How taking a ‘Personal Away Day’ can boost your career development

A Business Analyst ponders when she might find time to work on personal development
It’s easy to procrastinate and put off spending time on personal development

When my manager asked me ‘how do you want to develop in your role?’ I kept putting off having a good answer: I never seem to have the time to really think about it. It can be difficult to take time away from the day-to-day of work to focus on that most selfish of things, oneself. So I decided to take a ’Personal Away Day’ to focus on the topic. This blog post outlines how I did it and what I learned, and shares some tips on how you can organise your own Personal Away Day.

Much like team or departmental away days that have been a feature of working lives since at least the early 20th century, a personal away day would allow me the time to think, away from the day to day of my projects and tasks, and perhaps identify some areas of focus for my career development.

So, why do it?

In short: (quality) time. Trying to spend time during the normal working week to focus on my career just never seemed to happen: I’d procrastinate, or something more important would come up, or I’d only have 30 minutes until the next meeting so not enough time to really get into it, or, or, or… [add further excuses here]

So I thought that the only way I would get this done would be by taking some time out from the normal working day, free of distractions.

Two people are looking at an empty calendar which is titled ‘A Quiet Day’
Dedicating time to spend on your personal away day is key

I decided to book a Friday, in the first week of January. Fridays are great because it’s nearly the weekend, and January is great because many in my team hadn’t returned from the holidays yet, so I wouldn’t be missing much. January is also a good time because, well, new year, new you, and all that.

I booked the whole day, declined all other meetings (including the daily standup), and made it clear in my calendar that I’d be busy.

Setting Outcomes

Taking a ‘Personal Away Day’ is not the same as taking a personal day, or a duvet day. In order to have a productive day, I needed some outcomes: what did I want to achieve?

I wanted to set some personal OKR’s for the year

I wanted to identify skills or knowledge to improve on

I also wanted to identify some options on where I could take my career. What options are available to me to progress, either at the FT or beyond? Where do I want to go?

Plan the day!

In order for the Personal Away Day to be a success, it does need to be planned and structured: this is not the time to make like a flaneur and flân about the town. I set aside a couple of hours earlier in the week to plan my day, and broke up the day into sessions.

Two people are thinking; ‘navel gazing’ and thinking about the list of tasks and jobs to do to plan their day
Planning your away day will mean you make the most of the time

Here’s what I planned:

  • Session 1: Review the previous year. Identify what went well and what didn’t, from my own reflection, from reviewing my end of year 360 feedback, and my manager’s review.
  • Session 2: Review and do a self-assessment of my role’s competency matrix. Identify areas where I could improve or develop further.
  • LUNCH
  • Session 3: Go for a walk: this time is to let my thoughts wander. Sometimes my best ideas come to me whilst on a walk, so I enjoy and value this time. This also breaks the monotony of sitting at a desk all day.
  • Session 4: Big Picture Career Goals: where do I want to go? What kinds of things do I want to do? Brainstorm the ideas.
  • Session 5: How might I get there: collating all the information from the day, put together a set of personal OKRs that look at addressing areas to develop, as well as activities to help me towards my longer term goals.

Between each session I took a 10–15 minute break, to aid the ‘context switch’ and give my brain a rest between activities.

Get away from it all: change the location

Corporate away days are usually off-site, away from the office, for a reason: physically being in a different environment can help take a step away from the day to day, and aid creativity. This is partly why I went for a walk around town, but I also moved to different rooms for each activity, so that I would not get sucked in to doing work tasks! This also made the day feel a bit special and different. For a couple of activities I used old fashioned pen and paper instead of using my computer. If it’s difficult to change your environment at home, you could try a coffee shop, public library, park (if the weather is nice), or even see if a friend will let you work from their place for the day!

The same goes for food.! I treated myself to some pastries for breakfast, and bought lunch instead of raiding the fridge, to add to the idea of the day being different from the norm.

A croissant with a personality — and a face!
Don’t forget to eat! And have a treat.

So how did it go?

Really well. By the end of the day I’d put together my personal OKRs for the year. I’ve been able to identify opportunities that have come my way that should help me achieve them: things that I might not have done otherwise. I’m also more conscious of some of the feedback I had — to be more of a team leader [as well as] an individual contributor — something I’m working on!

Persuading your manager!

We are fortunate at the FT to be relatively autonomous in how we work, so suggesting this idea to my manager was straightforward. If your manager is unsure, perhaps share your ‘Away Day Plan’ with clear objectives ahead of time, and choose a day that won’t impact your day-to-day work too much. Explaining the benefits of taking this time should also give your manager confidence that you’re not about to spend the day shopping! Maybe even show them this blog post.

Tools and techniques: ideas for career development activities

Like an author with writer’s block, it can be difficult to know how to successfully think about career development: you don’t want to spend the day chewing on a biro and aimlessly asking Google. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • The GROW model can help you identify your goals and how to achieve them
  • Creating a career ‘mood board’ can be a way to visualise what a future career move might look like
  • Review job competencies, and even job descriptions for open positions — for your role and roles you’re interested in: what roles appeal to you and why? Would you apply? What’s stopping you? Identify what you value in a role, as well as what skills you might need to get there.
  • Adapt a ‘Wheel of Life’ template for career focussed values or competencies that you can measure yourself against
  • Reflect using a ‘Career Happiness’ timeline: the X axis is time (in months, or years, it’s up to you on the time period you want to review), and the Y axis shows your level of happiness. Thinking back over your career, or projects you’ve worked on, plot when you were happy, and when you weren’t, and when things were ok. Then, thinking of those times when you were happiest and saddest: what made you feel that way? What elements made you feel happy, and conversely, what made you feel sad? How can you incorporate these elements to make your working life happier (and therefore be more productive and motivated)?

I found my Away Day really useful, and plan to do the same next year. I hope this post has been useful to show a different way of approaching personal goals. Please do share any other ideas you have in the comments below!

(Also a massive thanks to Emma Bevan for the brilliant illustrations on this post!)

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