprises, and it requires you to be in a space of not-knowing for far longer than most human beings are comfortable with.

What will anchor you, keep you grounded and making forward progress, are habits and systems.

Consistent, forward nudges that you actually do, that keep you feeling proud and motivated, and that open the door, over and over again, to the possibility of being gloriously surprised, to the unexpected and the new.

What's a habit you could start cultivating in your own career change? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.