If you want to advance your career, you need to take time to plan your career roadmap. Whether you want to change jobs — or careers — in the new year, or simply get more out of your current job, a career plan is essential to helping you reach your goals.

Step One: Take Stock

The first step is to assess where you are. To figure out where you’re going, you must first look at where you’ve been.

Here are some questions to help you assess where you are:
• What are you most proud of in the past 12 months— personally, and professionally?
• What went right?
• Did you receive any awards or recognition?
• Did you take on any additional responsibility? If so, what?
• How did you take initiative in your job?
• Have you learned any new skills?
• Did you earn any certifications or licenses?

Record this information in a success journal. This can be a Microsoft Word file on your computer, a series of emails you send to yourself (be sure to use email tags so you’re able to find the emails again!), or even a physical notebook. And in the coming year, take time to record your accomplishments as you go through the year instead of waiting until the end of the year.

Next, look at opportunities for improvement in your career. How does your salary /grade stack up against your peers? Is your current position in alignment with your priorities and your core values? Where is change needed?

Step Two: Articulate Your Goal

Decide what you want. Spell it out: What does it look like; what does it feel like? You have to really want it to invest the time and energy to follow your dream. Describe your ideal job:
• What is your ideal employer? (size, industry, culture, location, structure)
• How much would your dream job pay? (Realistically)
• What are the most important benefits — other than salary — that would prompt you to go to work for a new organization?
• Describe your ideal job — the position you would most like to have. What is the job title, responsibilities, who you would report to, who would report to you. Would it involve travel? Do you want to work independently, as part of a team, or both? Do you like short-term projects or long-term projects?
• What do you want your next job to do for you that your last job didn’t do? In other words, what will be different about your next job? Is there anything that you do in your current job that you don’t want to do in your next job?

Think about the person that you want to be, and imagine the possibilities. Then, identify 2-3 goals you want to tackle. Use the S.M.A.R.T. goal system to articulate your goals — goals should be “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented.”

Step Three: Make a Plan

Take time to prepare a game plan for how you will reach your goal. But don’t use planning as an excuse to procrastinate. You want to get to Step Four as quickly as possible, because actions create momentum.

Take each of your goals and write down the list of steps under each of them that you will need to take to make the goal happen. The more individual steps you can map out, the easier it will be for you to reach your goals. The steps should be practical tasks that will lead you to achieve the goal.

Give yourself milestones so you can measure your progress. How will you know when you’re on the right track? Include specific dates and numbers in your milestones.

Step Four: Take Action

With the tasks you’ve outlined in Step Three, this gives you a checklist of items to use to take action. If you are working through the steps and discover you need to add additional items, update your task list. You may also discover additional projects that need to be completed to make the next step — and the overall goal — easier to accomplish. You may also find that you need to make adjustments to your timeline.

As you work your way through your task list, focus on the actions you are taking, realizing that if you are taking the right actions, these should eventually lead to the results you seek. If you’re not getting the results you want, change the plan, not the goal. Re-examine your tasks and see if there is something you are missing.

It can also be helpful to get outside feedback. Enlisting the help of an accountability partner — a friend, family member, coach, résumé writer, or therapist — can provide valuable perspective on your progress. This individual can also keep you on track, making sure you are working through your task list. And if there is a specific area where you need help in order to cross the task off your list, make sure you ask for assistance.

Step Five: Measure Your Progress

When you’re on a journey, it can help to periodically assess where you are to make sure you’re on the right road. If you miss a step along the way — or take a “wrong turn” — you can find yourself a long way from your intended destination. So plan periodic assessments of your progress along the way. This can be a monthly “check-up” where you review your plan and make any necessary changes, or a quarterly review.

Taking the time to think through — and plan out — your career roadmap is an important step in helping you create the career you want for yourself. If you don’t, you may find your career stuck or stalled. Or you may wake up five years from now and wonder, “How did I get here?” If you want to achieve more in your professional life, invest the time and effort in completing a Career Roadmap.

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Nancy Segal is a federal human resources training and job search expert. Following her own 30-year federal HR career (much of it at the senior level), she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC in 2003 to provide an HR management perspective to both federal managers and astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy has unmatched federal career management insight, high standards, and respect for people’s time, and her clients use this to their advantage.