Job search: goals vs. processes

What differentiates people who are successful in their job search from those who are unsuccessful? That’s an important question I’ve been asking myself ever since I started taking my own professional development seriously, and the answer has eluded me – until I read James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’.


In it, he explains the difference between people who focus on goals and people who focus on processes. He explains:


“Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life is to set specific, actionable goals. For many years, this was how I approached my habits too. Each one was a goal to be reached. I set goals for the grades I wanted to get in school, for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, for the profits I wanted to earn in business. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them. Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.”

“Now for the interesting question: if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?”

“I think you would.”


When I read this passage, something ‘clicked’ in my mind. Having lofty goals is rarely the differentiating factor between those who succeed and those who fail. In fact, winners and losers usually have the same goal: to win. Merely having a goal is no guarantee that you will achieve it.


Instead, what happens if you switch your focus from your goals to your systems? How could that help your job search?


Let’s set things straight: I’m not telling you to throw all your goals out of the window. Goals are important. They provide direction. They can motivate you. And they can provide feedback: achieving a goal suggests you’ve done enough effective things to succeed while failing to achieve a goal suggests you didn’t. However, I suggest you approach goal-setting differently.


With regards to your job search, I think it pays to set a general, rough goal. For example: getting a job at a company you’re eager to work at in the next two months. This goal provides you with direction and, hopefully, it makes you feel excited. Now that you’ve set it, I want you to immediately think about the systems that you need to put in place to achieve that goal.


To help us design a good system, let’s take a look at the base rates of job search success. A quick search on the internet tells me that the average job-seeker is rejected 24 times before they are hired. Of course, the actual number is highly, highly dependent on your personal situation: where you live, what stage of your career you are in, what your background is, and so on. However, let’s run with it for now. This number might sound high to you, but what if we break it down even further?


What activities go into one single job application? Perhaps we come up with the following list of activities, as well as the time we estimate each one will take:


  • Preparing a base template for our CV we can edit per company (2,5 hours)

  • Preparing a base template for a cover letter we can edit per company (2,5 hours)

  • Compiling a list of companies we think we might like to work at (1 hour per 10 companies)

  • Reaching out to someone in that company to network (refer to this article to learn more about the hidden job market) (1 hour per 10 companies)

  • Editing our CV and cover letter and sending them out to a recruiter (1 hour per company)


This should be enough to get our foot in the door at a lot of companies. If we still hold the assumption that we need to do 24 applications, we now know that we will probably have to spend at least 2,5 + 2,5 + (1 x 2,4) + (1 x 2,4) + (1 x 24) = 35 hours over the next two months to receive a job.


Now, this calculation doesn’t yet include selection interviews and assessments, so let’s add those to be complete. Suppose that out of every three companies we apply to, one asks us to do a one-hour job interview. Now, suppose that we were to prepare for one hour per interview as well. This adds (24 / 3) * 2 = 16 hours to the total, resulting in 51 hours over the next two months.


You see how this works? Instead of just having the fuzzy goal of finding a job and starting to work on it without a clear system, we’ve broken things down into smaller parts. For me, this feels much more manageable. In this example, I now know I should plan about 25 hours per month to work on job applications. There are four weekends in a month, so I might work 7 hours each weekend. Now, you will possibly find a job long before those 51 hours are up – or long after. That’s not the point. The point is that you’ve created a clear, step-by-step system.


The biggest benefit of thinking like this is that it empowers you to act. You’ve made a realistic assessment of what you need to do to achieve your goal, and you’ve laid out a roadmap for getting there. All that’s left for you now is to do the work. This is where a bit of discipline comes in. This is where you need the tips and tricks I’ve written about before (and the many, many more you can find online). But the core is this: think processes, not goals.


How can you build your system?