“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is a question that comes by commonly during job interviews and for good reason. Employers typically ask this type of question to gain some insight into what your career plans are and how the job fits into those plans.

The question seems simple enough but rarely have people taken the time to actually plan their current career path and considered how the position will help them reach their goals. With the number of distractions and busy-work in our daily lives, we often forget to set meaningful goals and track our progress which can impede us in our career journey.

Here are some steps you should adapt and incorporate to help you stay on track and keep forward momentum as your progress in your career. It’s important to note that while thinking about the steps is a good start, you should physically write down your plans and progress so that you can mark down every achievement and actually see your progress without forgetting what you’ve accomplished up to each milestone.

Get a clear view of the big picture

If you don’t know where the right goal posts are you’re going to have a difficult time scoring any points. To track your progress you’ll need to first get a clear idea of what your goal is and where you currently are in relation to that goal. What the goals are and how clear they are will be highly dependent on you and your background; for some, the goal may be “secure X job at Y company for Z salary”, while for others the goals might be more general, such as “find a stable job in the X industry/field”.

The objective here is to get a tangible finish line for your journey and a sense of your starting line so that you can motivate yourself and accurately plan a path to take.

Plan out your path

Once you have an idea of the start and finish lines it’s time to map out the path and fill in intermediate checkpoints. Keep in mind that the path may not be the shortest route but instead needs realistically map the start to the finish points.

For example, suppose my goal was to “secure X job at Y company for Z salary” and I just graduated with my degree with little industry experience. If I don’t appropriately breakdown my goals and set achievable checkpoints then I will set myself up for failure which will demotivate me. What I should do in that situation is set main checkpoints such as “find X related job at any company”, “get a job at Y company”, “work my way up to Z salary with lower milestones first”. Then I could set secondary checkpoints in between detailing skills and experience I should attain to help me qualify for my goals.

In essence, you should break down your goals into smaller tasks that are easier to achieve and will allow you to keep an accurate record of your progress. The more specific your plan is, with an accompanying timeline, the better and more motivation you will have. This step is also good for practicing your organization and time management skills that you will no doubt use throughout your career.

Keep yourself accountable

Once you have a plan and begin to journey through the path you set out it’s important to stay accountable for reaching checkpoints. If you fail to hold yourself to completing tasks in the timeframes specified in your plan then the checkpoints and finish line will stay out of sight and you’ll lose all momentum and motivation.

A good method for retaining accountability in your plan is to have someone else track your progress as well and hold you to your tasks. A mentor is someone who can provide this dependability and guidance to your journey. The support they provide and your desire to impress them will keep you motivated and progressing.

For readers who are interested in careers in data science or mathematical finance, Lantern Institute offers professional programs that can connect you with an experienced mentor of those fields to help you accelerate your progress. You can read more about the programs here.

Keep your plan current

After you’ve created your initial plan with a series of checkpoints you should reach you can begin the journey to your goals. As time passes, you will gain new experiences through your professional career, personal life, and economic shifts that will affect your life. As a result, you’ll find that your goals shift and change as well. Whenever these events occur or you reach a new checkpoint in your plan it’s important that you reevaluate your plan and adapt it to your new situation.

Keep your goals current and update checkpoints to keep you on track to your current goals. Outside of major life-changing events, your goals shouldn’t change too much so adapting the plan is appropriate. However, if you do find your goals to have changed massively you should again look for the bigger picture and create a new plan that reflects the changes.

Celebrate milestones

One of the hardest things about tracking your progress, or lack thereof, is the feeling that no progress is being made and the requirements for your goals keep increasing. It can be difficult to notice progress if it’s an ongoing process (and it should be). Only looking at what is left to do with acknowledging what has already been achieved will likely cause you to get mentally burnt out and lose motivation to continue completing checkpoints.

That’s why, along with writing down your plan and tracking the completion of each piece, it’s important to appropriately celebrate accomplishments and checkpoints, proportional to the size of the achievement.

With this step in mind, you should assess how well-defined your checkpoints in your journey are such that you can track the completion of the checkpoints and celebrate before progressing towards the next checkpoint. For example, “learn web development” is too generic with no way for you to definitively say you’re done; whereas “build a personal webpage” is a better-defined task wherein you can measure your completion and learn the skill along the way.

Now that we’ve covered the key steps for tracking your career progress, it’s useful to mention some common tools you can use to implement your plan.

Tools for planning and tracking progress

Kanban Board

  • Diagrams: One of the best methods when it comes to the big picture and mapping major checkpoints. There is hardly a better alternative for having a visual way to process your plan and track your progress along the path.
  • Kanban Boards: A step up from simple “to-do” lists; Kanban boards break the process into stages and allow you to track the various items for each stage. A great tool for tracking items to be completed and items that already have been completed. There are plenty of software implementations of Kanban boards. Alternatively, having a physical board in your home office is a great constant reminder. This will help keep you working on tasks, especially if you’re prone to procrastinate.
  • Gantt Charts: For those people who are intent on setting a timeline and sticking to it to keep themselves accountable. Gantt charts provide a good method for estimating the length of each task and providing a tracking tool. This allows you to be more aware of when you fall behind and when you’re racing ahead of your plan.
  • Journals: While the other tools are mainly for planning and tracking progress, this one is meant to keep you moving forward with your plan. You should keep an accurate journal of what you accomplished each day, with respect to your plan and career. This will help you avoid procrastination and keep momentum by completing something each day.Journal
  • Schedules: This a good alternatively to keeping a journal. If you create a daily or weekly schedule you can set aside blocks of time dedicated to completing tasks and furthering your career.
  • Spreadsheets: A tool that everyone is familiar with, spreadsheet software is easy to use and very flexible. Often times the software will allow you to implement each of the previously mentioned tools in one convenient location. Plenty of templates exist to help get you started.

Each of the above tools has an area where they shine the best. Combining some of them will help you track your career progress using the steps outlined. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to get started!

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