Should you plan your career?

New: We’ve just launched our in-depth career planning process.

It’s our most comprehensive overview of all our advice on career planning, and includes a step-by-step template you can use to plan your career.

(It’s designed to replace the process below, which we left for posterity.)

Should you try to plan your career? To what extent should you set yourself career goals in advance? On the one hand, plans and goals provide direction and motivation. Especially if you care about really making a difference, you don’t want to be just stabbing in the dark. Yet at the same time, the world around you is constantly changing, as are you – isn’t it naive to plan for the future when you have no real idea what the job market will look like, what the world’s biggest needs might be, and what you might want personally?

Although there’s little research explicitly looking at the effects of career planning, there’s a lot of literature on the effects of planning and goal setting on business and employee performance, which seems pretty relevant. So we decided to explore the research a bit further and see what it might suggest about the best way to approach thinking about your career.

In summary:

  • On first glance, the research appears contradictory: there’s evidence that goal setting provides motivation and increases effort and persistence. Yet elsewhere it’s been suggested that goals can be damaging to performance by narrowing focus, promoting risk taking, and even encouraging unethical behaviour.
  • A big part of the problem seems to be that there’s a huge amount of environmental uncertainty in the cases studied: the information needed to plan appropriately is often unavailable and constantly changing.
  • Having an idea of what you’d like to achieve in the future is useful, but long terms goals shouldn’t be too fixed or specific. Rather than a detailed plan, start with a vague vision of what you’re aiming to achieve, but think of this as merely a “best guess”, which will very likely change as you progress and learn more. I’ll talk about the specifics of how you might do this more in an upcoming post.

The virtues of planning

In “Motivate Employee Performance through Goal Setting”, Gary Latham provides a nice summary of thousands of studies conducted over the past few decades, looking at the influence of goal setting on performance in the workplace. The conclusion drawn is that setting challenging, specific goals improves performance, increasing effort and persistence.1 Having goals is proposed as single best explanation of why certain employees perform better than others.2 Goals also provide a measure of how you’re doing and an opportunity for feedback which is itself important for motivation.3

Reading this, we might assume that planning your career in advance by setting goals is a great idea, even essential: it provides you with direction, something to aim for, and a means of tracking your progress. All this seems fairly intuitive and something careers advisors have long been talking about. So why might planning your career not be a good idea?

When planning backfires

Some more recent research highlights some serious potential downsides to over-planning and too-specific goal setting. In a paper entitled “Goals Gone Wild”, researchers at Harvard Business School propose some potential negative side effects of overdoing planning and goal-setting:

  • Narrowing focus: Whilst previous research emphasises the importance of having specific goals to provide motivation, this paper warns that overly specific goals may blind people to important issues and opportunities that appear unrelated to the goal.4,5

  • Emphasis on immediate performance: Goal setting can arguably prompt people to engage in myopic short-term behaviour that is damaging in the long term.6

  • Promoting risky or unethical behaviour: Goals that are inappropriately challenging, or have an inappropriate time frame, may therefore cause people to engage in risky or unethical behaviour to achieve them.7, 8

  • Reduced motivation: Overly challenging goals, if not met, could plausibly result in dissatisfaction, and therefore actually a reduction in motivation.9

  • Inhibiting learning: if the focus is constantly on performance, people are less likely to consider alternative methods or learn how to perform a task.10

It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these detrimental effects of goal setting. In a response to the “Goals Gone Wild” paper, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham criticise its methodology, claiming it relies on mainly anecdotal evidence and its conclusions are overly emotionally charged. Nonetheless, the message that goals need to be set carefully and appropriately if they are to be useful and not detrimental seems worth some consideration.

The problem of environmental uncertainty

If having a career plan and setting oneself goals is only problematic when the goals set are “inappropriate” in some way, why not just make sure the goals set are appropriate? But knowing how to set appropriate goals is incredibly difficult in practice, because the world around us is both highly uncertain and constantly changing. There’s a lot of information we need to set appropriate career goals that is either unavailable or may quickly become obsolete due to rapid changes in the environment.

