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How to Put Together a Personal Development Plan

A personal development plan is your secret weapon for creating the kind of life that excites you. Here's how you can create one today!

Create a Personal Development Plan
Blake Reichenbach

Blake Reichenbach

He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.

Recently, I sat down to think about what I want to do with Self-Himprovement in the long run. We’re reaching the point of readership now where I feel like I’m doing myself and my readers a disservice by continuing to treat it as a hobby. And yet, when I think about what I could do or want to do with this site, it feels a bit like that Queen song– I want it all, and I want it now.

The problem with wanting it all and wanting it now is that, well, it’s a fast way of getting nowhere. Some folks are blessed with being very strategic and tactical by default. When they get a sense of what they want, they have the natural ability to clearly outline steps to get there. I am not one of those people. Most of my fellow creatives can probably say the same thing.

What I want may be this vague idea of sustained income through self-employment, but the ways to get there are innumerable. My natural tendency is to bounce around from idea to idea, trying things out and diving in without a clear end goal in mind. This can be a great way to learn what works for you and what fits with your personality, but it can also be a great way to stall your progress and spending time, money, and energy in activities that won’t serve you in the end.

As an alternative plan of attack, you can put together a personal development plan.

Why Have a Personal Development Plan?

What is a Personal Development Plan?

A personal development plan is a sort of roadmap in which you chart out where you want to go and how you plan on getting there. It includes specific details about the process and helps you recognize important opportunities.

Your personal development plan may concern your wellness, career, self-improvement, relationships, or other areas of your life that you feel aren’t currently meeting their full potential.

The Six-Step Process for Creating a Personal Development Plan

  1. Identifying Your Goals
  2. Prioritizing Your Goals
  3. Creating Deadlines
  4. Accounting for Threats, Opportunities, and Hurdles
  5. Creating Accountability
  6. Reflecting and Iterating

One of the main benefits of a personal development plan is that it helps you narrow down your focus from something broad and vague to something specific and concrete. On top of that, the plan will help you break your specific goals into measurable and attainable steps.

When we have tasks to complete that we can easily check off a checklist, it helps give us momentum. It’s similar to when you’re reading a book. If a book is incredibly long and dense, and each chapter takes ages to get through, it’s easier to feel burnt out as you go and leave you less likely to make it all the way through. On the other hand, when a book breaks the content up into digestible chunks and you’re able to complete a chapter in a single sitting without getting a headache, you get a sense of accomplishment and excitement as you finish one chapter and begin the next. The momentum makes it easier to keep chugging along and finishing the book.

In terms of your personal development, the same mentality rings true. If your only goals are vague and huge, you’re going to tread water until you feel burnt out and give up. If you create a clear pathway for yourself, you can count each step that you take and enjoy the thrill of achievement along the way to keep you motivated.

As an added bonus, a good personal development plan is going to integrate feedback and reflection into your processes. Getting feedback from others and doing your own self-reflection as you go are going to make it easier for you to go from one step to the next, improve your processes, and further isolate exactly what your end destination is so that you can recalibrate if needed.

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To create a solid personal development plan, consider these six steps.

Step 1: Identify your Goals

Identifying your goals may sound like a simple enough task to complete, but it’s especially important to get this step right.

Where this gets tricky is that most of us have goals and ambitions that are broad and vague. Speaking from my own experience, I’ve had goals for a while in which I saw myself traveling the world, writing, and doing so from a place of financial comfort and prosperity. While this was an exciting goal for me (and something I still hope to do), it was also incredibly broad. There are about a million and a half ways to get to that type of goal. It was so nebulous that it was less of a concrete goal and more of a vague ambition. It didn’t give me a solid foundation for planning out the steps I needed to take.

Thankfully, leading up to when I began working on our upcoming book, Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment (Even When Everything Sucks), refining this goal and understanding the process of getting clarity around your goals became a pet project of mine. So much so that in the book I spend a few chapters discussing values, goals, and direction.

Three Ways to Refine Your Goals

In order to set goals that are authentic, meaningful for you, and going to set you in the right direction, there are a few options you could consider:

  1. Work with a life coach to coactively collaborate and get a better understanding of what your goals are and what that looks like.
  2. Spend time engaging in reflective journaling. Write about the times you were able to enter into a flow state, write about what your perfect day would look like, and write about the things that leave you feeling excited and energized about life. Allow yourself to fully embody and visualize these things.
  3. Write your own obituary. As morbid as it may sound, writing a mock obituary for yourself can be a great way to force yourself to think about what kind of legacy you are meant to leave behind. We each leave a tiny, indelible mark on the world when we leave, and our time spent among the living is how we shape and color that mark.

With each of these methods, the most important thing you can do is be honest. Often, when we think about what we want to do, we end up shifting our focus to what we think we should do. We all have some sort of baggage that we carry, and the expectations of others and outside pressures can sway us to be dishonest with ourselves about what will genuinely bring us fulfillment. For your personal development plan to be meaningful, you have to resist that temptation!

