Break Goals into Achievable Steps

Keep Cognitive Biases in Check

Welcome back to our Skill Development Series! In the previous article, we talked about the importance of initial self-assessment in understanding your current skill levels. Now, it's time to create milestones that will guide your path to achieving your goals. Structuring your skill development into manageable milestones can have significant positive impacts on your learning journey and help in keeping cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome in check.

What are Milestones?

Milestones are key steps that pave the way toward achieving your larger goals. They serve as markers of progress and can be highly motivating. Breaking a big goal into milestones makes the process more manageable and less overwhelming.

Breaking Down Goals into Milestones

For each goal you've set, identify smaller, specific objectives that will contribute to the achievement of the goal. These smaller objectives will be your milestones.

Define Criteria for Completion

For each milestone, define what 'completed' looks like. This can be in the form of a specific output, a demonstrated skill, or any measurable criteria that signify the milestone has been achieved.

Assign Timeframes

Allocate a reasonable and specific timeframe for the completion of each milestone. Be realistic about the time needed, and consider your other commitments and potential challenges.

Align Milestones with Descriptive Concepts for Skill Levels

Consider aligning each milestone with the progression of skill levels defined in the descriptive concepts (Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, Proficiency, Mastery). Each milestone could be aimed at moving from one level to the next.

Example: Without Milestones

Goal: Become proficient in programming within 6 months.

Impact: This goal is too broad and can be overwhelming, leading to a higher chance of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where you might overestimate your abilities at the beginning. Similarly, as you learn more, you might feel like an imposter amongst other proficient programmers because of Impostor Syndrome.

Example: With Milestones Aligned to Skill Levels

Goal: Become proficient in programming within 6 months.


  1. Moving from "Unconscious Incompetence" to "Conscious Incompetence" (1 month): Learn the basics of Python programming. This milestone helps by establishing a foundation and awareness of what you don’t know.

  2. Moving from "Conscious Incompetence" to "Conscious Competence" (2 months): Build a small application using Python. This milestone ensures you have practical skills and application, which affirms you have gained basic competence.

  3. Moving from "Conscious Competence" to "Proficiency" (2 months): Understand and implement data structures in Python and develop a complex application. This deepens your understanding, allowing you to use the skills more efficiently.

  4. Moving from "Proficiency" to "Mastery" (1 month): Review, refactor code for efficiency, and make improvements based on feedback. This involves refining and innovating, indicating mastery over the skill.

Impact: By breaking the goal into specific milestones aligned with skill levels, you have a clearer focus and a structured approach to achieving proficiency. This structure can reduce the Dunning-Kruger effect by having clear and measurable milestones, and reduce Impostor Syndrome by gaining genuine competencies step by step.

Reflect on Dunning-Kruger Effect and Impostor Syndrome

While creating milestones, it is critical to be mindful of the Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome, as they can heavily influence your self-perception and learning process.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability, while those with high ability tend to underestimate their competence.

Too Easy Milestones

If the milestones you set are too easy or not challenging enough, this can inflate your confidence and lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect. You may quickly accomplish these milestones and start to overestimate your abilities. For instance, if you’re learning to code and set a milestone as merely installing a programming tool, this doesn’t really challenge your coding skills. Achieving this may make you feel more accomplished than you should, and you may mistakenly believe that you are well on your way to becoming an expert.

Mitigating Dunning-Kruger

To avoid this, ensure that your milestones are challenging enough to require real effort and learning. Regularly seek feedback from knowledgeable peers or mentors, and stay open to constructive criticism.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome, on the other hand, is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

Too Difficult Milestones

If your milestones are overly ambitious or too difficult, you might find yourself struggling to achieve them. This can exacerbate feelings of Impostor Syndrome because even though you are putting in the effort, the lack of progress can make you feel inadequate or like a fraud. For example, if you are new to public speaking and set a milestone to deliver a speech to an audience of 1000 people within a month, the sheer difficulty and potential struggles might lead you to doubt your abilities more than before.

Mitigating Impostor Syndrome

To combat Impostor Syndrome, create milestones that are realistic and achievable. Celebrate the small victories, and recognize that learning is a process that takes time. Also, consider sharing your experiences with peers or mentors who can offer support and perspective.

In summary, setting well-calibrated milestones - not too easy, and not too difficult - is essential in mitigating both the Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor Syndrome. They need to challenge you enough to foster growth, but also be achievable to maintain motivation and confidence.

Regularly Review, Update Milestones and Prove Achievement

Set a schedule for regularly reviewing your milestones. During these reviews, assess your progress and make necessary adjustments to your milestones and timeframes based on your actual performance and any new information or changes that have occurred.

When you believe you’ve achieved a milestone, prove it through action. For instance, if a milestone was to code an application, then code one. This helps to verify that the milestone is genuinely achieved, and not just perceived as achieved.

Seek Feedback and External Input (Optional)

External feedback is invaluable for an unbiased assessment of your skills. It can keep you grounded if you’re experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect and can be reassuring if you’re dealing with Impostor Syndrome.

For example, if you believe you have become good at public speaking, rather than just self-assessing, ask for feedback from a knowledgeable friend or mentor. They can provide insights that you might have missed and can help confirm or reassess the skill level you believe you are at.

Document Milestones

Record your milestones, criteria for completion, and timeframes in a format that is easy to reference and update. This could be in a journal, a digital document, or a project management tool.


Exercise 1: Take one of your goals and break it down into at least three milestones. Write down what completion looks like for each milestone and set a timeframe for achieving each one.

Exercise 2: Reflect on your milestones and ask yourself if they are realistic and well-structured to mitigate cognitive biases. Adjust if necessary.

Additional Materials

  1. Book: "SMART Goals Made Simple" by S.J. Scott - For understanding the principles behind setting effective goals and milestones.

  2. Tool: Trello or Asana - These are project management tools that can be very useful in tracking your milestones.


By creating milestones that are well-defined, challenging, and aligned with skill levels, you not only pave a clear path for achieving your goals but also keep cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Impostor Syndrome in check. Remember to stay adaptable, seek feedback, and celebrate your achievements, big or small.

In our upcoming article, we’ll be moving to evaluation criteria, where we will discuss the importance of defining how each milestone will be evaluated through peer reviews, mentor assessments, or self-assessments. Additionally, we will talk about establishing feedback mechanisms for each evaluation method to ensure that you’re not just moving forward, but moving forward in the right direction. Stay tuned!

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