Training & Development

6 Steps to Setting Professional Development Goals—and Actually Reaching Them

person working on laptop
PeopleImages/Getty Images

Your skill set is your career capital. That’s why it’s so important to invest time and energy into your professional development. By doing so, you’ll hone your functional expertise, get better at the job you have now, and prepare yourself to take the next step in your career (and the one after that, and the one after that).

So it’s no surprise that professional development is top priority for so many career-minded folks. In fact, in a 2018 survey of users of The Muse, having access to learning and development opportunities was the most important factor for job-seekers—even more than compensation.

But you don’t have to wait for your company to provide on-the-job training for you. You can take initiative to set your own professional development goals and build a strategy to reach them. The best part? You can make progress toward your goals whether you’re working from home, between jobs, or employed full-time.

That said, figuring out how to set and reach your own goals does take thought and careful commitment. Here’s how to tackle the task:

1. Start With Your End Goal in Mind

If you don’t have a target, it’s hard to hit the bullseye. First, envision your future. Where do you want to be? What will your title be? What kind of company will you work for? What new skills will you have? What will you have achieved?

Then, work backward for each answer. Figure out what it will take to get there, the skills and experience required, and any training or certification you’ll need.

2. Review Your Most Recent Performance Evaluation

Not sure what you need to work on? Look back at your last performance review for hints about where you could use some upgrades.

Or ask your boss, “If I could improve one thing in the next quarter, what do you think would help me most?”

3. Set SMART Goals

If your objectives are too vague, your to-do list will be all over the place. To make sure that your goals are easy to understand—and it’s clear when they’re reached—they should be:

  • Specific: Your goal must be clear and distinct. Make sure you know what you want to accomplish, why it’s important, who is involved, where you need to be to complete the task, and which resources you need to do it.
  • Measurable: This helps you track your progress towards accomplishing the task.
  • Achievable: It needs to be realistic in order for you to succeed.
  • Relevant: Your goal has to matter to you, and it must align with your other goals and long-term plans.
  • Time-bound: Every goal needs a deadline to keep you accountable.

For example, you might set a goal of completing a certification course before the end of the year or building a basic one-page personal website before the end of the month.

4. Create a Strategy for Reaching Each Goal

Break down your goals into smaller tasks to give yourself achievable milestones along the way. For example, if your goal is to get an Excel certification, you might research online training courses and certification costs. Then, you’d ask your HR department if there’s a budget for learning and development. Next, you’d sign up for a course. Finally, you’d take (and pass!) the certification exam.

5. Make Time to Pursue Your Goal

No matter what your objective is, you’ll need to consciously carve out the space in your schedule to make it happen. You may have to temporarily cut out one activity, like watching TV. Or you could set aside one hour a day in the morning, at night, or on your lunch break to work on your goal.

6. Regularly Check in With Yourself

Make a weekly or monthly appointment to track your progress. How’s it going? How are you doing? You may also consider pairing up with a friend or coworker to keep each other on track.

infographic illustrating 6 steps for setting professional development goals
Infographic design by Dena Verdesca

Updated 6/19/2020