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I define a “Personal Development Project” (PDP) as a regularly scheduled set of rituals, disciplines, or exercises designed to help the practitioner achieve three basic goals: 1) The self-mastery and skill development that results from performing challenging tasks based on commitment rather than convenience 2) the sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that comes from consistently meeting specific goals 3) The self-awareness and self-actualization that comes from repeated investment in constructive or creative action.

My first experiment with PDP’s was nearly nine years ago. I set out to write one blog post everyday for a year. I benefited so much from the challenge that I decided to continue for two more years. After 1,113 consecutive days of blogging, I decided to end my daily writing streak in order to step back, take a break, and contemplate what I wanted to do next.

Since then I’ve not only done a variety of PDP’s, but the personal growth I experienced inspired me to introduce PDP’s to the workshops and curriculum experiences I’ve had with students. For several years, I’ve coached hundreds of students through customized learning projects oriented around their personal interests and professional goals.

My guiding principles for PDP’s are these:

1. Start with your curiosities: I’ve always believed that the interesting stuff IS the important stuff. If you focus on the questions that keep you awake at night, you’ll find the answers that make your life more creative, productive, and fulfilling in the day. You’ll go much further by prioritizing the materials that you care about than the stuff that other people tell you is important.

2. Commit to something finite and feasible, then refuse to quit even when inspiration ceases: One of the reasons I tend to do 30-day PDP’s is because I believe you can do anything for 30- days without having to worry that you’re going to ruin your life by wasting time on something that wasn’t super important to you. Whenever you set out to do a new learning challenge, you’re going to hit a wall where you just don’t feel as excited as you did at the beginning. Having a 30-day mark to hit allows you to tell yourself “Look, all you have to do is push yourself for 17 more days and you can stop forever if you want.” Knowing that you’re free to quit in 30 days can help give you the motivation to push past the resistance, but it also puts you in a position where you get to experience the momentum and self-esteem boost that comes from being able to say “I set a goal, i showed up consistently, and I finished what I started.” That does wonders for your self-confidence and you’ll always walk away knowing something knew even if you never do that PDP again.

3. Don’t treat it like a marriage: Your PDP is not a spouse, so don’t make an indefinite commitment. What happens if you change your mind? What happens if you want to move on to something else? An indefinite commitment will make you feel like a flake when you stop. It’ll make you feel incomplete. But if you just say something like “I’m going to do XYZ for 30 days or 2 weeks” or something like “I’m going to finish this one tutorial,” you have a clear end in sight that you can chase after knowing you can move on when you’re done.

4. Find the fun: Learning is the main thing for me. Over the course of the last nine months, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve realized how much my fulfillment, productivity, creative inspiration–my very sense of life–revolves around the constant exploration of new ideas. I am never more happy nor more motivated than when I’m delighting my heart with the learning of new things. There’s a quote from Merlin in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that captures my sentiments about learning very well:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

5. Prioritize what works over anything else: At the end of the day, what works matters above everything. Pay attention to the ebbs and flows of your life and establish a routine that resonates with you. And don’t be legalistic about anything (including the above guidelines).

6. Learn out loud: Find some way to document what you do. You’ll not only retain more, but it’ll push you to keep going. And you just might leave behind an interesting rabbit trail for future learner’s to follow.

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