Planning Your Future

Another oldie but goodie from Boxes and Arrows

erin malone
May 4, 2017 · 7 min read

“It’s not the plan that is important, it’s the planning.”
— Graeme Edwards

(Originally published February 26th, 2004 as I moved into my 3rd company as a manager. Some slight edits and an update at the end made in 2017.)

I have been thinking a lot about career growth lately, and as a manager, have been generally concerned with making sure there are growth opportunities for my staff, regardless of their level or the point they are at in their career.

This often means rearranging teams so that a staff member might be stretched to grow in a new skill — as a designer, as a mentor and leader, or just in a new domain (i.e., moving from a music product to a mail product). In addition, I am always looking for networking, conferences, and classroom opportunities that would benefit not only me, but my staff as well.

No one is going to look after your career for you, but you!

But not everyone has a manager that is concerned about her career growth, and there are even times when day-to-day work concerns are a priority and career growth needs are far in the back of my mind. As a matter of fact, for most of my career, I never had anyone watching out for me. For the first part of my career, I don’t even think I thought much about my long-term career. I just seemed to stumble into new opportunities that taught me new skills and kept me growing and challenged. But there was no plan, no goal other than to stay challenged.

The point is, in the big picture, no one is going to look after your career for you, but you.

A few years ago, a manager of mine gave me the assignment to work on a five-year career plan. I had never created a career plan before (not even to plot out goals for the coming year at that time), so I was completely unprepared for how and why I should do this. Luckily, she shared her own plan as a guide, but I still agonized through the exercise. Over time I have become aware of how important this was for me to do. Looking and assessing where I was at the time, really thinking about what I wanted to be doing in the future, gave me the tools to make the right decisions to make things happen.

After I was done, I realized that most of what I put down for a five-year plan could be done in a year. But it took writing it down to see that and to make it happen. This also was a good tool for working with my boss to craft training and work opportunities for me to meet my goals. I also made sure that these goals included life and personal goals as well as career goals. The older I get the more I realize that these are intertwined and success in one space brings success to others. Work/Life balance matters.

In an effort to make this anecdote meaningful to you, I’d like to share the steps and some resources I used to help me prepare my five-year goals.

The Template:

  1. Your Name
  2. Today’s Date
    This is important as you reflect back on this document. This will become a touchstone for your growth and a reminder of who you were as you look back at what was important to you in this point in time.
  3. 3–6 Months
  • Start small.
  • Think about short-term goals that are easily achieved but will also help move you towards the longer-term goals.
  • Include some tangible goals (i.e., ship a product that I acted as lead designer for).

4. 6–12 Months

  • Start thinking bigger here — this is planning for a year out.
  • What new skills do you want to learn?
  • What new ideas do you want to share with others?
  • What changes do you want to make? Put them down here along with the steps needed to take to make them happen.

5. Beyond 12 Months

  • Capture specific plans that you know may take more than a year to get to or accomplish. For me, it was to work on my Dr. Leslie book. I discussed the idea with a writing partner 3 years ago, but it is only now coming to fruition with an actual proposal in hand and a potential publisher.
  • Be realistic but not afraid to reach. Visualize success in areas you may have little control over. Don’t be afraid to write down a desired goal that may be a stretch.

6. Longer-term Goals

  • This is the area to think out for the next 3–5 years, including life beyond the company or situation you are currently in. For me, I listed “teaching again” as a goal. This reminds me that I want to do this and I need to make certain decisions and changes in order to make it happen.
  • If I decide at a later time, that I don’t really want to do this, I should remove it off the plan.

7. Opportunities to Explore at Your Company

  • List all the training and coaching opportunities relevant and currently available at your company.
  • Note relationships that need to be cultivated at your company in order to meet success.
  • Note: This obviously may not apply if you are an independent consultant. Think about other opportunities that might be available through professional associations and networking instead.

8. Skills to Develop

  • Project what skills you need to develop to reach the goals you listed in the first part of this exercise.
  • What other skills do you need, besides the ones you have now, to attain your goal?
  • Since I am a manager and this is the area in which I have been growing, I listed things such as Confidence and Effectiveness — along with ideas on how to master these more intangible skills.
  • Over the last couple of years, I have purposely put myself into situations to gain confidence — especially when giving presentations. Think about starting slow and building on your successes.
  • In addition, I also listed skills of associated/allied roles that I would like to learn in order to make myself a more well-rounded and effective manager in my company.

9. What I Care About in a Work Environment

  • This may seem frivolous or not important to the task at hand, but it serves to remind you of the values you need to share with the company you work for. As you grow or the company changes this can help guide you when you need to make a change.

10. Personal Goals

  • Don’t forget the personal goals that you need to weave into your life. It never hurts to write these down as a reminder of work/life balance and of the things that are really important to you as a person.

You can use the finished plan as a tool when working on performance goals with your boss. Letting her know what you want out of the job is as important as your manager being clear on what is expected of you. Reminding her regularly of your goals is also important, as we tend to fall into patterns of behavior that may not be best for our long-term career plans.

I pull my career plan out periodically to check off what I have accomplished, and have begun adding to the long-term section. I see how I have grown and what areas I still need to work on in order to reach the goals I have set. I can also see that some things that were important to me three years ago are no longer important, and that there are new areas of growth I am cultivating.

The point of this exercise is to come up with a realistic plan within the framework of your interests and career path. The list should be visited regularly and modified as you reach goals or when goals are no longer important to you. The plan should help you shape a vision towards reaching a future destination and remind you that success does not happen by chance.

2017 Update: For the last 9 years, I have been consulting and have had to work extra hard to do the networking and training mentioned above. And while I haven’t done a formal 5 year plan in awhile—there is still that 1 thing on that original plan I am working on—my partners and I do a check-in for where we want to be as a firm and as individuals about once a year. These have evolved over the years but it helps us see what items stay consistent and where we have grown and changed. We review our goals for the company and our culture and we look ahead to the next year or two and see where our personal goals map to the overarching company goals and needs. It’s been very useful to see how we are and are not aligned—where we overlap and how our goals complement each other for a greater whole. This gives us information for discussion and helps us think about the types of projects we look for and accept.

It’s useful to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, how you feel and what makes you happy in your work/life every now and again so you can course correct lightly or drastically. As I have added new aspects to my practice, like teaching the next generation of UX designers, and building a creative studio practice totally separate from my UX practice, I have found that keeping a touchstone to my long term life goals (career now being only a part as I have moved into a phase of life where that isn’t my primary concern) it’s been very helpful to write things down and to reflect on the decisions I have made or still need to make.

Ultimately, this is the most important design problem you will face because no one is going to look after your career, but you.

erin malone

Written by

I cowrote Designing Social Interfaces. I like to make models to explain complex systems. I design things. I take a lot of pictures.

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