How to Create a Professional Development Plan

How to Create a Professional Development Plan

“Aim at nothing, and you’ll hit it every time.”

You’ve probably heard this saying before; it’s well-known because it carries a kernel of truth. When there’s no plan or no goal in mind, you’re probably not going to accomplish much.

People often approach productivity on either end of a spectrum. On one hand, you might be more spontaneous and neglect planning. On the other hand, you might be controlling and too focused on an outcome.

Diligence and perseverance are rare and valuable character traits. But they shouldn’t be cultivated because you’re focused on a specific result. It’s natural to work towards bettering your life, as long as you’re still thankful and content with what you have now.

It’s normal to hit walls in our work lives when we feel dissatisfied and stuck. Creating a professional development plan can help you move past obstacles like this. (If you’re married, include your spouse in your plan; otherwise, you’re definitely going to have some adjustments to make!)

How to Create a Professional Development Plan

Considering changes in your profession can be a wonderful, energized time of evaluating

possibilities. Before doing anything else, if you believe in a higher power, it is good practice to invite that higher power into your process.

Changing your approach to your career can seem intimidating. But it’s also an opportunity to consider options you might not have thought of in the past.

If you are a Christian, it’s important to start this process with prayer and acknowledging God’s hand in your life:

  • Take time to ask the Lord for wisdom and direction.
  • Remember that this life is temporary. How can you live with eternity in mind, even in your work life?
  • Remember that he works all things together for the good of his children.
  • Remember that he is with you and that you do not have to walk through any change or growth alone.

What Do I Want?

On the surface, this seems obvious, but sometimes our dreams and desires can get lost in the muddle of everyday life as the years pass. So think of an ideal situation. If you could suddenly have your dream job, what would it be? Let the ideas come without immediately dismissing them.

No matter how crazy the idea, it’s helpful in this stage of your plan, because the purpose is to find out what you truly desire. You can also identify which dreams are actually possible and which are probably pipe dreams (such as being rich and famous).

Think specifically about the vocation you really want to have. Maybe you’re already in it and you want to get better at what you’re doing. Maybe you despise your current job and desperately want to make a change but don’t know how. Or you could be anywhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.

This is where a professional development plan is so valuable. It helps you set clear objectives so you can move towards those dreams that may seem out of each but are actually possible.

Setting the Main Objective

Planning is the easy part compared to carrying out the plan. The reason we make plans, or set objectives, is so that our efforts lead to the best possible outcome. This is why we recommend starting with one main objective in your professional development plan.

A single objective doesn’t take the place of having multiple other interests, but it focuses your efforts so you don’t overwork or feel scattered.

What are the most important aspects of your vocation to you? Is it the salary, the work environment, the proximity to your home? Or maybe the benefits, flexibility, or work-life balance? Maybe you feel the need to have a strong sense of purpose in your work, such as helping people.

With this in mind, here are some examples of single main objectives in a professional development plan:

  • Find a career that allows me to work outside frequently
  • Become a lawyer working in private practice
  • Become a mid-level manager at Google
  • Advance in my current workplace
  • Take over my boss’s job when he retires
  • Work for Pixar

There’s no reason why you can’t have more than one objective, but it’s best to focus on one at a time. If you do choose to focus on more than one, you’ll have a more complex timeline. You can create separate plans for 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, etc. And of course your plans can and will change over time.

Evaluating Alternatives

Setting a main objective is just the beginning. With an overarching goal like this, the next essential step is to eat the elephant one bite at a time. In other words, we need to break down the goal into smaller tasks that are concrete and achievable.

To start with, think about all the options you have to achieve your objective, especially if it involves a change in career. Exploring your options inevitably involves research, like reading books and articles, talking to people who are already in the field, listing pros and cons, looking into job availability, etc.

Here are some things you might do while you’re in the exploring alternatives stage:

  • Take a class on a particular skill (e.g. coding) or an area of professional growth (e.g. management)
  • Get an entry-level job at the company you want to work for
  • Learn another language
  • Pursue a license you’ll need for your target field
  • Pursue a new degree
  • Talk to HR about advancement opportunities

Depending on your main objective, your alternatives might still be at a high level (pursuing a new degree, for example). If this is the case, you’ll need to break them down into smaller steps you can take.

But don’t worry about that yet. Work on your plan gradually and take the time to thoroughly research your alternatives. You don’t have to do this all at once. If you get stuck, a counselor can be a great help as you work through the process.

