Last updated: 23.04.21

How to Write a Personal Development Plan

Everyone has goals and aspirations, and everyone wants to succeed in order to feel good about themselves and satisfied with their life. But figuring out what is going to make you happy and knowing how to achieve the things you want can be a daunting task.

Writing a personal development plan is the best way to get a clear idea of what you want to do both personally and professionally, along with establishing a clear path that gets you there. Not only can it provide guidance in difficult times and reassurance that you have a purpose, but it’s also the best way to establish goals that are specific, measurable and achievable and that will bring results instead of remaining as items on your to-do list.

What is Personal Development?

Personal development is an incredibly broad topic that can be boiled down to the idea of maximising your potential. It involves identifying strengths and weaknesses, pinpointing areas of your life or skill set that you would like to improve, and then taking the steps to do just that.

The idea of personal development is linked to self-actualisation, which was identified as a key part of our innate ‘hierarchy of needs’ by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in his influential 1970 study on personal development. Self-actualisation means reaching your full potential and becoming your very best self, and personal development is one of the best ways to get there.

What is a Personal Development Plan?

A personal development plan is a plan or guide for future actions that helps you to achieve your goals and keep track of what you need to do to reach them. It is commonly used as a tool in the workplace to help employees advance their career and decide where they are going to expand their skill set to continue to improve in their role. This is also sometimes referred to as a professional development plan.

Personal development planning allows you to create a roadmap towards an ultimate goal, highlighting the steps that you need to take to get there and making individual plans to accomplish each of these. It can be very useful to help give your life or career some guidance and alleviate anxiety by providing a solid plan to come back to in times of uncertainty or change.

Whether you create a personal development plan for work or to help you achieve goals in your personal life, having a clear idea of what your objectives and actions are is a brilliant way to ensure that you achieve what you have set out to do. 

How to Create a Personal Development Plan

The first step to creating a personal development action plan is to analyse where you are right now and what it is you want to achieve. This final goal will differ depending on the purpose of your plan and whether it’s being written for your work or personal life.

Outline Your Goals

Start the planning process by writing down what you have already achieved at work or in life in general. Get a good idea of your position right now, what skills you have and where you feel you have reached your potential and are satisfied with your progress.

Questions you might want to ask yourself at this stage include:

  • What have I achieved so far this year?
  • What do I find easy?
  • What do I find difficult?
  • What am I happy with in my life/at work?
  • What am I unhappy with in my life/at work?

Then, brainstorm where it is you want to be in the future, how you want to establish your personal brand and what you would like to achieve. These can be short-term and long-term goals, as specific or as vague as you like. At this stage, you’re just getting your ideas down.

Questions you might want to ask yourself as you are brainstorming include:

  • Where would I like to be in six months? One year? Five years?
  • What would I like to get better at?
  • What skills would I benefit from learning?
  • What am I afraid of that I would like to overcome?
  • What is holding me back from what I want to achieve? How can I push through this?

Prioritise Your Goals

Once you’ve got a list of various goals and aspirations, you need to sort them into some kind of order to form the basis of your personal development plan. The best way to do this is by prioritising your goals and establishing what you can do now and what needs to be done in the future.

How you prioritise your goals will depend on what times and resources you have available either in your personal life or at work. If you are putting together a personal career development plan in preparation for an appraisal or meeting with your manager, you’ll want to prioritise goals that you know will benefit your progress at work, which you currently have time available for or which you know you can get help with at your workplace.

Another good way to establish a plan for your goals is to consider whether any of your aspirations can be broken down into smaller steps. If one of your personal life goals is to eventually write a book, what can you do now? Are there writing workshops and retreats you can attend? Can you set a goal to reach a certain word count this year or finish a detailed map of the plot? Could you start a blog to hone your writing skills?

Splitting your goals into smaller, more achievable steps is the best way to make progress towards your end target and figure out a clearer roadmap for how you are going to achieve it.

Once you have prioritised your goals, you should end up with a time-based list. Now that you know what you can do now, what will need more time and resources and what is a goal for the future, you can put together a timetable for achieving each of these goals.

Refine Your Goals

If you’ve been setting goals or thinking about personal development for a while, you’re likely to have come across the idea of S.M.A.R.T targets. These targets use an acronym to help guide you through refining your personal goals, making them easier to achieve and should be the final step of creating your personal development plan.