As you work on refining your goals, you’ll often recognize that they’re multifaceted and layered. What may have started out as a single overarching goal (e.g. “travel and write from a place of prosperity”) is probably several large goals that connect and overlap (e.g. start my own business, generate multiple streams of income, etc).

When you’re identifying all of the goals that go hand-in-hand with your values it can be very easy to start feeling overwhelmed. The sheer volume may make it tempting to feel like you’re jumping around from task to task.

To avoid feeling so overwhelmed, there are a few things that you can do. What’s often considered the “Warren Buffet method” is to write out a list of your top 25 goals, select five of them, and focus exclusively on those five– everything else gets thrown out. While this may sound extreme, it’s actually a really productive exercise for identifying the few things that are most important to you. In general, when you’re wholly committed to something that’s intrinsic to who you are as a person, the other details will fall into place, and that’s the position that this exercise forces you into.

Step 2: Prioritize your Goals

Once you’re clear(er) on what it is you want to be working on in the long run, you’ve got to make time to prioritize these goals in your life.

Life is busy. It’s messy. It can be unpredictable. The uncertainty of what a day will bring can make it very easy to set your goals on the back burner and focus exclusively on what is directly in front of you.

For those of us working day jobs, the job that sustains our quality of life and keeps us fed often consumes a significant amount of energy and emotional stamina throughout the day, leaving us strapped for motivation and time. When you add in housework, errands, caring for pets or children, exercising, spending time with friends and family, having a spiritual practice, and making sure you get in some time to relax, the sense of not having enough time or energy can become fully oppressive.

The best way to overcome this is to make sure you are being intentional about putting time into your calendar for working toward your goals. If you let them be an afterthought or an activity that you squeeze in when it’s convenient, you’ll just keep pushing them further and further back, letting yourself become further ingrained into the status quo.

One thing I’ve found that works well for me is to get up just a little bit earlier than usual in the mornings. I like to do a bit of journaling– fifteen minutes or so– to reflect on what is important to me and why as soon as I wake up. Then I open my computer and give myself 45 minutes to an hour to get in some dedicated work on my goals. During this time, I don’t allow myself to check social media, my email, or the Slack channel that we use for my day job. It’s just focused working time on bringing my goals to fruition.

If the mornings don’t work for you, consider if there are other times in your day that may currently be negotiable for setting aside thirty minutes or an hour. Perhaps you have an hour-long lunch break but only spend thirty minutes of that eating– could the other thirty minutes be used to focus on your goals? If you take public transit to work, could you leverage some of your commute time to focus on your goals?

Whatever form it may take, be specific about when you’re going to be putting energy into your goals and schedule it on your calendar in advance. The time that you set aside for your personal development and working toward your goals is sacred and should be non-negotiable. Plan that time in advance and then hold yourself accountable to show up for that time. If you don’t schedule it ahead of time, it likely won’t happen.

Schedules can often feel restrictive, but I’ve learned to reframe them a bit and it has helped me immensely. When I create a schedule for myself, I’m not eliminating spontaneity or inspiration or leisure– I’m creating room for the things that matter to me.

Step 3: Create Deadlines

What’s the mental image that comes to mind when you hear the word deadline? For me, it’s a cubicle, stale office coffee, and rushing to complete a project that you don’t really care about. Yikes.

Deadlines, like schedules, often come with a lot of attached baggage. Again, I think some reframing helps here.

In February of 2020, I had the opportunity to go to a writing retreat with the author Sam Horn. Sam is a dynamic and delightful human. When working with her, anytime you start to see a challenge, she has an uncanny ability to say, “ah, let’s play with that for a moment,” and help you see the opportunities behind the challenge.

Deadlines were one of the many things she helped to reframe for those of us at the retreat that weekend. In that scenario, we were each focused on book-based projects but I have found that her methodology for creating deadlines is applicable across projects.

The way that she broke it down for us was this: say you know that you want to have your book ready to pitch or self-publish in time for a specific conference, anniversary, or other relevant events. This gives you an endpoint to work toward. From there, if you know your manuscript will be roughly ten chapters at ten to fifteen pages per chapter, you’re looking at 100 to 150 pages that need to be written and edited by then. Let’s say that the event is a full year away.

Even if you’re at the high-end of the page count, that would mean you have twelve months to write 150 pages. This comes out to an average of 12.5 pages per month. If we assume 4 weeks per month, you’re talking about writing just over 3 pages per week.

Suddenly, this large, lengthy project isn’t quite so threatening. Most of us wouldn’t have trouble writing five or six pages a week, and if we did that, we’d be well ahead of our goal. So, for a book project, you put the end date on your calendar and then work backward, noting when you will have a certain number of pages completed.

