Goal Setting Strategies for Doctors

Kristen Campbell
November 6, 2020

Unlike other professions, the practice of medicine is usually not driven by the need to reach the top of a career ladder – after such a long process to accreditation, many physicians entering the profession are simply interested in helping their patients and restoring financial security after taking out so many student loans. Even for physicians who have been in practice for many years, the time, focus, and discipline it takes to become a doctor ensures that most doctors are focused and passionate about the field, contributing to naturally high levels of career satisfaction overall. 

However, after a few years in practice, even the most passionate doctors can feel bogged down by their jobs. Whether it’s administrative duties, a heavy workload, or simply feeling unmotivated, career boredom is one reason for burnout among doctors – and planning your career without milestones along the way is like taking a long trip without a map. Goal setting is a great way to tackle boredom, increase engagement with your clinical practice, and set yourself up for a career path you find satisfying. Here are some tips for goal setting as a doctor:

1. Goal Setting by Time Frame

Setting career goals is usually done in time increments – such as one year, three year, five year, or ten year goals. Setting goals that align with specific timeframes is helpful for a few reasons. With set timeframes in place you will be able to set up steps to reach them that are realistic and achievable, and when you have time frames in place for your goals, you are able to review them periodically and tick them off when you accomplish them. Setting time frames on your goals will help you to chart a course for your career and adjust it if necessary – for example, one of your ten year goals might be to become a division head at a hospital. If you get offered a great opportunity at a different employer around the five year mark that brings you closer to your goal, you might set a new 10 year goal reflecting your new position. The same goes for goals that might take longer than expected – don’t be afraid to readjust 5 or 10 year plans for things like starting a family or getting married. After all, work life balance is important too!

2. Make Goals Specific

Goals are easier to measure and achieve when you start out specific. For example, setting a goal such as ‘I want to be more attentive to my patients needs’ is less specific than ‘I want to give the patient my full attention in each of my appointments’ or even ‘I want to spend an extra few minutes reviewing my patient’s chart before each visit’. Like putting a time frame on your goals, making goals specific gives you a better sense of when you have achieved them and a feeling of accomplishment when you do!

3. Make Goals Part of Your Identity

Rather than goals that are about finances, achievement, or appearances, setting goals that reflect who you are and who you strive to be as a person will help you to connect with and feel motivated about them. For example, if your goal is to be an expert in your field of medicine, what does that look like for you as a person? Does that involve having papers published on your research? Speaking at conferences? Or just being the person everyone goes to when they have a question on your area of expertise? Goals should be attractive not just from an achievement standpoint, but also because they are meaningful to you. 

For example, setting financial goals (like paying off your loans by a certain date or earning a certain dollar amount in a year) are useful markers for different stages of your career and great achievements to have. However, many people find the accomplishment of these goals to be underwhelming if they aren’t tied to another outcome that is meaningful to you. Making that certain dollar amount might give you more freedom, but it won’t prevent burnout, career boredom, or improve the quality of your personal relationships. Material goals are still important, but tying goals about achievement or financial gain to other areas of your life (for example wanting to earn a certain salary so you can purchase a comfortable home for your family without stress, or wanting to become a department head at your hospital so you can make changes that help other doctors) is key to not only being motivated to achieve these goals but also being happier overall. 

4. Set A Sustainable Pace

While it might be tempting to race towards your goals at breakneck pace goals, it can be disheartening to pursue a goal when you’ve missed the date you set out for yourself. Setting goals should take into account not only the likelihood of achieving your goal by a certain point in time, but also the other aspects of life that are important as well – starting a family, getting married, travelling, or taking on a new hobby can get in the way of your ideal timing but also enrich your life. It’s important to balance the things you love doing with the career progress you hope to make and the financial security you hope to have when you’re setting goals, so you don’t see one area of your life lagging behind the other.

If you’re not sure what a reasonable timeframe might be – ask! There’s no harm in researching how long it took other people who have achieved your goal to get there, seeking out advice from mentors or talking to people from your network of colleagues. 

5. Break Goals into Parts

One option for time sensitive goals (such as additional degree programs, fellowships, or contract positions with a definite end point) is to break them down into smaller milestones – for example, setting monthly targets for finishing assignments, completing billing or record keeping tasks, or learning new tools. Even breaking down big goals (like becoming a division chief or department head) into pieces is a good way to make them feel less daunting.

Breaking these goals down into the daily, weekly, or monthly actions you’ll need to take to get there often comes down to having great habits. For example, you might make it a habit to review the day’s patient charts every morning when you get into the clinic, automatically set a specific time to meet with your mentor every few months, or take a new course on leadership every year. These might not seem like big steps at the moment you do them, but the results will really add up over time – and the good habits you form while attaining your goals will help you aim for even better results in the future.

Conclusion 

Goal setting is an important practice for not just your professional development, but also for your personal happiness. By continuing to set meaningful goals at all stages of your career and clinical practice, you’ll be able to take into account both your career progression and your overall happiness – keeping you on pace for a satisfying and engaging career that benefits both you and your patients.