How to Make A Personal Development Plan – The Ultimate Guide

a personal development plan

by Vlad Dolezal on July 27, 2011

“You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.”- Jim Rohn

When talking to people about personal development, I come across tons of misconceptions. So let me clear up a major one right away.

For successful personal development, you need exactly two conditions:

  • You want to change something about your life
  • You’re not happy with the results you got so far

And that’s it.

Specifically, you do NOT need to know exactly what you want. You’d be surprised by how many clients come to me for life coaching when they don’t know what they want from life – they just know that whatever they have at the moment is not it.

(Though if you keep reading on below, you will learn a way to find out what you really want.)

As long as you satisfy the two conditions above, making a personal development plan is for you!

Why make a personal development plan?

Making a personal development plan comes down to two main things. Helping you figure out:

  • What do you want from life?
  • How will you go about achieving it?

You could certainly achieve personal development without a plan. A lot of people have.

But a plan vastly increases your chances to move towards a life that you find fulfilling and satisfying every day. Having a plan gives you:

  • A much better understanding of what you really want from life (hint: money is almost never the answer)
  • A list of specific actions you can take to advance towards your goals in life, so you never feel stuck again
  • A clear understanding of obstacles that trip up a lot of people, and how to avoid them
  • Durable growth and improvement

Sounds good? Then read on!

How to Make a Personal Development Plan

Below, I share the personal development planning method I use with my life coaching clients. It’s based on something called The GROW Model and might seem fairly straightforward, but it’s insanely powerful.

There’s a lot of clear structure underneath the surface, and if you follow the plan step-by-step as outlined, you will blast through any obstacles in your way. You will find a clear vision of what you want from life, as well as a specific action plan on how to get there. Say “goodbye”, procrastination! Say “hello”, fulfilling life full of growth and opportunities!

Speaking of action – I give you several exercises in the following guide.

Now, you could certainly just read through it and learn a few things. But if you actually grab a pen and paper (or open up your favourite word processor) and go through the exercises as you read, you will benefit far more than if you just passively read this article.

After all, you came here to change your life, and change requires taking action.

Or, in other words, you wouldn’t read the ultimate guide to baking a mean cake and then sit around and hope for it to appear, would you? You would go ahead and follow the instructions and make it appear!

One quick note – this is a long article. Over 4,000 words. So if you don’t have the time or energy to read through all of it right now, bookmark it for later. That way, you can read it when you’re able to give it your full attention.

You say you’re ready? Alright! Let’s do this!

(Go ahead, grab a pen and paper before you continue. I will still be here when you get back.)

Step 1 – What do you want?

This first step of making a personal development plan will help you figure out which parts of your life you’re happy with, and which could use some change. Then you can pick an area to work on where there’s room for improvement and growth.

Yep, it’s writing-stuff-down time! :D

1.1 Make a list of the main areas of your life

First, I’d like you to make a list of the main areas of your life which you have been focusing your time and energy on lately. This might include:

  • career
  • relationships
  • fun/social

And anything else you can think of. I won’t give you too many examples, because I want you to think about this for yourself. For example, one of your main areas might end up “guitar playing”, if it’s really that important to you that it deserves its own category.

Note that if there’s an area of your life you haven’t been focusing on but would really like to, that belongs on the list as well.

Once you have this list, I’d like you to narrow it down to 4-8 of the main areas. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with options before we even begin.

Go ahead, write them down.

1.2 Rate each of those areas from 1-10 based on how satisfied you are with it

Next, I’d like you to give it some thought, and rate each of those areas on a scale from 1 to 10, ten being the highest, based on how satisfied you are with your current situation.

Note, it’s not how good you are, or how successful, but how satisfied you are with the current situation. For example, if you have almost no social life because you spend all your days working, but you’re okay with that for the next couple of months because it’s a very important stage of your business, then you might give yourself a 10 on your social life.

Take a few moments to do this now.

Chances are, some of your areas did better than others. If you scored a 9 or a 10, you’re doing fine. An 8 is iffy, and anything from 7 below can definitely be improved.

I’d like you to take a good long look at the areas you’re not very satisfied with, and pick which one you would like to begin improving first.

Because that’s what you’ll be working with throughout the rest of this article.

Once you have gone through this guide, you can make a full-fledged personal development plan by applying the exercises to the other areas of your life. But for now, we will focus on one main area, because it’s better if you truly grasp the concepts well with a clear example in mind, instead of mucking things up by focusing on too much at once.

1.3 Figuring out your ideal situation

Have you got an area of your life in mind yet? Because we’ll be working with that now.

Just start daydreaming, and imagine what the ideal situation would be, in the long-term (many years from now).

