When you're out in the job-seeking or freelancing world, professional development often takes a backseat. In fact, according to a study by the American Psychological Association, you become less motivated and less likely to try new things the longer you're unemployed! Even temporary or freelancing employees can suffer from a lack of professional growth motivation.

However, as a job seeker or freelancer, professional development is a crucial part of your career. If you are looking to stay competitive, take control of your career, and maintain motivation, developing yourself needs to be a priority.

When you are employed full-time, you often have a supervisor or trainer helping you to develop. When you are a temporary or freelance worker - it's up to you! Here are four steps to embarking on your professional development journey to prevent static growth:

1. Create development goals and construct an action plan

Where do you see yourself in a year? In two to three years? What will it take to get you there? What are your professional strengths and what are your challenge areas? The first step to developing yourself is to think through your career goals and construct a plan. Head to your favorite coffee house with a clean notebook and pencil. Leave your laptop at home -- having only your notebook and pencil will help you concentrate. A pencil will help prevent your notebook from becoming a scribble-fest! Identify the following for yourself:

  1. What are my short-term goals as a professional (think 1-2 years)?
  2. What are my long-term goals as a professional (think 3-5+ years)?
  3. What are three professional areas, behaviors or competencies I would like to either strengthen, build or create in order to accomplish my short-term and long-term goals?

Once you've answered these questions, map out corresponding tasks per area/behavior/competency and identify what completion of that task looks like. Here's an example:

If your competency is to build project management skills to expert level, these might be your corresponding tasks:

  1. Take the PMI prep courses on Lynda.com. Task is complete when courses are passed. Complete courses by the end of Q1 2018.
  2. Sign up for PMI masters courses. Task is complete when courses are passed. Complete certification by mid-Q2 2018.
  3. Network with others from the PMI masters course. Task is complete when you've gained 4-5 connections and received 1-2 recommendations on LinkedIn. Complete this task by the end of Q2 2018.

To help get you started in defining your tasks, check out The Muse's article on "50 (Cheap!) Professional Development Classes Anyone Can Take." Once you've built out a plan for yourself, it's time to ask for some help -- an accountability buddy if you will!

2. Recruit a mentor

You have your professional development plan -- now what? It's time to recruit someone to help you along the path; someone who has been down the road before and can guide you. Identify those in your network who have been successful in the type of role you aspire to and ask them to be your mentor. Define what the relationship will look like (meeting up virtually or in person a few times a month, etc.) and make sure you keep yourself and your mentor accountable! The Harvard Business Review has a great read on "What Mentors Wish Their Mentees Knew" to help you get started with your relationship.

If you don't have a potential mentor in your network, it's time to do some old-fashioned networking! Start searching for companies you like on LinkedIn. Look within the company to see who has the type of role you're looking for and reach out. Check out this article on "4 Tips for Reaching Out to Someone You Admire on Linkedin".

Once you have your mentor, have them review your development plan. Remember, you did this in pencil, right? Now is the time to adjust! Since they've been down the path before, they might have some additional suggestions for your development plan. After you have reviewed the plan with them, set up check-in points with your mentor so they can help hold you accountable and help with troubleshooting when you get stuck.

One final thought on mentors -- a little appreciation goes a long way. Don't forget to send thank you notes, emails, and pick up the tab for coffee every now and again. This person has the potential to connect you to others in your field; you want to show them you are a good candidate for recommendation.

3. Volunteer and take on part-time work

Don't make applying for jobs your full-time job. That will likely cause anxiety and lead to a lack of meaningful productivity. Volunteering or taking on part-time work will offer you the opportunity to try new things and work with others.

You want to show potential employers that you are hard-working and keep busy. Volunteering and taking on part-time or temporary assignments will help you to stay engaged. You will continue building your network, gather new references and keep your skills (and resume) fresh. You can search for volunteer opportunities on websites like VolunteerMatch and temporary assignments in your local area on The BOSS Group's home page.

4. Schedule time and hold yourself accountable

You've got your plan, your mentor and your side gig. What now? This is likely the hardest step -- making your development a part of a regular schedule and holding yourself accountable. What happens when you get busy? When you're faced with extra projects or personal issues? Holding yourself accountable to your plan and keeping regular time on the schedule is key.

If you start to get busy and can't focus as much time as you had planned, adjust your plan! Spread out your timeline. Instead of focusing on development for two hours a week, pare down the time to one hour a week and extend your assigned deadline to complete the task. But don't skip development time! If you find yourself continually rescheduling development, ask yourself why. You might need to adjust the tasks if they are too grandiose or you are no longer interested in building a particular skill set.

Here's what you need to do: schedule consistent professional development time for yourself on a weekly basis. Before the scheduled time each week, define what you'll be working on (i.e. taking an elearning course, discussing obstacles with mentor, etc.). After each session, reflect on if the session was helpful and productive, or if you need to adjust your focus for the next session.

Research on habit building shows you usually need on average of 66 days of consistency before a new habit becomes an ingrained behavior. Stick to your scheduled development times as best as possible and avoid canceling the sessions altogether.

Final thoughts

If you walk away with anything from this article, remember -- you are your own professional development boss. If you are feeling disconnected from your work, unmotivated or stagnant, it is completely within your power to change through developmental growth. Sketch out your plan, seek help when needed, and (much like a workout routine) stick with your plan to achieve your goals!

Want help with your career goals? Contact The BOSS Group today!