Why do so many PDPs get abandoned?

Why do so many PDPs get abandoned? (Mina asked this question earlier this week, which led to an awesome conversation I’ve tried to capture here). 

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have put together a Personal Development Plan (PDP), sometimes slogging through it and sometimes just having it flow out. They file it away in a folder in the recesses of the computer or tuck it away in a binder somewhere, where it sits, abandoned but not quite forgotten. It can turn into a source of frustration, that reminder of a goal made but not followed through on. It can turn people off personal development planning.

My colleague, Mina, and I sat down a couple weeks ago and asked ourselves why that is. We’d each experience this exact ‘failure’ in personal development planning, and we’d each had some really fantastic times of personal development in our lives. We wanted to understand why sometimes it went well and sometimes it doesn’t. It was a pretty insightful conversation for me, and I wanted to try and capture and share as much of it as I could.

Everyone can and should have their own approach to personal development. One approach I’ve seen is an excel spreadsheet, with a set of columns on the top: Personal Development Goal, Desired Change, Activities, Indicators, Time Line, Progress, Comments. I know some people who have used this model and found it really useful, but I think it takes a very specific mind-set to use this model, and I don’t think it’s a good model for most people. The reason I don’t like this model is that paints a picture of PD as something that has a beginning and end. For most personal development goals, this is a little absurd. Take for example someone who wants to learn to be more empathetic. To say “I currently lack empathy. I would like to be more empathetic. I plan to be empathetic by June 15th.” It’s just not that simple, but a linear approach to developing a PDP tries to make it so.

When Mina and I started breaking this down, we realized two things: personal development is a structured way to engage in life-long learning, and a “Personal Development Plan” is a terrible place to start that structuring. It’s like laying a foundation for a building before you’ve finished your drawings. By focusing so much on this PDP you can lose sight of the overarching goal of “personal development”.

From this, we decided to take a step back and try and look at personal development more holistically. We figure it all starts with self-awareness – an understanding of who you are, what you’re good at, what you’re not, and where you want to go. This might come from a whole lot of introspection, or from a friend or coach pointing something out. However it comes, that honest appraisal is necessary in identifying that specific delta, that specific change you want to see in your own attitudes, skills, or behaviors. The importance of self-awareness is so critical to all of this – it is the seed from which all change grows! That said, consciously engaging in personal development is a fantastic way to grow self-awareness.

Then you need to commit to that change. This isn’t easy – my guess is that most personal development goals that get missed get missed because of this. It’s easy to say “I want to be punctual”, but unless you really commit to punctuality, you’re going to keep showing up late. You need to emotionally invest in that change, see how that change is actually going to be valuable to you (personally, professionally, whatever), to really want it, and decide you’re going to make it happen. You also need to have a vision for that change, and believe in the possibility of that vision. This requires a certain amount of faith, but without that leap and that honest belief that “change is possible”, the commitment won’t last through the inevitable hurtles.

Once commitment is firmly established, then, and only then, does it make sense to start planning for change. Whether you take a log-frame approach, a linear outcomes-outputs-inputs-activities, an un-structured “today I’ll do this”, or whatever it is that works for your specific style, this is the time to start breaking that change down into actions. Everyone is going to have a method that works for them, and one may work for one specific change might not work for another. The key, I think, is in breaking down the change to specific behaviors you want to exhibit (or stop exhibiting) – moving from abstract changes to specific things you can do or not do. These behaviors are things that in day-to-day life you can catch yourself doing or force yourself to do – whether it’s forcing yourself to floss every day, or to stop yourself whenever you find your inner monologue turning negative.

Lastly, there comes monitoring and evaluation. Again, this can take many forms, but it’s necessary in determining whether you’re achieving your goals and whether your’re making progress. While this is often brushed aside, it can be a huge boost to your confidence if you can find a way to actually monitor your progress. The goal is to close that loop, to increase self-awareness, thereby facilitating continuous improvement. I don’t think this necessarily means following up on specific behavior changes or attitude shifts you were pushing for in yourself (though it certainly can) but rather continuing to reflect and continuing to look for deltas you’d like to see in yourself – checking in and constantly working to increase that self-awareness, sowing the seeds for further change. This is about embracing personal development not as a set of discrete activities or “change efforts” but rather as a way of living – of seeking out room for growth, of constant learning, and as something of a philosophy.

