THE BLOG
12/31/2013 11:27 am ET | Updated Mar 02, 2014

If You Don't Design Your Career, Someone Else Will

A client once responded to one of my questions by saying, "Oh, Greg, I am too busy living to think about life!" His off-the-cuff comment named a trap all of us fall into sometimes. In just one example, it is easy to become so consumed in our careers we fail to really think about our careers.

To avoid this trap, I suggest carving out a couple of hours to follow these simple steps for reflecting on your career.

Step 1: Review the last 12 months. Review the year, month by month. Make a list of where you spent your time: include your major projects, responsibilities and accomplishments. No need to overcomplicate this.

Step 2: Ask, "What is the news?" Look over your list and reflect on what is really going on. Think like a journalist and ask yourself: Why does this matter? What are the trends here? What happens if these trends continue?

Step 3: Ask "What would I do in my career if I could do anything?" Just brainstorm with no voice of criticism to hold you back. Just write out all the ideas that come to mind.

Step 4: Go back and spend a bit more time on Step 3. Too often we begin our career planning with our second best option in mind. We have a sense of what we would most love to do but we immediately push it aside. Why? Typically because "it is not realistic," which is code for, "I can't make money doing this." In this economy -- in any economy -- I understand why making money is critical. However, sometimes we pass by legitimate career paths because we set them aside too quickly.

Step 5: Write down six objectives for the next 12 months. Make a list of the top six items you would like to accomplish in your career this year and place them in priority order.

Step 6: Cross off the bottom five. Once you're back to the whirlwind of work you'll benefit from having a single "true north" career objective for the year.

Step 7: Make an action plan for this month. Make a list of some quick wins you'd like to have in place over the next three to four weeks.

Step 8: Decide what you will say no to. Make a list of the "good" things that will keep you from achieving your one "great" career objective. Think about how to delete, defer or delegate these other tasks. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The crime which bankrupts men and nations is that of turning aside from one's main purpose to serve a job here and there."

Many years ago I followed this process and, without exaggeration, it changed the course of my life. The insight I gained led me to quit law school, leave England and move to America and start down the path as a teacher and author. You're reading this because of that choice. It remains the single most important career decision of my life.

Two hours spent wisely over the next couple of weeks could easily improve the quality of your life over the 8760 hours of 2014 -- and perhaps far beyond. After all, if we don't design our careers, someone else will.

I welcome your thoughts below and @GregoryMcKeown.