Why a Personal Development Plan Will Make You a Better Person

Benjamin Franklin

The Power of a Personal Development Plan

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” — Benjamin Franklin

We cannot underestimate the power of a personal development plan. Consider this story. He was born into a family of seventeen children, the son of a poor candle and soap maker realized early on in his life the importance of self-improvement. Though he only attended one year of grammar school, this young boy would learn on his own how to read and write. To improve and learn, he would study the writings of famous authors and force himself to write in their same style.

Though his father wanted him to enter the clergy, his family’s poverty only garnered him an apprenticeship at his brother’s printing shop. Here his exposure to a variety of books prompted him to not only read the tomes, but to form a group of people who would get together and discuss them. Through this intellectual exercise, each of the members sought to improve their minds and in turn, the world.

This young man would go on to do that — dedicating himself to a personal journey of physical, mental and moral improvement. He became a vegetarian believing a vegetarian diet to be healthier than one with meat. And though as a youth, he didn’t always behave responsibly. At the age of 20 he decided to change his life by embarking on a course of what he called “moral perfection. In doing so, this gentleman created a list of four resolutions:

1. He resolved to become more frugal to save enough money to repay his debts.

2. He decided that he would be very honest and sincere in every word and action.

3. He promised himself to be industrious to whatever business he would undertake.

4. He vowed to speak no ill toward any other person and rather to “speak all the good I know of every body.”

This man would go on to great things:

  • He was inducted into the U.S Chess Hall of Fame
  • He learned to master the harp, violin, and guitar
  • He composed musical pieces for the string quartet
  • He created and published the first political cartoon in the United States
  • He invented the lightening rod, bifocal lens, glass harmonica and other notable inventions
  • He helped found the University of Pennsylvania
  • He helped draft the Declaration of Independence
  • He served as the head diplomat in the American delegation sent to France in 1776
  • He secured the support of the French for the Revolution
  • He negotiated the terms of peace with the British in the Treaty of Paris in 1783
  • He became the Governor of Pennsylvania for three terms

Benjamin Franklin’s list of achievements reads more like that of a group of scholars, politicians and businessmen let alone that of a single individual. Among all these accomplishments, Franklin was a model of self-improvement and his life shows the benefits. At 20, he would list the thirteen virtues to which he aspired in his life:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Listing these virtues was not enough. Franklin developed a plan to track his progress in each of these areas. Check it out:

Franklin’s incredible success resulted from his insatiable desire for improvement and his plan to see that desire fulfilled. He stated this in his biography:

“It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”

A Foundation for Growth

If one of the most successful people to ever live on this planet found it beneficial to use a personal development plan in striving toward his goals, it only stands to reason that we should at least think about building one for ourselves.

The desire to improve and grow seems universal. From high achieving CEOs and successful business people to the top level athletes and artists, people from every race, creed, nationality, and gender have found ways to develop and leverage their innate potential and talent.

Yet while some people seem to rise to the top, there are others with high aspirations that never get off the ground. What separates these two groups? I submit two characteristics: a motivation and a plan. We can talk about motivation and how an inner passion can be a driving force toward greater personal heights but if we’re honest, we all understand that motivation — the “want to” — comes and goes.

The main ingredient to self-improvement — the “secret sauce” — is a personal development plan.

Benjamin Franklin had one and an investigation into the lives of some of the most successful people in the world will reveal a similar tale. And while books have been written on the characteristics of high achievers to reveal their hidden habits and thought processes, the fact remains that habits like these begin with intention and purpose.

The Top Characteristics of a Personal Development Plan.

Now that we have established how powerful a personal development plan can be for someone’s life, how can we build one for ourselves? Well, there are a few characteristics that all of these plans seem to share.

1. They are written down.

It’s not enough to “think about” what we want to do to improve. We must take that imagination and translate it into reality and a big part of that comes through converting thoughts and dreams into actual words on paper. The act of putting something in writing can have a magical effect upon us. It takes the abstract and makes it concrete. It can make what seems unattainable, reachable. Yes, high level dreams and aspirations can intimidate us but when we put it on paper, somehow it appears a bit more realistic.

2. They are both realistic and out of reach.

What I mean by this is reflected in Franklin’s 13 virtues. His aspiration for moral perfection was something that he would never completely achieve simply because that kind of life is impossible. And though temperance may seem to be something out of reach as a lifetime virtue, when simplified as “eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation” it is something that we can apply to every meal and each social gathering. Even though Franklin’s aspirations could never be realized to absolute perfection, they provided guideposts along the journey toward his goal and enabled him to “practice” them regularly.

