stressed woman

Setting goals is par for the course when it comes to your career. Whether it’s for the near future like “land a new job within three months” or long-term, like “become partner at the firm in 10 years,” it’s natural to make plans.

And deadlines can be a good thing. They help you gauge whether you’re moving in the right direction and keep you motivated. But forcing yourself to stick to a schedule when it doesn’t make sense can be ineffective, and even hold you back.

That’s because piling on the pressure to reach milestones without considering fluid definitions of success is limiting. With this in mind, here are a few common career deadlines that don’t actually exist, so you might as well cross them off your list and stop stressing about them.

Fake Deadline #1: Get Promoted Every 2 Years

It makes sense that someone who wants to grow in his role has his eye on a promotion. However, the schedule for advancement is often less clear. Sure, some companies have a timetable for these types of opportunities, but others may not have structured expectations for how employees move up. Plus, the role you think you want in two years might completely evolve (because of your changing goals or the company’s) over time.

So, instead of deciding that you want a promotion in a certain amount of time, observe the company culture, organizational structure, and ask some preliminary questions about growth within the company. People may see their roles shift at different stages based on a variety of factors and it’s more beneficial for you to know what these considerations are than to hit an arbitrary date.

For example, if you work in an environment where a promotion only becomes available when a manager leaves, you may want to consider other alternatives for creating value in the role you have right now. This allows you to shift your focus from the amount of time you’ve put into a company to one in which you can excel and bring increased value to your team—and that’ll definitely lead to more exciting opportunities than hoping your boss dressing nicer than usual means she’s interviewing other places.

Fake Deadline #2: Make Over $100,000 in 5 Years

Yes, salary is the foundation for the kind of lifestyle, experiences, and things you have, and a little (more) can go a long way. So, aiming high in this category and setting a career deadline to double your income (or get into a higher income bracket by a certain age) is common. And wanting to make more money can motivate you to do things like negotiate your salary.

But setting a deadline to make a certain amount can lead to the false impression that more money will bring more happiness, and that once you hit that number all of your problems will go away. (Spoiler: They won’t.)

So, before you sign on for a role you’re not excited about just because it’s a pay boost, ask yourself what difference that extra income will make (compared to dreading work each day). You may find that if you have enough to cover your bills and save, you’d be happier passing up a less-inspiring role with longer hours—regardless of the bump—so you can nurture other parts of your life instead.

Fake Deadline #3: Leave the Company in 3 Years

For as much fear as there is surrounding job-hopping, a lot of people also set arbitrary deadlines so they’re not at a company for too long. After the excitement wears off at a new job, you think: “I’ll stay at the firm for two years, get my CPA, and then go into corporate” or “I’ll stay until I get enough experience and then I’ll start my own freelancing business.”

While planning can build clarity on next steps and help you manage current expectations, it can also set a negative tone for the present moment. Maybe a job doesn’t exactly line up with what you were hoping for or the advancement just isn’t there. But keeping one eye on the door can distract you from the current opportunities you already have access to. So, look to acquire more skills to become qualified for more opportunities—be they at this company or somewhere else. It’ll help you build a more balanced mindset, now and in the future. Trust me: When you’ve outgrown this position, you’ll know—and it’s OK if three years pass and you’re still happy to be there.

Creating career deadlines is all about balance. Planning ahead is a solid way to visualize what you want to achieve, but it can lose value if you only see those deadlines in black and white. Often times, new opportunities and unique ideas come from the gray areas, and strict schedules don’t always encourage that creativity. If you have a milestone you keep missing, remind yourself that it may not really exist and consider taking it off the list.

Updated 6/19/2020