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A brief guide to personal development goals

What are professional development goals and how do you set them?

We’ll level with you. Many, many people start their careers borderline clueless. Not all of us have a detailed spreadsheet covering the next 10 years of our professional lives. But there is something a lot simpler that could definitely help you: professional development goals. 

Let’s get into it. 

What are professional development goals?

Professional development goals are known as the cornerstones of a successful career for a reason! These are well-thought-out targets we set for ourselves to upskill, broaden our knowledge, and improve our performance in our job roles. 

Once these goals have been identified, it usually leads to a personal development plan—which is an incredibly easy and helpful way to give your career a boost. Of course, there’s a lot to consider before you get there. 

For example, firstly, you’ll need to assess yourself. This means identifying your strengths and weaknesses, what your hard and soft skills are, and so on. (A SWOT analysis is definitely the way to go here!)

Next, you’ll want to define your goals. For this, we’d highly recommend using the SMART goals method. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. 

After that, it’s a matter of identifying what you need to realise these goals, such as mentorship, online courses, time, budget, etc. Once you have these details figured out, you can set your milestones based on this data and start working on your personal development plan.

Professional development can get overwhelming

Sounds like way too much work, right? Don’t let that get to you. Trust us when we say it’s a lot harder to go back and restart (time-travelling DeLoreans aren’t exactly easy to come by and nobody seems to know what a ‘flux capacitor’ is … or does).

Let’s talk about the baby steps you can take until you’ve got your personal development goals in order! 

1: Define what your goals are

Start out with an honest self-assessment. We say that because this will not work if you aren’t brutally honest with yourself. It’s alright to fudge the responses a bit on a Buzzfeed quiz on what kind of toast you are—we’ve all done that! But this step, unfortunately, has real-life consequences, unlike toast (as far as we know). 

Sit down with a paper—or a Google doc—and really reflect on your strengths and areas for improvement. For example, you could say your strength is communication, but you could definitely improve your time management. (This is not a callout, just an example.)

Consider your soft and hard skills, because these are very important and define what roles and opportunities will be available to you in the job market. 

This is also a good opportunity for you to research the competencies that are most popular in your industry of choice and check how they align with your career aspirations. 

2: Make your personal development goals SMART 

Firstly, like we said, a lot of people start out clueless, but things do eventually fall into place. That doesn’t mean we can’t use some additional help. 

Career goals will fall into place

We want your goals to be Specific or else you won’t be able to set out a clear path to realise them. No more vague aspirations. Instead of just saying, “I want to improve my communication skills,” make it more specific. For example, “I want to improve my public speaking skills and lead at least two pitches at work over the next three months.”

They need to be Measurable so you can track your progress, and definitely Achievable or else you’ll feel overwhelmed. Yes, I personally wanted to replace James Corden on late-night TV but I don’t have an English accent or the confidence to dance on a busy street in the middle of the day, so it’s already pretty unachievable, I’d say. That’s the sole reason I didn’t include it in my personal development plan and nothing else. 

Another important thing to remember is that your goals need to be Relevant. If your goal is to be the head of the finance department, learning how to train dolphins to dance to Newjeans may not be a relevant goal (but it’s a pretty great one regardless and somebody should definitely do it).

Finally, make sure they’re Time-bound. When do you need to reach this goal? Set down a timeline for it and make sure to be reasonable (for your own sake). “I’m going to write a 50,000-word sci-fi novel in one month” might be possible for some but it’s not for everyone.” Unreasonable timelines will wreck your progress.

And that’s how you make them SMART! 

3. Planning time!

Defining goals is just the start; now, let’s create a plan to turn those aspirations into reality. Think of this as your roadmap—your very own step-by-step guide to success.

Knowing what resources you need is a bit tricky—especially because the term itself comprises various different things. Let’s say you need to learn SEO but this is not your expertise, you just need it to supplement your writing role. What do you do? We’re learning a new skill—and you’ll need resources for that. 

Luckily, there are plenty of free resources online. But of course, let’s say you would prefer a certification. You might have to spend on that, and so money becomes something you need to further this goal—and if you have money, you have the resources to purchase your … other resources. 

Resource for professional development

List down the resources you need and the budget you can spare for each. Now that you’ve got that, we need to focus on time—the most valuable resource. You need to set aside a certain number of hours, be it daily, weekly or monthly, it doesn’t matter as long as it makes sense.

If you want to learn a new language at a beginner level within six months, that’s pretty doable but you’ll actually have to dedicate a few hours every week at least to do this. (Or stop ignoring your Duolingo notifications at the very least.)

Of course, this brings us to the next point.

4. Keeping it simple

Let’s continue to use the ‘learning a language at the beginner level in six months’ example. Right now, we have a general idea of what the goal is and the timeline for it. 

But now what? 

If, for example, you want to master basic French, your plan might involve researching a few apps or online courses, enrolling at an institute, setting study schedules, and so on. How do we make this simple? We break it down into smaller goals, put it on your timeline, and set milestones. 

You can divide your plan by months and come up with a structure. Identify what you need to do to learn basic French and organise them on a timeline from the first step to the last. 

You can also just focus on what you need to do each month. For example, the first two months might be dedicated to understanding French grammar and learning verbs. This helps you visualise your journey.

Your milestones mark your progress, allowing you to track how far you’ve come and adjust your plan if needed. But please remember that flexibility is important! Life happens, and your plan should be adaptable without compromising your end goal.

5. Track your progress

Setting goals and creating a plan is not a one-and-done deal; it’s an ongoing process. Continuous improvement is continuous—but how could you know if you’re continuing to improve if you’re not continuously tracking your progress? 

Continuous learning requires you to track your progress

It’s perfectly alright to be anxious about how much and how quickly you’re improving but not paying attention to it at all isn’t very helpful either.

Regularly check in on your progress. Use this to celebrate your achievements, reflect on challenges, and adjust your plan accordingly. (Remember, flexibility is key!)

Plus, reach out for feedback! Feedback is your friend, even when it’s critical. You can ask your colleagues, supervisors, or mentors to help you out with this. Take note of what they tell you and use it to refine your goals and action plan. 

Constructive criticism is a powerful tool for growth. If you think about it, a lot of companies and people actually pay to get their progress analysed. This way, you’re getting it for free! 

Constructive criticism is a helpful tool

It’s very important that you stay informed about industry trends. Allocate a couple of hours in your least busy time of day to read the news. Try to attend events and participate in online discussions. The professional landscape is ever-evolving, and staying ahead requires a commitment to lifelong learning. Networking will 100% generate many benefits for your career. 

Final thoughts

Your professional development journey may not always be straightforward. There might come a time when you’re uncertain about whether this is the right career path for you or if you’re not doing enough. It can be easy to give up on your goals when you face these challenges but you’re not alone in this.

The reason for all the effort you put into determining your professional development goals is that you do want to succeed. Sometimes hard work alone isn’t enough and it does require some planning and a little bit of … SMART. 

A well-thought-out action plan and a commitment to continuous improvement are the keys to success. Approach it with intention and purpose because your goals are not just aspirations; they are tangible steps toward a more fulfilling career.

As our old friend Benjamin Franklin once said, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” Embrace growth!



Kahless is a writer with a special interest in sociology. He spends much of his free time travelling, reading, writing, and stopping his cats from ripping apart everything he owns. It’s advised to bring along a strong cup of coffee (3 espresso shots minimum) when approaching him.

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