“If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” – Lawrence J. Peter

The turn of the new year seems to be an obvious cue for writing or revising goals, and some of your personal 2022 ambitions may be about learning something new or deepening a particular skill (personal or professional). Note, however, that when it comes to writing goals for your self-directed learning projects, it’s likely that everything you know about setting goals is wrong.*

Most of us have learned the mechanics of writing solid goals. And if you’ve done work in instructional design, you’ve no doubt been introduced to templates for writing observable learning objectives.

But when you envision goals for self-directed learning projects, those guidelines are of little use. You’ve been told that goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, etc.), but it’s hard to get that specific for those somewhat nebulous “I-want-to-learn-in-depth-about” projects. Even though these endeavors are important to you, you may not have enough information or understanding of the topic to write detailed objectives.

So when you think about defining your personal learning projects, instead consider documenting these parameters:

Topic and guiding questions
Start by naming your topic – the knowledge area or skill set you want to develop. Perhaps it’s better project management skills, or public speaking, or blended learning, or visual design. You’ll need to narrow that down somehow. Think about what you would find particularly useful to know about that topic or skill. Then from that general sense, write a short list of questions – what you want to learn from your explorations. These questions will focus the topic so that you can find materials and seek out support that will most help you.

Your “why”
In Charting Your Course, I call this the compass point – the reason you want to learn this topic. Without a strong, well-defined reason for pursuing the goal, it’s likely to fall by the wayside at the first roadblock. In his book, Sparked, Jonathan Fields advises you ask yourself “why?” three times: Why do you want to do this project? And why is that important to you? And why is THAT important? By really digging into your motivations, you’ll find the strength you need to stay the course if things get a bit bumpy.

Your progress markers
Because you determine your degree of success in a self-directed project, it’s helpful to have something you can measure against. Simply imagine a continuum from novice to expert (0 to 10) in the topic you are studying. Place a marker where you estimate you are now, and set a goal for where you want to be at the “end” of your learning project. You won’t always want to reach the expert level; most people are simply aiming to move up the scale a bit. Mark where you want to be on that continuum, and if you can, describe what you would see or be able to do if you reached that level so that you’ll know if you’ve achieved your learning goal.

These three elements are the basis for orientating – for defining a self-directed learning project. From here, you can start locating resources and people to advance your learning and you can define activities and application projects (experimentation) that will help you further solidify it.

If you like, download the Charting Your Course Workbook for details on next steps. And keep an eye on my Learning Journal Blog for more on this topic this month.

Happy new year to you! And bon voyage on your learning journeys.

* Many of those other guidelines you’ve learned for setting solid goals are terrific in their appropriate contexts. I’m simply saying that writing goals for self-directed learning requires a different spin.


This post is reprinted from my 4 Your Development newsletter for January 2022, and is part of a broader series giving advice on crafting and executing successful self-directed learning projects. If one or more of your 2022 goals involves learning, my newsletters and blogs for the first quarter of this year will expand on the research-based advice I offer in Charting Your Course.