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Your Individual Development Plan

Your Individual Development Plan
Your Individual Development Plan

    Where do you want to be in 5 years?

    This question is one of the lynchpins of the personal development field. It’s usually followed by instructions to visualize yourself having achieved those goals, and maybe an admonishment to ask yourself if what you’re doing now will get you there.

    None of this is hard. What is hard, though, is making a plan that will get you there, once you cut out all the stuff that won’t. It’s fairly easy to figure out the steps you need to take for a big project, even one that spans several years. It’s harder to plan for big life goals — things like becoming better at your job, spending more time with your family, getting more organized.

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    To help with this kind of planning, I’m borrowing an idea from the business world: the Individual Development Plan, or “IDP” for short. An IDP is a sort of agreement between an employee and their employer to work towards a set of goals together.

    There’s no requirement that your develop an IDP in the context of a business, though. Anyone can put together an IDP that helps them work towards their personal goals. At its root, an IDP is simply a personal plan for growth — something we should all have, regardless of who pays our wages.

    Creating your Individual Development Plan

    There is no set format that an IDP has to take. A single page listing goals and steps you can take to get you closer to them is perfectly adequate.

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    If your employer offers some sort of IDP program, speak with your human resources department about getting some guidance — you may find your employer is willing to pay for quite a few steps along the way, if they feel a better you will add value to their company.

    But going it alone is just fine, too — maybe you’re an entrepreneur, or a student, or a worker in the kind of job where personal development isn’t a priority. This isn’t rocket science; it’s not even model rocket science.

    Here’s what you need to do:

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    1. Take inventory: This is the hardest part of creating an IDP: you need to know what your goals are. Don’t worry too much, though — it’s perfectly fine to shift your goals as you work through your IDP.

      While considering your goals, focus on developing your strengths — not compensating for your weaknesses. You will have a much harder time motivating yourself to work against your nature than to work with it by doing things you like and have some talent at. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to be good at everything.

    2. Write a mission statement (optional): A personal mission statement isn’t for everyone, but many people find having one to be a useful standard to measure your actions against. The idea is, you can always ask yourself, “does this action do [whatever your mission is]?”
    3. Do research: Find out a) what you need to learn to improve or enter a new area, and b) how you can gain that knowledge. Look at job descriptions, career guides, trade magazines, and other sources and figure out what your next steps are. Then identify the places — schools, seminars, conventions, mentors, books, blogs, etc. — that offer what you need.
    4. Develop two plans: Although you’re aiming towards a long-term goal (or set of goals), what you do in the short-term is going to affect your long-term planning. This is life we’re talking about, not civic engineering — the step aren’t always clear. So write a short-term plan for the next year, and a longer-term plan for the next 5 years. Again, these don’t have to be all that complex; listing 2 or 3 things you want to do for each goal is probably sufficient.
    5. Figure out an assessment standard: How will you measure your success as you move forward? Goals that can’t be assessed in some way are very hard to stay motivated to work towards. Create a set of interim milestones — passing a class, getting an article published, making x dollars — and pay attention to whether you’re meeting them.
    6. Reassess periodically: Technically this happens after the IDP is created, but knowing you’ll reassess every 6 months or a year will help you make better decisions now, so I put it here. Make sure your plans and goals stay in alignment and that your goals still make sense. Do not let yourself stick to an IDP for the sake of seeing through a commitment; over several years, your goals are bound to change, and your IDP should change accordingly.
    7. Commit and take action: An IDP does you no good if it hangs neglected on a cork board for three years with the promise that you’ll get to it “someday”. Once you’ve made a plan, commit to taking the first steps immediately.

    What should be in your Individual Development Plan?

    Although the requirements for learning what you need/want to learn will vary widely, you should at least consider how each of the following could fit:

    • Courses and workshops: From formal university instruction to extension classes to one-off events like seminars.
    • Reading: Books, magazines, websites, newsletters, trade journals.
    • Networking: Don’t neglect the value that building connections within your current niche or your desired one can bring. Figure out who in your field is worth following, and how to get close to them.
    • Mentoring: A special kind of networking; consider asking a leader in your field to “take you under their wing”.
    • Ride-alongs/shadowing: Hands-on experience is invaluable. Ask to spend a day with someone whose knowledge and skills you admire, learning their work from their perspective.
    • Outreach: Form or join a group devoted to your topics.
    • Reassignment/move to a new job: Ask your employer to shift you into a different department or position, or find work that better matches where you want to end up.

    Not all of this is necessary, of course, but there are lots of creative ways to gain new skills and bodies of knowledge or develop existing ones that we simply don’t know about.

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    An IDP isn’t a binding contract; it’s an agreement, or a statement of intentions. The main point is to figure out what actions you could be taking and would like to take but aren’t. If you throw it out and start over in six months, that’s fine — as long as you’re doing something in the mean time.

    If you find you’re stuck in a rut with no idea of how to get out, take an afternoon and write up your own IDP. You might well be surprised at what occurs to you when you start thinking about not just where you would rather be but how you can get there.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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