To give you some clear examples instead of vague generalities, I will show you what I got when I was making my own personal development plan a while ago. Specifically, I’ll talk about the area of my life to do with friendships.

At the time, I was studying at university. And my ideal situation with friendships would have been having half a dozen to a dozen closer friends (as well as the usual acquaintances). People who I could call up to hang out in the park when the weather was nice, or to go rock-climbing, or cook up some mean Indian food together with. And meeting up with someone often, nearly every day of the week, to do various fun stuff, or just nothing at all.

Go ahead, daydream about how your chosen part of your life would ideally look, if you could do anything you wanted…

Feels exciting? :D

Now let’s pull a bit closer to the present. Pick a medium-term future. Say, somewhere between 3 months and 1 year from now.

Imagine how you would like your ideal situation to be then. In my example, this doesn’t really change anything. But if you’re focusing on the business side of your life, for example, it’s a good idea to pull closer to the present with a 1-year dream, and even 3-month dream. This helps you move from vague daydreaming (as pleasant as it is) towards making those dreams a reality.

Go ahead, think about your specific middle-term goal.

Once you have it, start imagining it in great detail. How you would feel when you wake up in the morning. What you would do during the day. The people you would meet. The things you would say to yourself.

Do NOT neglect this step. It might sound small and simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Firstly, it gets you excited and motivated, bye the Pain And Pleasure Principle. Secondly, it sets up cognitive dissonance in your mind. That’s where your brain holds two conflicting thoughts, gets uncomfortable, and tries to resolve the conflict by changing one of the thoughts.

In the case of imagining your ideal situation, your brain will start looking for opportunities to start moving towards it. And trust me, those opportunities are all around you. You just haven’t been noticing them until now.

To clarify, imagine you’re at a cocktail party, engrossed in an interesting conversation. Now imagine, that in one conversation out of many, 3 metres (10 feet) away, somebody mentions your name. What do you think are the chances that you will notice?

Very, very good! There’s a region in your brain called the amygdala which is responsible for filtering all the hundreds of sensory inputs you get every second, and choosing which select few to let through to your conscious mind, because they might be important to you. So despite the general noise and several other conversations you and the one where your name was mentioned, you will notice.

Similarly, once you start visualising your ideal situation, your amygdala will catch on that this is important to you and start filtering for opportunities that might move your closer to your goal.

So take your time to imagine it, in full detail. This little time investment of 5 minutes is extremely worth it.

1.4 Get very specific about what you want

One big difference between a dream and a goal is being specific about what you want.

A dream is a vague fuzzy thing you like to think about to make yourself happy. A goal is a specific prospect, and by gosh, you’re going to make it happen!

One word of warning – for now, don’t worry about how you will achieve your goal. That will come in steps 3 – Generating options, and 4 – Goalsetting. For now, we simply figure out what it is you want! (There’s a reason this solid structure works. Trust me.)

For now, just eliminate any vagueness and make it specific. Exactly when is your “middle-term” goal? How will you know when you have achieved it? Also eliminate any vague words.

In my case of friendships, I decided to set my middle-term goal 6 months away. I wanted to have at least 6 close friends, with whom I would hang out weekly, and I wanted to do fun stuff five days of the week. Whether it’s going out swing dancing or tossing a frisbee in a park, or anything else.

Recap your goal, and make sure to get rid of any vagueness. You can even talk to a friend about it, and let them help you, if you want. (It always helps to get an outsider’s perspective.)

Go ahead. Think about it. Then write it down.

Okay, by now you should have:

  • a list of 4-8 main areas of your life
  • a number next to each of those areas signifying how satisfied you are with the current situation
  • a clear vision for one of your chosen areas, with a clear deadline and specific things that will let you know when you’ve achieved it

If you missed out any of those steps, go back now and do the exercises before reading on. This guide will still be here when you get back.

Step 2 – Bridging the gap between your goal and your current life

Now that you know what your ideal situation would be, it’s time to compare it to your present situation.

That way, you’ll know how big a chasm stands between your reality and your dream situation, which will later help you build just the right bridge to cross that chasm.

After that we’ll have a good hard look at everything you already possess that will help you move towards your ideal situation!

2.1 How does your current situation compare to the ideal?

For this section, I will mainly just ask you a bunch of questions. And I’d like you to take your time and answer them thoroughly.

I won’t be telling you how to change your life for the better, because you know best what works for your particular situation. Hey, it’s your personal development plan, not mine!

  • What do you spend your time on, during a typical week?

Make a list of the biggest categories you spend your time on, like work, sleep, commute, cooking, watching TV, social, and anything else you want to ad. And figure out how much time you spend on each of them, during a typical week.

  • Are you happy with how you spend your time?