3. They reflect both a short term and long term perspective.

Franklin’s development plan for moral reflection did this. It reflected daily aspirations that could be attained through habitual practice leading toward long-term change and lifestyle transformation. As someone once said, people often overestimate what they can do in a year, but underestimate what they can do in 5 years. The key is the small improvements, the regular practice if you will, that we establish each day. Small improvements over time pay large dividends. With this in mind, a plan should reflect something that may seem out of reach in the short term but can become more and more attainable as we improve.

4. They are based upon important values.

Franklin’s value for moral perfection set the foundation for his plan and gave it purpose so that it lasted throughout his life. In the same way, for our plans to remain relevant and serve us over the long term, they must be based upon the most important things in life. And while money and possessions seems to be something that “successful” people strive toward, I would suggest that the most successful people focus first on their purpose and craft everything around that. Asking yourself the question “why am I here on this planet?” can open your eyes to what you want to do and provide a clearer lens for focusing on how to get there.

The Personal Development Plan Pyramid Model

With all this in mind, let’s think about how to begin to craft a personal development plan for ourselves. Here are some steps to get started:

1. Determine your Purpose

Write down your purpose in life. In order for your plan to last, the foundation must begin with a strong purpose. Ask yourself the question posed earlier “Why are you here on this planet?” We can’t overstate the importance of having a life’s purpose because it forms the ground that everything else stands upon (for more on this, you can listen to these podcasts on purpose: first and second). Write down what you mean by success. The worst thing in life can be pursuing a definition of success and upon achieving it, realizing wasn’t what you thought it would be (here’s an article about why our definitions in life really matter).

2. Develop your Values

Based upon your purpose, think about the things that are important to you? What are the values that will guide your life? Franklin had 13 virtues. Aristotle had 12. In the same way, we have things in life that are important to us. Though you don’t need a completely comprehensive list at the beginning, picking a small number of values (5–10) and writing them down is a great start. These values should also align with our purpose and if they don’t, we need to ask ourselves what needs to change.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” — Bruce Lee

3. Define your Goals

Any plan is fruitless without a tangible “end.” A goal is simply where you want to be at the end. Stephen Covey said it like this: “Begin with the end in mind.” Our goals should be consistent with our values and should define a tangible result. As Bruce Lee said, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” Goals serve to guide us toward destinations that we may or may not reach. Of course reaching our goal is the main objective, but even moving in that direction takes us further along than if we never started. The important thing is that goals function to give us destinations to move toward.

4. Design your habits.

Habits are actions that you can do on a regular basis that will lead you to your goal. The reality of life is that most of what we do happens habitually. If you think about it, most of our actions in life happen at the subconscious level. Our brains operate on autopilot. What forms the basis for how that happens? Our habits. For this reason, our habits are hard to change because they are strong neural networks established over long periods of time.

Fear not! Neuroplasticity shows that no matter how ingrained our thinking patterns and habits, the human brain is “moldable” and we can change. But it takes two things. Intentional practice and consistency. Habits are the keys to both of these. Our habits should align with our goals and should be things that we can regularly do to establish new neural networks.

The longer we do them, the stronger those networks become until we develop a new habit. Though some self-help gurus have suggested that habits will form in 21–30 days, science suggests that it takes around 2 months, or 66 days for habits to become solidified.

So, think about a long term perspective and write down small habits that you can consistently do each day and the power of neuroplasticity will do its work and begin to change you over time.

5. Devote time to Reflection.

Though all these steps will start you on a path to consistent growth and improvement, a reflection moment each day will help to center and refocus you on the right path. As I said before, it would be a shame to get somewhere only to find out that it’s not where you really wanted to be. A reflective moment each day — right before you go to bed — to look at and read over your values, goals and habits can bring perspective and help keep you moving in the direction you want to go. Some people journal these things each night. Some people do it once a week. The important thing is that you do it regularly. Even if it’s only once a month, take time to make sure you’re going where you want to go.

A personal development plan is just that — something personal. And though it may seem like a quantitative process, it really is more qualitative. I have created a personal development plan template based upon this Pyramid model to give you a start down the path toward growth and self-improvement. Remember, the most important definition of success is the one that you have in your mind. Make sure that definition follows your purpose and values, and then craft your goals and habits to get you there.

Download this personal development plan template to begin your journey toward growth and self-improvement.

Jeff Bogaczyk hosts the Mind For Life podcast and this article was originally posted on his personal blog at www.mindforlife.org. If you’re interested in irregular tweets that won’t fill up your feed, you can follow him on Twitter @jeffbogaczyk

If you enjoyed this story, please recommend and share to help others find it! Feel free to leave a comment below.

The Mission publishes stories, videos, and podcasts that make smart people smarter. You can subscribe to get them here.