The New Year is an opportunity to look again at your goals and ask yourself if they are taking you and your career in the right direction. Sheila Williams explains

2009 has arrived and I wonder whether you have spent any time reviewing your goals or setting new ones? Or, to put it another way, have you made any New Year resolutions? For what are resolutions other than goals - something we want to be, do or have? This time of year reminds me of two clients who changed their lives by making and achieving courageous and challenging goals.

Janice was a qualified accountant in the NHS. After attending a personal development workshop, she asked me for help with setting her next career goals. At our first session she came armed with four or five options, each well documented and SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound.

As we discussed each potential goal, I noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm. We explored each goal, why she had chosen it and what success would look like. Eventually she confided that she had based them on what people expected of her: they were what she was "supposed" to do. She admitted she had drifted between a number of posts without any real aspirations.

We probed this area further. I asked if she had ever had a dream, a real passion to do, be or have something. There was a long silence and finally she revealed that when younger she had been an accomplished equestrian and dreamed of owning or managing a stable yard. However, under some pressure from her family, she had given up the idea as impractical and too expensive and moved into accountancy. Now married, she and her husband enjoyed a good standard of living but the workshop had stirred up her earlier dream and she felt she was now at some critical decision point in her life.

Cut loose

Chrissie attended the same workshop, having similar issues. After achieving degrees in biology and zoology, she entered the health service as a medical laboratory scientific officer. Her manager was encouraging her to take her first steps into management. She was at a crossroads in her life. Her marriage had ended and she wanted to take stock. Like Janice, she had well formulated goals yet admitted she did not feel motivated: "I just feel as though I want to cut loose but I don't know how."

We discussed what "cut loose" meant for her and she eventually defined it as doing something personally fulfilling that made a difference in the world, however small. She did not believe that moving into management would provide her with what she wanted yet she did not want to let down other people, particularly her manager. It emerged that she had an active interest in conservation issues and wanted to use her qualifications to aid that purpose.

By the end of the time we had together, both these women had career plans mapped out. But they also developed a second plan - their "dream plan" as they both called it, encompassing far more challenging goals. Both agreed to reflect on their plans and promised to let me know which paths they chose.

Some months later Janice phoned me. I barely recognised her cheerful voice. "Guess what? We're down in the New Forest. I'm running a stable yard and my husband has a job as a practice manager. We love it." A little after that Chrissie emailed saying she had left her job and signed up with a conservation agency. She was about to leave for some tropical clime to monitor the hatching of the season's turtle eggs.

Not all of us want to do what these two women did; nor am I advocating a mass exodus from the NHS. But their decisions made me wonder how many of us put aside our real dreams and passions to follow what seems to be a safer or more "sensible" path. Do our commitments and responsibilities mean that we dismiss them as impractical or mere youthful follies? Do we ever look at those dreams again and re-evaluate the possibilities for fulfilling them?

My challenge to you for this New Year is to look again at your goals. Do they still inspire and motivate you? Are you shaping your career and your life or are they shaping you? Are there dreams and aspirations you have put aside? Are they so very much out of reach?

Tips for goal setting

  • Think deeply about why you want to achieve your goal.

  • Visualise success. What would it look, sound, or feel like?

  • Write down the goal, in detail. Express it positively rather than something you want to avoid. The act of writing it down turns it into something more tangible, no longer just a thought. It has become something that motivates and creates a deep sense of purpose. Set yourself a time period for achieving the goal.

  • Now you know what you want and why, brainstorm all the different ways by which you could achieve it; capture these ideas. Do not evaluate or dismiss any of them at this stage - you are creating options for yourself.

  • Start organising your ideas. If necessary, break the overall goal down into stages, each with its own timescale. Consider priorities and natural sequences of actions; identify resources. Root out and challenge any self-limiting beliefs.

  • Make the goal visible to you every day: stick a note on your computer; print it out and put it in a picture frame on the desk; print it out as a "business card" and keep it in a wallet or purse; make a screensaver or print it on a mouse mat.

  • Identify the very first physical action to take towards achieving your goal - and do it. This leads you to identify the next step, and so on.

  • Celebrate your successes along the way.

  • Do not be afraid of changing your mind. Goals are not set in concrete.