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Personal development requires deliberate attention and practice. But we can go astray when turning that concept into reality.

Three learning officers with McKinsey & Company say the most effective strategy for achieving development goals involves three key elements: a defined number of clear and immediate learning goals; a defined period to meet those goals; and a defined group of people who can support and monitor progress on those goals. With those three things in mind, they suggest a three by three by three approach:

  • Goals: Most effective learners have a broad range of aspirations for continued growth. But the best way to achieve them is by concentrating on just a few concrete goals at any one time. The consultants recommend focusing on no more than three at any given time. “Building a new capability is hard and requires intentionality and focus. When people set too many goals, they often fail to make real progress on any one of them. In fact, they often find it hard to remember what they’re trying to achieve,” Lisa Christensen, Jake Gittleson, and Matthew Smith write on the consultancy’s website.
  • Time period: Too often self-improvement is left vague as to time period, even though we know deadlines prod us to action. They note that while the time needed for meeting a target depends on the nature of the goal itself, their research has found the optimal period should be long enough to establish new behaviour and short enough to create a sense of urgency and momentum. They suggest three months. That provides enough runway to make tangible progress through cycles of practice, feedback and, if needed, formal training while forcing you to be concrete and specific in your goal. It also fits with the rhythm of the organizational world’s quarterly focus.
  • Other people: It’s a natural instinct to keep our goals to ourselves. That protects us from embarrassment if we fall short and also avoids the discomfort of reaching out for support. But they stress that involving others in our learning is one of the most powerful ways to improve goal attainment through the healthy social pressure created. They recommend including at least three people in your development effort. “The key is to choose people who will have enough exposure to your work and progress in the specific domains in which you have set your development goals; these could include your teammates or other peers, direct reports, managers, or even your partner or children, depending on the nature of your goals,” they write.

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Interestingly, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith suggests colleagues of his clients come along on the development journey and seek to improve something about themselves as well. That’s not something you are likely in a position to request but if what you are trying to improve affects colleagues being open about it and asking for support can be helpful.

Consultant Wally Bock urges you to get an accountability buddy just as you might seek a running buddy if you were into that exercise. “Pick someone at the same stage that you are. Read the same books and go to the same classes. Then discuss them and plan how you’ll use what you’ve learned. Help each other solve problems. Critique each other’s performance,” he says.

But the McKinsey consultants push for more. They say an accountability buddy or single external point of view is better than none but having multiple sources of support, insight and feedback can multiply the potential for learning and growth. So go for three – three goals, three months, and at least three supporters.

Quick hits

  • Perfectionism is a cudgel and a way to hide, says entrepreneur Seth Godin. Perfectionism is a way to berate others for not meeting imaginary standards. Meanwhile, more personally, the perfectionist seeks an outcome that can never be attained, giving themselves a chance to hide behind the impossible and never complete the task. Perfectionism is a defect.
  • If you’re thinking of quitting your job, career advisor Anouare Abdou suggests you check your status with your boss through such questions as: In your opinion, what was the best part of the project I just completed, where do you see me in five years, and, more provocatively, asking him or her, what’s next for you?
  • Time management improves work performance but has an even greater positive impact on well-being and life satisfaction, according to a study led by Concordia University graduate researcher Brad Aeon.
  • University of Michigan professor Wayne Baker notes that often people ungraciously reject offers of help with comments like “I already know that” or “I tried that, and it doesn’t work.” Keep in mind an offer of help is a very human gesture and rebuffing it is hurtful, reducing the chance of future help.
  • To cycle quickly between a number of Microsoft Word documents open on your desktop press Ctrl + F6, advises software expert Allen Wyatt.

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