One study in particular suggests that in rapidly changing environments, people work better without setting specific goals. In one experiment, students were paid to make toys, with the prices changing continuously and without warning. Students who were asked to “do their best” performed significantly better than those who set performance goals in advance.11 However, adding short-term goals that are instrumental in achieving long term goals resulted in improved performance. This suggests that in some circumstances, goal setting may be helpful, or at very least improved, if both short-term and long-term goals are used and related in an appropriate way.

Obviously the conclusion to be drawn from all this will depend on the career path: in some there may be a reasonable degree of certainty. If your goal is to become a doctor, for example, what you need to achieve to get there is fairly certain and unlikely to change as you work your way towards that goal. In this situation, having a plan for getting there is clearly sensible. But for many types of high impact career, there is no clear path to the ultimate goal, and the best route there will likely change multiple times as you progress towards it: so having a static plan in advance won’t help you much. If you want to set up a social enterprise to address some societal problem, for example, specific goals seem much more likely to hinder than help you.

What should you do?

  • Start by spending some time reflecting on your fundamental values and motivations, as these provide you with something (relatively!) constant to assess your progress by as everything else around you changes.12

  • Everything should be a hypothesis, a “best guess”, which is subject to revision as you learn more.

  • Having some kind of long-term goal or vision helps to provide motivation, but shouldn’t be overly specific to avoid narrowing focus.

  • The closer to the present your goals are, and the more certain the path to them is, the more specific they should be.

  • You should be constantly looking to identify what the key uncertainties are affecting your next decision, and finding ways to reduce them by seeking out new information.

See our more up-to-date article on this topic here.

You might also enjoy:

The best resources for planning your career

The single number that best predicts professor tenure: A case study in quantitative career planning

Estimation is the best we have

References and notes:

  1. Gary P. Latham, “Motivate Employee Performance Through Goal Setting”, Handbook of Principles of Organisational Behaviour 
  2. Latham , G. P. , and Locke, E. A. ( 1991 ). Self regulation through goal setting . Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 50 , 212–247 . 
  3. Erez , M. ( 1977 ). Feedback: a necessary condition for the goal setting – performance relationship . Journal of Applied Psychology, 62 , 624–627 . 
  4. Goals which motivate decision makers to seek a particular outcome may result in the failure to notice relevant information: see Bazerman and Chugh, (2006). Decisions without blinders. Harvard Business Review, 84(1), 88-97 
  5. Goal setting prevents task revision: action to correct faulty procedures. In one experiment, students were asked to proofread a paragraph containing both blatant grammatical and content errors. Those told to “do their best” were much more likely to notice both types of error than those directed to look for grammatical errors alone. See Staw, B. M., & Boettger, R. D. (1990). Task revision: A neglected form of work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 33(3), 534-559. 
  6. Firms that frequently issue quarterly earnings guidance are better at meeting short term targets but invest less in research and development, suggesting behaviour is detrimental in the long term: Cheng, M., Subramanyam, K. R., & Zhang, Y. (2005). Earnings Guidance and Managerial Myopia. Working Paper, University of Southern California. 
  7. Larrick, R. P., Heath, C., & Wu, G. (1900). Goal-Induced Risk Taking in Negotiation and Decision Making. Social Cognition 
  8. Barsky, A. (2007). Understanding the ethical cost of organizational goal-setting: A review and theory development. Journal of Business Ethics, 81(1), 63-81. 
  9. Galinsky, A. D., Mussweiler, T., & Medvec, V. H. (2002). Disconnecting outcomes and evaluations: The role of negotiator focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1131-1140. 
  10. Earley, P. C., Connolly, T., & Ekegren, G. (1989). Goals, strategy development, and task performance: Some limits on the efficacy of goal setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(1), 24-33. 
  11. Latham , G. P. , and Seijts , G. H. ( 1999 ). The effects of proximal and distal goals on per­formance on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 20 , 421–429 
  12. For those more entrepreneurially-inclined, you can think of this as a bit like your bottom line: as business uses profit to consistently measure its progress, you need some means of measuring whether you’re heading in the right direction with your career.