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Goal Getting

How to Set Professional Development Goals for Success

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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One life goal that everyone has is having an established career. Everything that we do as humans is aimed towards one thing only—financial stability. Luckily, this article will help you learn about professional development goals that will lead you to this stage.

Reaching a well-settled stage in life is not that hard if you follow a systematic route. Consistent growth is the key to an established career. For consistent growth, you need to put in consistent hard work as well.

It may sound hard to manage but with the right professional development goals, you can build yourself gradually but successfully!

What is Success?

But what does ‘success’ really mean? Before setting goals, it’s crucial to define what success looks like for you. Where do you want all your hard work to take you? Work out what your final destination will be before taking the first steps.

Everyone knows the worn-out clichés: the sports car, the private jet, the big house. Society considers people who have these things to be ‘successful’.

But in reality, success can look different for everyone. It’s up to you to figure out what it will take for you to feel fulfilled and proud of your accomplishments.


So start by sitting down – pen in hand – to figure this out for yourself. Stephen Covey gives a great starting post in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.”

Why is Success Important?

Success is important because it drives us to be better. It’s our nature as humans to be ambitious. Without that hunger, our species wouldn’t have made it very far in our evolution. On a macro level, success motivates our societies, our companies, even our families to thrive – and keep thriving!

And feeling successful is important to our personal well-being too. Working towards goals gives you a sense of purpose. You’re also pushed to overcome challenges that seemed impossible before, which boosts your confidence.

One thing that all successful people share is their insatiable desire to be better. They never settle, and are always pushing themselves to unlock their true potential. It’s this attitude that has driven Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathoner of all time, to shatter world records throughout his career. His life motto? “No human is limited.”

How to Set Professional Development Goals

Professional development goals are not that different from general life goals. But they’re also not quite the same. Here’s a quick guide on how to plan your professional goals for success and stability!

1. Keep Them SMART

Regardless of the category of goals you’re devising, it’s extremely important and the number one priority to keep them SMART, always.


If you’re not familiar with SMART goals, it’s an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. These are all the qualities that your goals should have.

Specificity defines exactly what you want. So, if you want to progress, what defines this progress needs to be specified. The progress needs to be in some form of a measurable unit so that you can weigh your achievement.

Moreover, goals need to be realistically achievable otherwise they’re useless. Relevance to the rest of your goals, life morals, values, etc. is also necessary. Lastly, your goals need to have a time-frame so that you’re not left procrastinating.

2. Start With the Big Picture

Most things in life require you to start from step one. However, when you’re setting goals for professional development, you start at the end. Basically, you need to have the final destination in mind.

What is it that you’re truly striving to get? Only with the end in mind can you develop a relevant plan. It will keep you from wandering around purposelessly.[1]

Moreover, the big picture keeps you motivated. You’ll always be well aware of what you’re going to achieve by putting in the hard work that you’re required to. This is especially important in professional development goals because you do not have enough room to experiment when you’re trying to make progress career-wise. Hence, with the bigger, end goal in mind, you can plan everything else accordingly.


You’ll have a rough estimate of the time you have to fulfill this final goal too. For example, if you give yourself 5 years, you’ll know how to time the rest of the minor goals to be able to fulfill the big picture on time.

3. Break it Down

Although you start with the final picture in mind, you shouldn’t make the mistake of aiming for it in one go. As ambitious as it sounds, it’s going to be a major fail.

Once you’ve decided on the final destination, it’s time to break it down. Make smaller goals that contribute to the bigger aim. Break it down to easily achievable chunks based on smaller periods.

For example, if your professional goal is to be the head of the department by the end of next year, you have to start working on it on a weekly and monthly basis. You’ll start by outperforming your job responsibilities weekly. Your plan should be to be the assistant head of the department in the next 6 months.

Other similar minor goals are the small stepping stones that you need to get to the end of the lake. If you try to go across in one jump, you’re likely to fall and make a mess.

4. Use Your Performance Evaluations

The biggest ease in professional development goals is the availability of a third person’s opinion, especially an expert’s. Life goals are generally harder to work on due to the lack of understanding of your standing.


On the other hand, your performance evaluations in your workplace are a major convenience. You know exactly where you’re doing well so you can continue doing it the same way. Your goals around your strong qualities can be to keep them consistent.

Similarly, you’re also told where you’re lagging behind. Therefore, you can plan goals to improve them accordingly.

Another benefit of performance evaluations is that you can measure your progress. Your evaluation before your goals versus after you’ve worked on the goals will show you an authentic outcome of your efforts.

5. There’s Always More to Learn

A stagnant career is a result of overestimating yourself. This isn’t the only reason but one of the major contributing factors. If you want to continue growing consistently, you need to have a mindset where you’re always open to new knowledge.[2]

One thing you should imprint in your mind is that you can never gain all the knowledge in the world. This isn’t because you’re incapable of doing so. Instead, it’s because there’s something new to learn every day.

Even if you’re on your desired stage of success, do not give up learning. Never develop the mindset that you know everything. The day you do so, your downfall will begin.

What are ‘SMART’ Goals?

Here’s a quick guide to setting SMART goals.

A goal without direction is just a distant dream. ‘SMART’ is a popular acronym designed to help you set better goals that are realistic and tangible. Basically, strong goals meet five criteria: they’re Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.


If you want to succeed, make sure your goals tick all these boxes.

Let’s look at some examples. Shelby wants to get fit. But that goal is weak. It’s too vague, impossible to measure, and – before she knows it – she’s halfway through a tub of ice cream.

If we made her goal SMART, it might look something more like this: “I want to attend a cross fit class at my local gym 3 times a week for the next 3 months.”