And now, with the chosen area of your life in mind:

  • How, specifically, will you know that you have achieved your ideal situation?
  • Where are you now, in terms of that goal?
  • What needs to happen for you to move from here to there?

(Take the time to answer those questions.)

2.2 What resources do you already have?

For this second part, we will find out what assets you currently have that could help you move towards your ideal goal. Take a few moments to answer the questions below:

  • What skills do you already have, that could help you move towards your ideal situation ?
  • What relevant knowledge do you already have?
  • Who do you know that could help you?
  • What tangible resources do you have that could come in useful?
  • What skills/knowledge do you need to gain?

(I highlighted the third question because it’s very, very important. Take the time to think it through.)

And to give you a real-life example, when I answered the above questions about my chosen area of life, friendships…

I found out that I already had plenty of acquaintances. I also had two or three good friends, but wasn’t really spending much time with them. (Ah, ha!). I found out I had the relevant social skills needed to meet people, as well as several interests (chess, swing dancing, juggling…) that could help me meet others if I didn’t discover enough people I really clicked with in my existing circle of acquaintances.

This section might take a bit of time to answer, but it’s well worth it. Yes, it might take you some 10-15 minutes, or even longer just to answer those questions properly. That can seem like one hell of a long time while you’re reading an article online.

But it’s just 15 minutes. Just a drop in the lake of your life. But like a drop of an indicator in a bucket of hydroxide, a single drop is enough to turn the whole lot pink.

(Okay, I’m not sure where I was going with that analogy…)

By the time you’re done with Step 2, you should have:

  • A clear understanding of what needs to change for you to move from your current situation to your ideal situation, in the one chosen area of your life
  • A list of assets you already have that will help you achieve that

Step 3 – Generating options

You now have an area of your life in mind, and you know what your ideal situation would be and what needs to happen to bridge the gap between the ideal and your current situation.

In this step, you will come up with tons of actions you could take that will help you move towards your ideal goal.

Please note: It is crucial to separate this step, Generating options, from the next one – Goalsetting. Because even though they deal with the exact same thing – the actions that will help you move from where you are to where you want to be – they are fundamentally different.

This step is all about getting creative, broadening your thinking and coming up with plans of action you might have never considered before. The next (and last) step is all about focusing, narrowing down your options, and setting clear deadlines for the actions you plan to take soon.

And you cannot be both creative and focused at the same time, because the two states of mind are directly contradictory. In fact, they are caused by contradictory brain chemicals, so you physically cannot be really focused and creative at the same time.

One of the biggest causes of overwhelm and getting stuck is when you try to do both steps at the same time. And it’s also one of the reasons why this method of personal development planning is so damn effective for helping you get unstuck and starting to move towards the life you want!

3.1 It’s brainstorming time!

It’s time to pick up your pen again.

Now, you can do this part in two ways (or any other way, really, if it works for you):

  • make a long list of actions you could take
  • turn your sheet of paper sideways, and start with your central theme in a bubble at the centre. Then draw lines branching out to sub-themes and split those down until you get to specific actions

Neither is right with the other being wrong. They are just different approaches, and either of them might be better for you. I like to use either of them, depending on the situation.

Just note one thing – it’s important to drill down until you get to specific actionable steps.

To give you a different example, when I was applying this to my life coaching – “find out more about how to get life coaching clients” isn’t an actionable step. It’s a wish.

On the other hand:

  • e-mail Eddy and ask to look at his materials regarding getting new clients
  • google “how to get more life coaching clients”
  • call up Chuck and ask him how he got his clients when he was starting out

Are all actionable steps. When you look at them, you don’t need to do any more thinking, you know exactly where to go and what to do. That’s what you want to drill down to.

Okay, time to get writing. Grab your piece of paper and pen, and get ready.

In this step, I won’t be able to give you much guidance, because it mostly comes down to you coming up with options. I’ll just throw out a couple of questions that might push you in new directions of thought:

  • Who could you ask for help or information?
  • Who in your life knows a lot about your chosen area to improve?
  • What phrases could you search for online to get some more ideas?
  • If you weren’t afraid at all, if you were like James Bond, what would you do?
  • If money weren’t an issue, what would you do?
  • What would [insert any character you admire] do?
  • What else could you do?

Go ahead, make your list!

For now, do NOT censor your list, or trim it down. That’s a focused thing to do, and would sabotage your creative thinking. Don’t worry about writing down crazy and stupid stuff, because we’ll trim that down in the next step. For now, just write!

And only when you have loads and loads of possible actions, then it’s time to move on to the next step. Where you will move from thinking and planning to setting clear goals and taking action!

Step 4 – Goalsetting

Alright! It’s time to take all the planning you’ve done so far, and use it to make your ideal situation a reality!