Any of this resonate? I’d love to hear how other people go about framing their personal development. What works, and what are the barriers for you?

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10 Responses to Why do so many PDPs get abandoned?

  1. Tom Curran says:

    Great, post Dan. Very insightful. I think it’s definitely true that one needs to buy in to a goal completely before attempting to achieve real behaviour change. If this buy-in is not there, the attempt will not go anywhere regardless of the plan.

  2. mikeklassen says:

    Stellar Post man. Hot topic for me at the moment too. The part of the process that you articulated nicely that I think is key is

    “You need to emotionally invest in that change, see how that change is actually going to be valuable to you”

    I know we chatted a bit about this at the Q1 retreat, but for me it still felt pretty vague/abstract at that point. Linking in the goal to why it matters and having a powerful sense of what will be different in your performance/life if you achieve it is massive.

    Thanks for sharing a great reflection. I love the approach of turning an insightful conversation into a blog post – ballin!

  3. Laura says:

    An insightful post drawn from experience – thank you for that!

    May I offer a coach’s perspective? One thing I’ve noticed is that PDPs often feel like a long list of “shoulds” – “I should get better at x, y”, but that they aren’t alive with desire! My coach training emphasized a shift from the typical SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound) to a new type… Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Resonant, Thrilling! I think a PDP that lights you up inside (that sings with resonance, that gives a little gulp of thrill) is one that’s much more likely to come alive in your life.

    With thanks for how you’ve shared this,

    • Thanks for chiming in, Laura!

      I like that framing, with the emphasis on how people FEEL about the change. The whole process of planning is so rational and logical, it almost seems to cut out that passion, but without that emotional buy-in and genuine excitement for change, how can it ever be something you really throw yourself at?

  4. Brian says:

    Great post Dan!

    I am totally adding this post to our resource list for JFs & ProFellows who are working on personal development plans/just starting to explore the idea of personal development.

    I think we often get into a mindset that putting a plan on paper ASAP is the right way to approach personal development. Even if one uses a PDP framework, it is only as good as the self-reflection and honest self-assessment that one has put in ahead of time. Like you said, “it is the seed from which all change grows!”



    • Totally. I feel like we can slip into this mindset where the plan becomes the goal. But really the plan is just a mid point between where the real value is: in the self-reflection that goes into the plan, and the actual execution and push for change afterwards!

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  7. Shamir Tanna says:

    Great post Dan and awesome question. Honestly, I didn’t do enough with my PDP and lost a very good opportunity. I really like the way you talk about specific actions – even small measurable steps that can easily say if I am progressing or not……. it works differently with different people but I don’t think I ever created accountability for myself.

    How often do you work on it, revise it, monitor?

    Take care and all the best!

  8. franckvachon says:

    Hahaha, that’s a good post, and it does hit on some key points. I would concur that the committing to it part is where it all falls back into pieces.

    For me, some of it was about actually committing, but part of it was simply that I was feeling like I was pretending. A lot of it was about being organized and about classifying things a lot more with schedules and deadlines and planning and all… But at some point, I experienced a huge backlash against it. I was feeling like I was filling out a spreadsheet/calendar in front of me, but not even really for myself, more for the sake of a PDP. What I realised is that not only the commitment part wasn’t up to it, but the actually ”thing to change” was misguided, in the first place. I’m not a neat, organized, scheduled and well-planned person. But I don’t really want to be. So putting it in my plan and trying to achieve it felt somewhat… empty.

    So I changed my approched. I made it a lot less formal, and instead of actual schedules I went for broader objectives – giving me lots of room to improvise. That suits me alot more.

    In the end, the main value of it was thinking about myself, sorting out things, and deciding what do I want to change – and what, even though I could, I don’t really want to.

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