January 25, 2024

How to Set Goals When You Don't Know Where to Start

Nayab Cheema, Customer Success Executive

Setting personal development goals that you can make progress on every day will inspire you to do your best work and become your best self. If you’re not sure where or how to start, this blog post shares the tips and tricks that helped me define mine.

But before we get into that, what should personal development goals be and why do they matter?

There’s no one-size-fits-all way of thinking about setting personal development goals- it’s entirely down to your preference and what works for you. Whether you already have a specific goal you’re working towards or you’re looking to develop a new skill, you can choose what your goal is and how to approach it. Hopefully, you have a workplace that supports you in identifying it as well.

So why does personal development matter? Bear with me here, but it’s less about what you’re developing and more so about how you feel when you’re achieving something. That is the definition of personal development.

Developing yourself through mastering a new skill gives you a sense of satisfaction that, in turn, drives you to want to keep improving. When we achieve something, we're more likely to repeat the process which got us there. Repetition allows us to get better at the process, and as a result, learning and achievement become a cyclical process.

Think about how you feel when you’re hitting a new personal best in the gym — the sense of satisfaction that you get is what continues to motivate you to keep lifting, trying heavier weights each time. That said, achievement alone can only carry you so far. To really fuel your desire to achieve your goals you should have a vested interest and passion in them. As we’ll see in the next section, it’s the dedication to our goals in addition to feeling fulfilled that drives us to continually work towards our goals.

4 Months and 200 Failed Attempts

Working at Learnerbly means I get to spend most of my time talking about really cool (well, I think it’s cool) learning and development (L&D) stuff. 

One of my favourite clips to show people is this clip from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The documentary follows acclaimed sushi chef, Jiro Ono, who operates a tiny restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. 

At 94, Jiro has dedicated his entire life to his craft by making the same sushi in more or less the same way for decades and practising the same techniques constantly. “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit,” Jiro explains. 

Already a world-renowned chef, Jiro continues to hone his skill, waking up early with a deliberate resolve to work harder and do better than the previous day. In his own words, he says “All I want to do is make better Sushi”, and he does it with the spirit of a Shokunin or ‘craftsman’.

Repetition and refinement are the keys to his success, and you can see the same work ethic reflected in his apprentices. 

This particular clip tells the story of Jiro’s apprentice, Daisuke, and his efforts to make the perfect egg sushi. Daisuke’s journey took him around 4 months and over 200 failed attempts to perfect. With each attempt he refined his skills and ultimately, became a better Shokunin for it. 

When Daisuke eventually made an egg sushi that met Jiro’s approval, he broke down in tears. Not only because he had succeeded in his goal, but also because it marked how far his skills had grown.

Honing their craft and developing as a Shokunin is what drives Jiro and Daisuke to get out of bed every morning; it’s their ‘why’. 

Finding Your Why

Begin by understanding what motivates you. Self-assessment tools can give you a solid base to work from, though it’s also worth mentioning that they should be used as guidance tools rather than something you take as gospel. There are loads of free tools on the internet, but here are my favourites:

-Via Character (you’ll need to make an account first)

-Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

-Strengths Finder


I’ve done this exercise in every job I’ve had, and it’s always interesting to see how my results change as I develop in my career. I’ll usually write down my initial thoughts and then talk through my results with a friend, family member or my line manager.

I find that these questions are useful to help shape your reflections:  

  • Was there anything that surprised you?
  • Do you dwell on your strengths or your weaknesses?
  • Have these themes come up before?

Find Your ‘North-Star Goal’

Now that you understand what motivates you, you can link this to your aspirations to find your ‘North-Star Goal’.

Similar to the actual North Star, Polaris, which was used by early explorers to help them navigate, a ‘North-Star Goal’ is a single, long-term goal that you can always refer back to. 

Having a North-Star goal to work towards can help you with your development journey by providing guidance, clarity and a direction of travel. You can always ask yourself: “Does this move me closer or further away from my North-Star Goal?” 

Becoming a Shokunin is a prime example of a North-Star Goal; there are so many intricate steps and so many hours of work involved in achieving it, that you end up developing new skills in the process.

To start thinking of what your ‘North-Star Goal’ might be, here are some questions you can ask yourself (or go through with a friend, a family member or even your pet!):

  • If you go back to the start of your career and begin again, would you still be doing what you’re doing now? 
  • What would you like to be doing at the peak of your career — when you’re feeling challenged, engaged and fulfilled?
  • Do you feel like you’re making progress on your long-term goals right now? Why or why not?
  • Do you like what you’re doing now? If you do, why? If you don’t, why not?

You can even Marie Kondo it and ask yourself: ‘Does what I’m doing now bring me joy?’

An exercise that’s worked well for me in the past is to sit down and map out my career journey. To do this you start with your first job, write down what you liked about that job and what attracted you to your next job and so on. 

When I did this exercise a couple of years ago, I found that I am driven by a love of helping people develop themselves. It’s why I chose to apply to Learnerbly, and it’s also shaped my own North-Star Goal of eventually becoming an L&D Consultant.

Personal vs Professional

We spend most of our time at work (1,820 hours a year to be exact), so why don’t we use that time to work on achieving our North-Star Goals? 

The diagram below is a useful tool that can make your North-Star Goal more relevant to your work life. Your personal development goals and performance/work-related goals exist on the same spectrum and together they contribute to your growth as an individual.

A good way to embed your North-Star Goal in your day-to-day is to think about what your company wants you to develop and how this relates to your North-Star Goal to identify any overlapping areas which you can focus on in the short-term. 

For example, one aspect of my North-Star Goal is to grow more confident in facilitating workshops. In the short-term, I’m able to develop my facilitation skills at work by delivering internal and external workshops, which will also positively impact my performance. It’s a win-win!

I’ve mapped this out myself on this Venn diagram: on the left, my performance-related goals are based around data analytics and communication; on the right, what I need to develop to achieve my North-Star Goal (consultancy skills, leadership & communication). 

The space in the middle is where I identified overlapping areas between the two. I have made these three skills the focus areas for my personal development plan.

Here are some things to reflect on to help you with this:

 How do I know what the business needs?

  • Feedback from peers
  • Role description
  • Annual/quarterly target

How do I know what I want to develop?

  • My North-Star Goal
  • Skills gaps/strengths
  • What would challenge me in my role?
  • What could I do to stretch myself?

If you find that there is no clear overlap between the two, use this time to reflect on your passions and whether they align with your career. It may be that your interests lie in a hobby or side-hustle outside of work. If that’s the case, use this exercise to consider ways you can embed those passions into your work life.

If you're looking to get better at self reflection on your journey to new goals then this piece on learning styles is a great place to start followed by a look at where your workplace and manager can support your personal development plan here.


You may not take a super-structured approach to mapping this out like I have, (my colleague Sharlyne has taken a different approach that she talks about here) but the process is still the same. 

  • Start by understanding what motivates you;
  • Define your North-Star Goal;
  • Find ways to work on achieving your goals every day at work.

Now that you have an idea of what your North-Star Goal is and how you can link this back to your day-to-day life, we can start turning these goals into smaller, tangible action items.

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