S - Specific

Whilst earlier you were noting down any goal at all, at this stage you want to ensure that each of the goals you set is specific. You need to know exactly what it is that you are aiming for with each, as this means that you are more likely to achieve it.

If you’re dealing with goals that don’t feel specific enough, consider trying to split them down into multiple targets. This often helps you to narrow down your ideas.

M - Measurable

A key part of setting successful goals is establishing how you will know when you have achieved them. Celebrating accomplishment is a great motivator, but you can’t do this if the endpoint of the goals in your personal development plan is unclear.

Instead of writing vague goals such as ‘I want to get faster at writing reports’, come up with a measurable target like ‘In three months time I will be able to write 10 reports in a week’. If this is too easy or hard then you can adjust the values, but this goal has a clear focus and endpoint which makes it much easier to work towards.

A - Attainable

Whilst having high aspirations and being resilient is a good thing, setting yourself totally unattainable goals is only going to lead to disappointment. You must rethink any targets that may be impossible to reach at this stage, and instead come up with a series of more manageable alternatives that ultimately lead you in a similar direction as your initial goal.

R - Relevant

This stage is less relevant if you are writing a personal development plan, but if you are creating a plan for your career then you want to ensure that all the steps you are planning out are relevant to your ultimate goal. All of the smaller goals that you are setting yourself should feed into your overarching aspiration or endpoint in some way, as this will ensure you spend your time most efficiently and stay on track throughout the process.

If you’re making a more general personal development plan then you should still consider which goals are most relevant to achieving overall satisfaction and fulfilment in your life, and refine any that you think are pointless or detract from this intention. 

T -Time-bound

When prioritising your goals you should have already got a rough idea of the timescale of each of them, but this final stage of refining your goals involves making each of them time-sensitive. This will give you a more rigid framework to work with and help to keep you on track for meeting each of your goals instead of putting off tasks until later.

Whilst it will be difficult to have a specific timeframe for some goals, start with those that are first on your priority list and set yourself deadlines for each of them. Even having a rough plan for three months, six months and one year will give your personal development action plan more structure, and you can always adjust these deadlines as you go.

What Should a Personal Development Plan Contain?

Once you have a list of detailed, measurable and time-oriented goals you will need to formally put together your plan. Whilst the components of a personal development plan will depend on whether you’re completing it for work or yourself, as some organisations may have an official structure you need to follow and specific sections you need to complete.

In general however, a personal development plan should contain a description of what you want to achieve, a plan of how you are going to achieve it, and how you will know that you have been successful. This may include the resources you will use and the deadlines you have set for yourself.

It can also be useful to include a plan for how you are going to be held accountable for reaching the goals you have set, such as the support you are going to receive at work or in your personal life. Many organisations give their employees regular check-in meetings to review their personal development plan, give feedback and assess whether any more support is needed, which can be incredibly useful.


What is the purpose of a personal development plan?

A personal development plan is a tool that is used to guide someone’s career or individual development. Its purpose is to provide a framework within which you can constantly assess your skills, set new goals and continue to develop either professionally or personally as you work towards an ultimate goal. 

Who should be involved in a personal development plan?

Who is involved in a personal development plan will depend on its purpose. If the plan is only focusing on your individual emotional or social development then you are often the only person involved, although you may want to share your efforts with friends, partners and your family.

If you are writing a personal development plan at work or as part of career development, then your manager, colleagues and other relevant people in your workplace may need to get involved. This could be to provide training or development exercises or just to offer support and accountability.

What does a personal development plan look like?

There is no standardised method for creating a personal development plan and therefore there is no ‘proper’ way that your plan has to look. You may wish to personalise your plan and set it out in a creative way that inspires you, or you may wish to keep it very simple and just focus on the steps that are outlined within it. As long as it works, the presentation is not important.


Having your personal development objectives laid out for you in a plan is one of the best ways to make progress at work and in the rest of your life. Whilst you do need to continuously dedicate time and energy to achieving the goals you have set yourself, creating a plan does a lot of the hard work for you and can help to give you a better idea of what you are ultimately aiming for, providing clarity in many aspects of your life.

Virtual College has a range of different personal development courses available for those who are trying to progress in their career, reach self-actualisation and become better leaders. Our ‘Developing a Personal Development Plan’ online course is a great place to start if you’ve been inspired by this article.