Getting out of the military is a big change. For at least four years, service was not just a job; it was a way of life, and there’s nothing else like it. Even considering leaving the military can leave service members confused and worried about an uncertain future.

It’s a daunting thought because no other job consumes every aspect of life the way the military does. People working in office jobs for Ford or Microsoft don’t plan every moment of their day around their jobs. Where to live, what to wear and even what we eat for lunch can be dictated by the needs of the military.

As far as the actual job goes, 22-year-olds working at an Amazon warehouse aren’t repairing F-22 fighters. That’s quite a lot of fulfilling responsibility to replace in one’s everyday life. It’s not always easy to decide on a goal that would provide the same fulfillment.

The road may be a long one, but here’s a path to get you started.

1. Declare your real desire.

Think about what you really, really want out of a post-military life. Do you want a life of adventure in a job that allows you to travel abroad for work? Maybe you prefer stability, settling down for married life, home ownership and children. There are no wrong answers, just different ways of living.

Be honest with yourself about what really would make you happy. Then write it in a strong, declarative and specific statement. The specificity not only helps motivate you to achieve the goal, but it can help in planning to reach that goal.

2. Plan how you can achieve those desires.

This is an important step because these are the benchmarks you must meet to get where you truly desire to be in life. Maybe you chose the life of traveling for work. This means you’ll need to find a career that requires that travel or a particular skill people need in that sector.

In one of my personal past jobs, I was a traveling photographer and an aid worker in the Middle East and Africa. To get there, I needed the skills of a photographer and the education in the geographic area where I was working.

To achieve this, I needed to learn photography and build a portfolio. I also needed to get a degree in international relations with a focus on the Middle East. To boot, I also sharpened my design and written communications skills to set me above others looking for the same job. These are three benchmarks I had to meet to qualify for the job, my goal.

3. Set SMART goals.

SMART is a term borrowed from corporate America, but it’s a good one. It’s an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. All it asks you to do is consider these five areas when setting your next goal.

You were already specific about your desires and the steps required to get you there. Now you only need to make sure they’re attainable and realistic, give yourself a timeline for success and create a means of monitoring your progress to each goal. If you genuinely can say that all your goals meet the SMART qualifications, you can achieve them.

4. See your motivation.

Beyond making yourself inherently content, consider why you want to achieve these goals you’ve set. It could be almost anything. Maybe you want to see as much of the world as possible. Maybe you have a son or daughter to provide for. There’s no wrong answer in this step, either.

No matter what drives you, make sure you physically can see your motivation every day. It is a reminder to you of why you’re waking up so early, why you’re writing 50-page papers or why you’re working so hard to fix up a very old house on a shoestring budget. No matter what goal or benchmark you’re working on, a visual reminder of your “why” is the best motivator.

5. See the progression.

With each goal and benchmark you meet — even if it comes a little later than planned — take a second to look back on how far you’ve come. Even though you set realistic and attainable goals for something you really wanted, it was probably difficult to imagine life at any step along the way.

It was probably also hard to imagine yourself repairing the avionics on an F-35, leading a platoon or performing any military function while you were still in high school, but you made it there.

Now, look back on how far you’ve come. Realize that even though it’s hard to imagine reaching your primary objective from where you are, you felt that way at every step along the way — and you still made your intended progress. Let that faith in yourself drive you to keep going.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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