Adopting this approach to other types of goals is pretty straightforward. For larger, lifestyle-focused goals thinking through what you need to have completed and by when is a bit less straightforward, but it can still be done with some critical thinking. For example, if you have a goal of starting your own profitable business, decide on when you’d like to see that happen. Is that something that could happen in five years’ time? Write that down– put that on your calendar: five years from now, your business is fully operational. From there, work backward. If you’re going to have a physical location, when does the lease need to be signed? When does your website need to be up and running? When do you need to start marketing yourself? When does your business plan need to be ready? When do you need to have a secured investment? Put these dates on your calendar. When you do, you no longer have something huge and exhausting to think about. Instead, you have a few, manageable tasks to take care of at a time and they all lead toward that end goal.

Step 4: Account for Threats, Opportunities, and Hurdles

If you’ve ever done project management work or written a business plan, you’ve probably come across what’s known as a SWOT analysis. SWOT– which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats– is a framework for thinking about where you’re likely to excel as well as where you’re likely to come up against some challenges.

This step is quite similar to doing a SWOT analysis, though it doesn’t need to be tied up in the corporate jargon that often consumes conversations around this topic.

I like to think of this step as creating a safety net for yourself. It’s a step that really benefits from ongoing reflection so that you can better equip yourself to be successful as you learn more about your own unique challenges and strengths.

For example, let’s say that as you’re working on your prioritized goals, you often find that you’re getting distracted by notifications on your computer. The hour you’ve set aside to work on building the life you dream about (and deserve) is getting eaten up by social media, emails, and news articles.

Okay– clearly digital distractions are a threat and hurdle that’s getting in your way. Let’s role-play with this a bit. If it were me in this situation, here’s how I would approach it to build up a safety net and create a plan of action to overcome it.

First Line of Defense

As the first line of defense, I will do my journaling before getting started and I will listen to Brain.fm while I’m working. This way, I’m focused when I start and Brain.fm will help me maintain that focus.

Second Line of Defense

If I’m still struggling after the first line of defense, I will use an app like SelfControl to block myself entirely from being able to access the websites that distract me on my computer.

Third Line of Defense

If blocking access to distracting sites and notifications on my computer makes me more likely to pick up my phone to get around my self-imposed internet restrictions, I’ll work with my phone in another room.

Thinking about where you may come up short or have a particularly difficult time gives you the opportunity to also think about how you can overcome it. Everything– no matter how passionate you are about it– is going to have its own unique set of challenges. If you fail to plan for those roadblocks, you’re planning to fail.

Step 5: Create Accountability for Yourself

It’s one thing to set deadlines and have backup plans entirely on your own. It’s another to have outside accountability.

When you’re only accountable to yourself, it’s too easy to write permission slips for yourself to not do what you should be doing. There aren’t really consequences when you’re the sole arbiter of your progress. If you don’t make a deadline, it’s easy to shrug, say oops, and then just move it further down the line.

To avoid this, I recommend working with a life or business coach if it’s within your budget. I’ve been working on getting my own life coach certification and as a part of that, I have had to be coached by a variety of folks. What I have found is that simply having a regular check-in where someone will ask you to update them on your progress, what your successes have been, and what challenges you’ve faced does wonders for making it easier to adhere to your set timeline. Even though coaches are nonjudgemental, simply having to confess to someone “I didn’t do that this week” can be the kick in the can you need to maintain momentum.

If not a life coach, a trusted mentor or close friend can help to create a similar environment. While they may not have the training that a coach does when it comes to unearthing your blockers and putting together a plan of action, having a sounding board and someone you trust to check in with you can still give your progress a little extra urgency.

One of my goals with Self-Himprovement is to create a digital space to do this with like-minded folks, so hopefully, that will be an option in the near future as well!

Step 6: Reflect on your Process

The first five steps may be the meat of the personal development plan, but that doesn’t make this sixth step any less important. Active reflection is your main resource for making sure that what you’re doing is working. It also allows you to check-in and make sure that what you’re doing is authentic to who you are and what you value.

I know I talk about journaling a lot on this site, but that’s because it is such an underrated tool. Journaling is the Swiss Army Knife of personal development. Reflective journaling is a process of writing down what you’re doing and evaluating how it makes you feel, what is working well, what’s not working well, and how you can improve your processes. It’s a generative, brainstorming exercise that allows you to peel back the layers of your processes and get a better sense of what may be holding you back or slowing you down.

Give yourself space to iterate upon your processes and find your sweet spot. No product, service, or process is perfect immediately upon being developed. It takes time, betas, and refinement to come up with something truly remarkable.

To wrap things up, whether you’re wanting to advance your position at work or take on something new and exciting in your personal life, having a great personal development plan is the best way to make sure that you’re on the right track. It will give you direction and structure and will make sure you have every possible opportunity to create the life you want and deserve.

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