Tips to Keep Your Career on the Right Track

Climbing the ladder of success is much easier if you establish sound strategies for guidance

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At times, careers can be a lot like locating sewer lines — you never know where they might lead. Some are straightforward, while others take unexpected paths to their final destinations.

But either way, there are things you can do to keep things on track, says Thomas Harris, an employee training and development consultant and owner of The Exceptional Skills. Here are 10 recommendations that might help your career progress instead of stagnate.

1. Realize what’s important.

Many times careers falter because employees spend too much time doing things that seem important but really aren’t all that critical. And sometimes it’s the fault of managers who don’t make it clear where priorities should lie.

This often results in what’s known as the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle, where 80% of your job activities achieve only 20% of your results. It should be the other way around, Harris says.

“A lot of things may seem urgent at the moment, but in the big picture, they’re not really all that important,” he says. “That’s why it’s critical to talk to your boss and ensure you’re focusing on the things you should be, which will push your career forward. If you know your priorities, you can make better judgments every day and focus on that 20% of activities that generate 80% of your results.”

2. Do the important things.

This corollary to the point above may seem like advice from Captain Obvious. But truth be told, it’s easy to get distracted in today’s workplace.

The solution? Plan ahead.

“Some people don’t like planning because it hurts spontaneity,” Harris says. “But it actually helps create time for spontaneity. Work from the most important things down to the least important.”

3. Take responsibility.

When a project goes south or a promotion goes to a colleague instead of you, it’s easy to go into victim mode. But by constantly casting blame externally, you get stuck where you are because you’re not learning from the experience and getting better, Harris says.

“If you want to move forward, you have to take personal responsibility for your career,” he says. “Careers depend on choices we make. While we can’t control what happens to us, we can choose how we respond.”

So if you get passed over for a promotion, for example, find out why and strengthen those areas where you need improvement. Managers are impressed by employees who ask those questions — display the right mentality and attitude.

4. Know where you want to go.

It’s not uncommon to lose sight of the big-picture goals we need to progress in life and in careers. In short, you can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you want to go.

“You can always change directions,” Harris says. “But you always need something to aim for. Otherwise you end up just doing random things that don’t move you ahead.” 

As such, it’s crucial to understand your company’s goals, which in turn can help you formulate smaller goals that mesh well with those larger goals.

5. Keep educating yourself.

“If you’re not growing yourself — always learning new trends — you’re going to fall behind,” Harris says. “If you keep learning, you stay ahead of the game.”

Keep in mind that the average chief executive officer reads a book a week; it keeps them sharp and provides them with fresh perspectives. So if you want to keep moving forward, read books, take online tutorials, attend seminars and listen to podcasts that contain useful career information. And network like crazy with people who are where you want to be, Harris says.

“It’s said that from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is your job, but from 5-9 p.m. makes your career,” he says. “So listen to an educational podcast instead of watching TV.”

6. Don’t take feedback personally.

Too often we attach too much of our sense of self-worth to our jobs and careers. When that happens, we view feedback as an attack on our character rather than advice about how to get better.

To get around this behavior, it helps to adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. In the latter, we’re more apt to react negatively to feedback.

“We think, This is the way I am — I can’t change,” Harris says. “Then we’re less likely to take on challenges because we’re always afraid of failing or feeling deficient.” 

A growth mindset allows us to embrace feedback as a way to learn and grow. That’s crucial because if we don’t accept feedback graciously, people are less likely to provide it going forward.

7. Just say no.

Employees usually are reluctant to say no to requests for help because they fear appearing unhelpful. But every time you agree to take on a new task, keep in mind that you’re also saying no to something else. Moreover, it’s not your responsibility to rescue colleagues, Harris says.

“Time is limited, so you have to be wise about what you say yes to,” he says. “People are afraid people will be mad at them for saying no. But in fact, most people will actually respect that. It’s better to say no than to say yes and do a poor job — or even worse yet, don’t get the job done at all.”

But when you do say no, it’s critical to provide context about why you’re unable to take anything else on at the moment. And if it’s your boss making the request, be sure to ask for help in prioritizing which of your assigned tasks are more important; managers must fully understand all the demands weighing on your time.

8. Seek out opposing viewpoints.

Because our brains are hard-wired for confirmation bias, we often look for people who believe what we believe. That, in turn, can lead us to look only at things that confirm the decisions we want to make while ignoring the negatives. The result? Bad decision-making, Harris says.

“If we seek out people who disagree with us, we can make better decisions,” he says. “Alternate viewpoints can reveal holes in proposals or decisions.”

9. Spend time with the right people.

Author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once observed that we all are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. In other words, we become more like the people with whom we hang out.

“Spend time with successful people and observe what they do, not negative people who always complain about things,” Harris says. “Observe successful people’s behaviors and attitudes. Spend time with people you want to be like.”

10. Create structure for good decision-making.

Many of us are prone to making decisions on the fly — doing what feels good at the moment. When hiring people, for instance, you might be impressed by certain things that actually aren’t even important to the job for which they’re under consideration. As such, it’s critical to have objective criteria and structure in place to keep us on the right track, Harris says.

“Without structure, it’s easy to find something we like and base decisions on it,” he says. “We say, ‘That sounds good. Let’s do it.’ But it’s better to figure out ahead of time what’s most important and follow that structure. Sound criteria helps you make sound decisions.”


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