How I made personal development work for me

Posted by on June 17, 2020

Personal development

Taking regular time out to focus on self-improvement can have concrete benefits for both you and your organisation. These benefits could include becoming more confident in your role, getting that promotion, or helping you become a more collaborative and communicative team member.

It surprises me that lots of people I speak to aren’t nearly as excited about personal developments as I am. If you feel guilty about taking time out for personal development, or you’re not sure where you’d even start, read on and let me try to convince you that it can work for you.

What is personal development?

The idea of personal development is a fairly simple one. By regularly dedicating time to learn new subjects and improve upon things you know already, you can progress further towards a career goal.

In my experience, there are two crucial parts: the plan and the implementation.

The plan involves taking time to think about where you’d like to be in the future and what steps you can take to get there. 

The implementation is where most people lose momentum. This is where you regularly dedicate time to focus on the areas you have identified, helping you to progress towards your goal.

You can shape your personal development to fit your learning style and the areas you want to study. For example, maybe your goal is to be a more confident public speaker. As part of your personal development plan you could spend time researching a topic and presenting your findings to your colleagues after a few weeks. Maybe you’re working on a project that makes use of an API, but you want to know more—what is OAuth and how does it work? How is it different from OpenID? Spending just an hour a week to read up and eventually contribute to an open-source project could be a way for you to improve your knowledge.

Personal development has been absolutely crucial for me in levelling up as an engineer. I’ve used it to study areas such as Test Driven Development, Design Patterns, UML, and even for learning tools like Vim, tmux, and the Git command line. All of which have had a direct positive impact on the projects I’ve worked on.

How I approach personal development

For me, the most important thing is that I have fun with it. It’s very easy to get bored and do something else, so I make it an event I look forward to. That means finding a nice cafe to work in, snoozing Slack notifications, and sipping fancy coffee.

I track my personal development through a Trello board that looks like this:

My personal development board

Every 6 weeks I re-evaluate the board. I look at the areas to improve based on feedback from colleagues and decide what my goals should be. I keep my core values in mind here too (the left column)—these are some general areas I’ve identified that help me do my best work. This process is working OK for me right now, but it’s important to point out that it’s very fluid, and that I change things around all the time. Maybe I’ll plan for 8 weeks instead of 6, or maybe I’ll abandon a goal. That’s all perfectly fine because I own my personal development and I construct it in the way that works for me at that time. 

Common pitfalls

Ever since joining FreeAgent in 2015 I’ve been taking time for personal development. It’s something that has thankfully been encouraged by my team from the start. I’ve tried lots of different techniques with varying amounts of success, and so some of the problems I’ve run into along the way are outlined below.

Not owning the plan

This is fairly common when you’re new to personal development. When you have a well-meaning mentor that spends time with you to develop the plan, it’s very easy to go along with everything they say. The result is a plan that doesn’t fit right because someone else created it for you.

Here’s a real-life example. Several years ago, my mentor and I decided application performance would be a good area for me to focus on. This sounded good to me at the time and we agreed I would read 2 relevant books and give a talk on our application’s performance in 3 months. I never got around to it. There were other things I was more interested in at the time and so the personal development didn’t take priority for me.

I didn’t own the plan and it showed over time.

I scheduled the application performance work for 3 months in the future because that felt far enough away that I could “just do it later”, which leads on to our next common pitfall.

Adding too much to the plan

It’s definitely a good idea to think about your long term career. Are you in a job that you enjoy? What kind of role would you like to have 5 years from now? Those are the things I think about every 6 weeks when I create a fresh personal development plan. What I have found is that sometimes I change my mind and that’s totally fine. If I create a personal development plan that covers a full year then all the things I can’t really be bothered to do will get pushed later and later into the plan.

With the previous example, I decided I would focus on application performance in 3 months’ time. This was because when I created the plan I was more interested in learning design patterns and systems architecture and wanted to focus on those straight away. By saying I would work on application performance in 3 months, I was really saying “this isn’t a focus for me right now and I probably won’t get round to it”. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

What works for me is keeping my plan nice and short. Every 6 weeks I have a career check-in. I ask myself those big career questions, like am I happy where I am? What role am I working towards? I then decide what to focus on over the next 6 weeks to help me move towards a goal. I find that 6 weeks is short enough that I can only really fit in the things I’m interested in. For the tasks I would usually kick down the road, I explicitly say “Yes, this may be valuable, but I’m not going to focus on it right now and that’s OK”.

Not scheduling time for it

Creating a personal development plan is one thing, but dedicating time to it each week is another challenge altogether and it’s something I’ve struggled with over the years. Maybe you have a big and important project that you think should take priority, or maybe you just feel guilty about taking time out for studying. Those feelings are natural at first, but I’d urge you to stick with it. Yes, there may be more pressing work, but you will likely always have a “big and important project” to work on. I find it useful to establish a routine and communicate it with my colleagues. If your teammates understand that you take an hour to study every Thursday afternoon, it can be factored into planning. Remember, there’s no need to feel guilty about taking this time—it’s an investment in you, and the returns will benefit everyone you work with.

How do you approach personal development? I’d love to hear about what works for you and your team. 

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