Setting specific, achievable goals provides direction and act as a measure of progress.

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For a few very fortunate people, finding the right career is a matter of luck. But for the rest of us who don't wake up one day to our dream jobs, getting into the right career takes a little bit of planning. A major part of that planning involves establishing -- and working to achieve -- your career goals.

Did you know that average employed Americans spend more than half of their waking hours each day working [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]? This means that your career is likely to be a huge part of your life, let alone your time. Also, studies show that having obtainable objectives can lead to increased job satisfaction, better self-esteem and improved overall well-being [source: Helms]. With these facts in mind, devoting some time to planning your career path makes sense.

So what are career goals and why are they important? Career goals are simply the things you want to achieve in your career -- where you want to end up and how you want to get there. Objectives can be broad, such as, "I want to have a job I look forward to every day," or they can be specific, such as, "I want to teach eleventh-grade world history." But whether ambitions are specific or broad, certain or uncertain, identifying them is an important step in career planning.

In many ways, setting career goals is like consulting a map before a trip. Without a map, there's a good chance you'll get lost or spend a lot of time wandering about aimlessly. If your career is a destination, your goals are the map.

Remember how we just talked about broad and specific goals? The broad goals -- the ones that deal with your ambitions, interests, preferences, values and aptitudes -- are called conceptual goals. On the other hand, operational goals are the specific jobs and tasks you set for yourself -- the steps you'll take to achieve your conceptual goals [source: Greenhaus]. Think of conceptual goals as the destination and operational aims as the journey, and it's important to have both.

So where do you start? In most cases, setting career goals is an exercise in backward planning. Begin with where you want to go, and then work backward to where you are. In this article, we'll walk through the backward planning process of identifying your career aspirations and look at some ways to make sure you're constructing realistic targets for yourself.