[PD as CD] Part 3: Setting and Following Through on Professional Development Goals

In the first two posts of this professional development as career development mini series, we learned what PD is, where you should find PD, and how to figure out which skills to focus on. But none of this is helpful if you don’t do anything with this information! In this one, we’ll go over how to set your goals and follow through on them. In addition, you’ll learn how to incorporate professional development into your not-at-work time. This last bit has been helpful to me, so I hope it has the same impact on you.

The importance of a quick win.

Depending on what your skill gaps are, it might be a bit overwhelming to come up with a plan of action. If you’re in a career changer situation, you probably have quite a few things that you can work on. So where do you start? With the easiest one!

I’m a huge fan of having a quick win when starting a new path because it makes me more likely to continue if I feel like I’ve done something. This isn’t just me and my ego though, it’s backed up by science! Social Cognitive Theory teaches that positive experiences make individuals more likely to persist with a particular task because they are more likely to believe that they can accomplish it. This pans out in study after study (including my own dissertation), and has held true in a variety of environments. The reason for this is that people build self-efficacy through these experiences, thus making them more likely to trust their skills, even in an unfamiliar situation.

In other words: If you believe it, you can achieve it… But you’re more inclined to believe you can do something if you’ve already achieved something in that arena.

This is why you should start with the easy tasks first, then work your way to the more difficult ones. If you start with the hard stuff first, you’re less likely to get through everything necessary to close the skill gap enough to make the career change you’re trying to make. Your professional development could stall, and you’ll remain stuck. All bad!

Plan for your plan.

When setting your professional development goals, look at what you’re trying to accomplish and group the skills that fit together (or build upon each other). For example: If one of your goals is to learn Visual Basic but you’re a little iffy on Excel, then start with Excel training then move on to the programming stuff. Skill families are best to tackle together, and this is easiest to accomplish when you’re organized. Once you have your skill sets together, order them from easiest to hardest. (If everything looks hard, then figure out which one you’ll like to learn the most and start there. The key is to have a positive experience.)

But this isn’t goal setting!

I know. I know. But this is step zero for your goal setting: planning for your plan. By grouping your skills and ordering them, you can more easily figure out a plan of action that you will actually follow through on. You want to be successful, right? Thought so.

Create the action plan.

Once you’ve planned for your plan, it’s time to create one. Write out the tasks you’d like to accomplish and give yourself concrete deadlines for accomplishing them. As I’ve said before, deadlines can be your productivity BFF so don’t be intimidated by marking them on your calendar! If you really want to do it, you’ll keep to the schedule.

The key to creating a solid plan of action is for it to be realistic. Be honest with yourself about what you’d like to accomplish by when. It’s okay to take things slow! Your action plan is for you, so no need to be speedy with it. Give yourself the flexibility to make mistakes, do things multiple times until you get them right, quit for like a day, come back, etc. You know how you roll, so pay attention to that.

When I create action plans to learn things that don’t come easily to me, I always build in ‘contemplate my entire existence’ time because that’s what I do when I’m frustrated. It’s weird, but it works. Do what you know will work for you! 

Make it impossible to ignore your plan.

To ensure that you actually follow your plan, you have to keep it in your face. You have to make sure that your deadlines in a place where you can’t ignore or forget them. Put it in your planner. Set alarms on your phone. Create stickie notes and put them around your house. Do something so that your goals are always in your face. One thing that works for me it to put them on both my Google calendar and iCal since I’m either always on my computer (and logged into Google) or on my iPhone so there is no escape. Figure out a way to keep yourself on task without overwhelming or annoying yourself.

Start right away.

I’ve seen this a million times: Person make a plan. Person feels very proud of themselves for making a plan. Person revels in the pride of making a plan. Person loses motivation to act on the plan. Person never acts on the plan.

Don’t be Person!

Instead of going on a victory lap, get right to work. Kudos are great but you don’t want to celebrate yourself away from inaction. Ride the wave of accomplishment to getting more accomplished. Take the feeling that you have and use it as motivation towards getting the job done.

Build in rewards.

I’m a huge fan of lab rat-style motivation: complete a task, get a prize. For me, it helps with breaking up the work time and with keeping me motivated to get through something that I otherwise might want to quit. While I’d never tell you what your reward should be, I think that the key to properly utilizing a rewards system is to make them big enough (and meaningful enough) to make the task worth it.

When you add your action plan to your calendar, put in your reward, too. It will help you keep the mini-goal in perspective through the drudgery.

Figuring out the when.

The above plan is helpful in planning for professional development because it ensures that you’ll follow through with what you’d like to accomplish. When you’ve put in the time and effort to creating something that will fit with your goals and you life, it is much easier to just do it. Follow the plan and get it done!

Like many things in life, this is much easier said then done. You can have the best plan in the world but life can get in the way. In order to combat this, you have to be just as deliberate with figuring out when you’ll tackle your action plan as you are with creating it.

The easiest place to do professional development is as work, but this isn’t always possible. Whether it’s an unsupportive boss or an environment not conducive to learning new skills, there are a host of reasons why this could prove not feasible for you. If this is your reality, all hope isn’t lost! You just have to be creative.

Think about the skills that you’re trying to learn and see if there are other places that you could apply them. Can you incorporate them into your side hustle? This approach helped me out with my own professional development plan when I realized that I wanted to get better at creating online resources. I saw that this was the direction that my industry was headed, but knew that I wouldn’t be able to convince my supervisor at the time that investing in learning new technologies would be a good use of my time. So I started creating interactive worksheets and writing a newsletter as a way to gain some skills in this area. Those skills came in handy when I left that job because my new company had no one on the team who could do those things.

If you don’t have a side hustle, look for ways to learn new things as self-care. I wouldn’t advise this for things that might frustrate you (since that’s the exact opposite of self-care!) but perhaps the soft skills that you’d like to gain can be creatively honed through a relaxing activity. Think outside of the box so that you can get out of your box!

When I work with people on professional development goals and plans, it always seems that the former is easier to come up with than the latter. Planning and preparation are sexy, but they’re necessary. If you’re intentional about creating an action plan for your goals, you’re so much more likely to achieve them!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.