Now, Shelby’s goal is more specific. She wants to start crossfit. But it’s also easy to measure her progress. She wants to go 3 times a week. Plus it’s achievable because she knows where, when, and how she’s going to do it. 3 times a week is more realistic than going every day. And lastly, her goal has a time limit. She’s committing to this routine for the next 3 months.

Maybe you want to get better at presenting data? A SMART version of that goal might be: “I want to devote 45 minutes to prepare thoroughly for my presentations over the next month.”

Apply this process to all your goals and you’ll set yourself up for success.

Examples of Professional Development Goals to Have

If you need some help getting started, the following examples of professional development goals will help you kick-off. Start with these basics. You can then gradually start moving towards personalized, bigger goals in the long run.

1. Improve Time Management

No matter where you work, what your post is, or what work you do, time management is the key because time is money in this world.


You need time management skills to balance your work life and personal life for mental peace. You need it to manage your work responsibilities for professional stability. Work towards improving your time management skills if you want to accomplish big things.

2. Work on Your Communication Skills

Communication plays its part in every aspect of life. But when it comes to a professional setting, you’re as good as your communication skills are. No matter how creative and authentic your ideas are, it’s useless unless you can get the message across,.

Hence, right off the bat, if you want to develop your professional skills, work on communication for sure. Once you learn to get your thoughts across properly, you’ll open many new doors for yourself.

3. Polish Your Presentation Skills

Another significant work goal you should have is to work on your presentation skills. This is a more formal way of communication. Moreover, presentations have a lot more to them than just the words that you speak.

Whatever mode of presentation you’re using, the way you’re dressed, how you speak, and your body language are all part of your presentation skills. Learn how to present in what circumstances so that you can prove to be a valuable asset in front of your clients and superiors.

4. Learn Teamwork

Very few people enjoy teamwork. Yet, it is a part of most workplaces and work projects.

If you’re someone who despises working with others, make it your goal to change that. You need to get comfortable with people who have different working styles. You need to learn to have a say in a group of people without overpowering everyone else.


5. Get Organized

Organized surroundings and thoughts are the only way to let creativity come through. Wherever you work, improve your organization skills. It will help you manage time better as well. Moreover, organized thoughts will boost your communication and inventiveness as well. These qualities will make you a valued employee in your organization.

6. Boost Your Learning Ability

This goal is something that is on everyone’s mind but it usually doesn’t translate to actions. It is perceived to be something so general that it is ignored in the process of professional growth.

Breakdown this goal in two parts: learn about yourself and then learn other things. So, start by identifying your learning style. This will aid in the second part of the process.

After that, take steps to improve your existing skills and learn new ones. Enroll in courses, learn from your co-workers, take feedback to learn more about your performance, and most importantly, don’t shy away from asking for help in learning new things.

Examples of Short-Term Professional Development Goals

It’s also helpful to break up these goals into short and long term. Short term goals should be achievable in anything from a week to a few months. Here are some examples for your inspiration:

1. Gain a New Skill

There’s always more to learn. Whether it’s a new software, project managing tool, or coding language, pick up a new skill that will help you stand out in your office. Imagine yourself in the job position you want and ask, “What skill would I need to be that person?”


Nowadays, there are plenty of online courses or webinars available. And if you’re lucky, your company might sponsor your upskilling too.

2. Revamp Your Email System

We spend so much of the work day responding to emails. Establish a system that makes the process more efficient and you’ll save precious work time.

Rigorously organize your inbox using labels and boxes. Block out times of the day to focus solely on dealing with emails. Write better, more concise emails. The internet is full of email hacks that will boost your productivity.

3. Take a Leadership Training Course

Enrol yourself in a leadership program. If you want a promotion, you need to show your boss that you’re able to take on added responsibilities. Taking a course like this can really help you establish yourself as a future leader and mentor in your workplace. Courses are time-consuming, but a new qualification can make your resume shine.

Examples of Long-Term Professional Development Goals

Long-term goals are more of an investment in yourself. These might only be attainable in a year – but they pay off in the long run. Here are some examples:

1. Expand Your Network

Knowing the right people is key to getting ahead. So put effort into building a solid network of colleagues, both in-person and online.


Build relationships with colleagues who attend conferences, and stay in touch regularly. Maintain an active presence on social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. All this contributes to your name recognition and reputation, and opens yourself up to new opportunities.

2. Become More Assertive

Nobody likes an aggressive co-worker. But if you’re too passive, you won’t get noticed. Being assertive during meetings or on projects shows your boss that you’re confident and ready to progress to new challenges.

Start small. Challenge yourself to raise points in meetings and to advocate for your own ideas. Speak up when you disagree with a colleague’s conduct or point of view – respectfully. People will notice your newfound confidence.

3. Get Better at Giving And Receiving Constructive Feedback

Getting feedback can be uncomfortable. But instead of getting defensive, be open and treat that feedback as an opportunity to get better. This attitude shows your colleagues that you respect their opinion and are humble enough to learn.

Giving constructive feedback is an art too. Make a point of affirming colleagues when they produce great work, and state clearly how you think something could be done better.

The Takeaway

Setting professional development goals might seem like an extra step. It is a reinforcement of what you’re supposed to or want to do anyway. However, defining these aims in the form of goals is a personal commitment. It strengthens your willpower to turn your wishes to reality.


Professional development goals help you reach the destination that you may think is way out of your access. It breaks down the long journey into milestones that are realistic and easy to reach.

The guideline along with the examples given above are the perfect push start you need to start your journey of professional growth. So, without wasting any more time, start planning your road to success by coming up with effective professional development goals for yourself!

More About Professional Development Goals

Featured photo credit: Scott Graham via unsplash.com


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