In this step, we’ll focus mainly on how to make sure you take action, once you decide what you want to do. Because it would be a shame to figure out exactly what you want, what needs to happen to get there and come up with many great ways to move towards it… only to fall victim to procrastination.

As promised, this is a complete method for making a personal development plan. And by now, you have gone through the big-picture stuff of figuring out what you want from life, through finding the gap between your ideal situation and your current life, and coming up with specific options to make it happen. And now we’re about to drill down to specific goals and make sure you start moving towards your ideal life today!

Luckily, I have a quite a few tricks up my sleeve to help you with this one ;)

4.1 How to pick the actions you want to take

I assume you have a big list of possible actions from step 3.

I’ll leave you to pick which actions to take. You are the most qualified person to decide which ones you want to take, and which ones make you feel “meh”.

But I’ll give you a few pointers, to make sure you maximize your chances of getting them done.

Firstly, do not pick too many actions at once. That can easily leave you feeling overwhelmed, and increases your chance of procrastinating.

Instead, here’s what I propose. Pick three actions from your list:

  • one that you can take action on within the next 24 hours (ideally immediately)
  • one that you can take action on within the next 48 hours
  • one that you can take action on within the next week

And set a deadline, a week from now, right down to the minute, by which you will have accomplished all of them.

Once you have more experience with goalsetting, and getting things done (or right now, if you already do), you will be able to tweak this model. Sometimes you might choose more than three actions to accomplish in the next week, because you will know how much of what type of action will not leave you overwhelmed. Sometimes you might pick a longer deadline than a week.

But unless you have loads of experience with goalsetting, I suggest you just pick three actions, and make the deadline a week from now.

Because having three actions that you will definitely accomplish is much better than having six that you will maybe accomplish.

Go ahead, pick your three actions from your list now!

4.2 How to massively increase your chances of getting it done

Okay, what I will share with you now is probably the second most important thing you can do with regards to making a personal development plan. (Right after deciding to grab a pen and paper at the beginning, and writing down your goals and ideas.)

Because no matter how much you plan and daydream, your life will stay exactly the same until you take action to change it!

What follows is a list of time-proven ways to massively increase your chances of actually taking those actions you picked!

This involves racking up the perceived pleasure of taking action and the perceived pain of not taking action.

Just take some time to imagine how awesome your life will be in the future, after you have consistently taken action to improve the chosen area of your life. Then imagine how you would feel if you didn’t take any action – the same old situation, the same old pain, dragging on for years…

Your emotional mind will never respond to logical reasons, but it responds very readily to vivid imagination. And since motivation comes from your emotions, the Pain and Pleasure Principle is hands down the most direct way to kick up your motivation!

  • Make your goals public

Share your goal and the actions you want to take on twitter. On your blog, if you have one. On facebook. Tell your friends.

This way, you will have the public pressure on you if you fail… but also the celebration and joy of your friends and acquaintances when you succeed!

(Warning: Some people claim that making your goals public is actually counter-productive, because talking about your goals gives you the illusion of doing something and reduces your drive to actually do something. So… it works for me, but your mileage may vary.)

  • Get a “personal development buddy”

One of the many things I provide my life coaching clients is accountability. Knowing that once they’ve agreed to take action, I will be there, making sure they take it. Holding their hand when it needs holding and kicking their ass when it needs kicking.

So here’s my suggestion. Get a friend, and send them a link to this article.

Let them read through the whole thing, and if they’re interested, let them set their own goals, and then you can keep each other accountable!

This is hands down one of the most effective ways to get motivated and stay motivated, so if you’re going to apply one single idea from this list, make it the buddy system!

  • Write down your goals and keep them in a prominent place

If you see your goals several times each day, they will get drilled deeper into your subconscious, and you will have a better chance of taking action on them. It helps you keep your mind on exactly when the next convenient time take each of your chosen action is.

  • Take the first action immediately

And finally, a simple but surprisingly effective advice. Taking action is a habit… and often the most important step is breaking through the activation energy and taking the first step. After that, keeping your momentum going is comparatively trivial.

So if you have any action on your list from the Options phase that you could take immediately, do it!

What to do next

Okay, this brings us to a close. You now have a thorough, effective method for making a personal development plan.

Now that you’ve finished reading through this, it’s time to go through all the steps with other areas of your life in mind. Just make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself by setting too many goals for the same week. You’ll be far better off getting three important actions done every week for a year (giving you over 150 life-changing actions), rather than setting too many at once, failing to achieve them and losing motivation after three weeks.

If you enjoyed this article, I would really appreciate it if you could spread the word by stumbling, tweeting, sharing on facebook, or any other method of sharing you prefer.

(image courtesy of bohman)