Once you feel like your list of alternatives is complete, you can make it into a task list by eliminating any options you’ve decided not to pursue. Some alternatives may be mutually exclusive, so when you decide to pursue one, you can automatically eliminate the other. Or you may simply decide to limit yourself because you know you can’t pursue every path at once.

Count the Cost

So now that you’ve set your objective and created a task list based on your alternatives, the next step is to count the cost! What is involved in carrying out this plan? What investment will it require of your time and finances? Do you have the mental and emotional capacity to carry it out?

What about your family and other relationships? If you decide to pursue a master’s degree, for example, your experience will be very different depending on whether you have a family or not.

If you do plan to pursue further education, you’ll have to consider your finances in detail, including hidden costs such as the sacrifice of your time, the cost of commuting, etc.

If you are married, your spouse is an integral part of your personal development plan. S/he needs to be on board with it in order for you to succeed because you’ll need his or her support. If you are making a significant career change, this will bring stress to your relationship. Both of you need to be prepared for this to happen.

While you’re pursuing your plan, unexpected things will happen. Obstacles will arise, and frustration will likely ensue. A calm response is the most beneficial for everyone. You can always reschedule an event or retake a class, but none of your accomplishments are more important than your marriage. What does it matter if you succeed professionally if you lose your marriage in the process?

Schedule it Out

Of course, your plan will have to become linear so you can decide what to tackle first. Put all of your tasks in chronological order; if you’re not sure how to prioritize them now, you can always rearrange them later, but this way you’ll know where to start. Consider your work-life balance and family commitments when you’re making your list.

Work the List

Finally, make a separate list and put the first ten tasks on it. Start working down the list. You’ll face obstacles but persevere. There’s always a solution, even if it’s to get rid of a task and replace it with another that accomplishes the same goal.

Pacing yourself is absolutely crucial to your success. Productivity is healthy, but not if it’s unbalanced and causes you to become sick, overwhelmed, or out of touch with your family. Make sure you schedule periods of rest and reconnection so you can approach your personal development plan in a healthy and sustainable way.

Review Periodically

It’s important to revisit your task list every so often to make sure you’re on the right track. Is your plan getting you closer to achieving your goals? Are there any steps that you can eliminate? Do you need to add something?

This task list is meant to be fluid and to morph over time as you discover the best way to achieve your professional dreams. The goal is to be efficient with your time and money while also being productive.

Sample Professional Development Plan

In our example scenario, J. Sample works as a clerk for a waste management company. His main objective (after three years with the company) is to move into a mid-level management position.

Here are his alternatives:

  1. This plan could easily take 5-7 years: he continues to work hard in his current position and wait for internal job openings.
  2. Or, he could begin working on his master’s degree in Business Administration while waiting for job openings. His parents might be willing to help with tuition.

J. Sample decides on the second alternative, and this is the task list he comes up with:

Professional Development Plan

Objective: Move into mid-level management at my company

Task List:

  • Pray and seek wisdom
  • Discuss the plan with my wife and seek her agreement
  • Discuss the idea with my current manager
  • Look into MBA programs nearby
    • Quality of program
    • Tuition costs
    • Night classes
    • Commute
  • Decide which class schedule would work for me and my family
  • Select a program
  • Budget for the program
    • Tuition
    • Mileage
    • Books and supplies
  • Discuss tuition costs with parents
  • Apply to the program
  • Set up a payment schedule with parents
  • Buy books and other materials
  • Schedule reading and studying
  • Set up a note-taking system
  • Organize books, notes, and materials
  • Prepare for each course
    • Read syllabus
    • Write down assignments and exams
    • Check for updates
  • Successfully complete classes
  • Graduate
  • Let my boss and HR know
  • Monitor available job openings
  • Apply to available jobs until I get one
  • Celebrate!

A plan like this would only take a couple of hours to formulate. This doesn’t mean it’s fail-proof, of course! Maybe the boss will suggest a different way to move towards management. Maybe the parents won’t want to help pay for tuition. Maybe the classes will be too difficult or overwhelming. Maybe the main objective itself will need to be changed.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the effort is what matters, no matter what obstacles and changes happen along the way. If you don’t try, you’ll never know what might have happened. And you don’t have to do this alone. Pray, talk to your loved ones and friends, and if you get stuck, talk to a career counselor who can help you work on a realistic and hopeful professional development plan.

“Girl Writing in a Diary,” courtesy of Viktor Hanacek,, CC0 License; “Studying,” courtesy of Patrick Denker, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Canal couple,” courtesy of Valerie Everett, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Forest path,” courtesy of dmz,, CC0 License


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