When setting professional development goals, it can be tempting to pick a lot of things to work on in an effort to be ambitious and driven. “It’s impressive,” you might think, “to be aware of all growth areas and to be committed to working on them. I can grow in all of these areas simultaneously and immediately.”
A lot of people fall into this trap. It is great to have a sense of what you need to work on, and to have a list of the three to five focus areas for the year - but it is a mistake to try to tackle all of these areas at once.
You should ideally focus on one development area at a time. Set goal(s) to get to where you need to be in that one area, and then move on to the next area. It’s better to intensely focus on one area for two months, and then a second area for two months, and then a third area for two months, than it is to try to tackle all three simultaneously over six months.
When you are learning new things, your brain is working harder and in a different way. This work can cause mental fatigue, which can make everything seem more difficult and can decrease your motivation. As you improve and a new skill becomes second nature, however,the load on your brain lightens. (You can read more about the science of learning in this article and this article, both of which effectively synthesize the research.)
If you are working on a lot of new things at the same time, you will become fatigued and worn out more quickly. This may lead you to abandon your goals, or to get frustrated with how long it takes you to learn something new. You may find it unmotivating to make small gains in a lot of different areas, rather than to make significant strides in one focus area. If you home in on one goal at a time, you are giving your brain a chance to flex and grow.
How should I choose what to focus on?
You should focus on the area where improvement and/or experience is the most important to achieve your overall career goals. If you have several areas that seem equally important, consider a few things to isolate one:
What do you know about yourself that can help guide you? When you are taking on a project or tackling a to-do list, do you like to start with the biggest, hardest task first, or do you like to knock off the easy ones? If you relate to the former, then pick a more challenging or involved development area. If you identify with the latter, then select one that will be easier for you to develop.
What’s your confidence level and how much mental energy do you have? Are you energized and feeling amazing about yourself and your work? If so, tackle a big, scary development area. Are you on the lower end of the confidence or energy spectrum? Pick an area, that, while still challenging, offers some quicker, easier wins for you to build momentum and gain assurance.
Learning new things takes work, and your own personal style and energy levels are critical considerations. You should always push yourself, but you should also take care to set yourself up for success.
Here are some ways to collect information to inform which development areas you should focus on:
Reviews: Reviews often contain development needs. Look at your most recent one, if it’s not outdated, and see what your manager identified for you. If it cites several areas without any sense of priority, have a conversation with your manager about which is the most important and pick that one off first.
Exemplars: Are you looking for a promotion? Have a conversation with someone at the next level about their experiences and priorities. Are you trying to excel in your current role? Seek out the aces around you and learn about their successes and strategies. Are you looking to change roles? Talk to people who are in the role you want, especially if they made the same switch you’re aiming to make. Speak honestly with these people about their success factors, adjustment challenges, and the most trying shortcomings they’ve worked through - and be upfront with them about your own experiences, strengths, and weaknesses.
Your Manager: It is your manager’s job to help you manage your growth. Tell them where you’d like to go in your career and ask them what you need to improve to get there. Ideally, you come with a list of ideas so you’re giving them something to react to. Have a conversation about what inspired their choice. Then enlist their help in setting goals and creating action plans. Give them access to your goal and set check-ins with them, or, integrate a growth conversation into your regular 1-1s.
Other Leaders: Talk to people who make hiring and promotion decisions for the roles that are relevant to you. Ask them what they look for. Be upfront with them about yourself, your history, your expertise and talents, as well as your deficiencies.
I’m being told I should work on twenty things!
As you assess your review, feedback from your manager, and your conversations with other leaders, you’re likely seeing a substantial list of things that you need to excel at to achieve your long term career goals.
As you do your regular day-to-day job, you’re getting exposure to many different skills, competencies, experiences, and behaviors. . As a result of this exposure, you’re learning and improving, albeit at a slower rate and in a more erratic pattern than when you explicitly and consciously focus on one particular area. When you choose to focus on one area at a time, you make a pledge to yourself to actively and deliberately work hard on that area.
What does it mean to “actively and deliberately work hard”? It means you will set goals and build action plans that are explicitly designed to help you learn, improve, or achieve what’s required to get where you want to go.. If you’re struggling to create your action plan, you’re going to get help. If you can’t find time to work towards your goal, you’re going to make time.. You’re going to proactively seek out feedback so you can get external input on your performance.
Then, as you get to the end of your action plan, and get closer to achieving your goals, you’ll look back and realize you’ve dramatically improved, and it’s time for you to move on to your next active area of focus.