When you're job-seeking or freelancing, professional development can potentially take a backseat. There are several common reasons for this. The first is that the demands of searching for work — and work itself — can take significant time and effort. As a result, it can be difficult to simultaneously spark professional growth and run with the motivation to develop new skills. 

Additionally, professional development as a job seeker or freelancer requires self-discipline. When you are employed full-time, you often have a supervisor or trainer to guide you and professional development opportunities are built in to the corporate training structure. Yet as a temporary or freelance worker, it's up to you! 

Professional development is a crucial part of your career. Not only will it allow you to remain competitive, it will help you maintain motivation and continue to  fine-tune your skills. So, it must be a priority. 

Here are four professional development tips to help you get started on your professional development journey to prevent static growth:

1. Create development goals and construct an action plan

Ask yourself questions such as: 

  • 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. Let's go old school. Head to your favorite coffee house with a clean notebook and pencil. Leave your laptop at home. Having only your notebook and pencil may help you concentrate by removing potential distractions. A pencil will help prevent your notebook from becoming a scribble-fest!

Identify the following for yourself:

  • What are my short-term goals as a professional (think 1-2 years)?

  • What are my long-term goals as a professional (think 3-5+ years)?

  • 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 for each area, behavior, and competency. Identify what completion of that task looks like. 

For example: 

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

  1. Use professional development tools like PMI prep courses on Linkedin Learning. The task is complete when courses are passed. Set a three-month completion deadline to reach this goal.

  2. Sign up for PMI masters courses. The task is complete when courses are passed. Complete certification within a 6-week deadline.

  3. Next, network with others from the PMI masters course. The task is complete when you've gained 4-5 connections and received 1-2 recommendations on LinkedIn. Complete this task within a 6-week deadline.

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!

Cella has a variety of professional development, networking and roundtable events for professionals within the creative, marketing and digital space. Check out our upcoming events by visiting us online.

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 people 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 is giving you the gift of their time, wisdom and experience and they have the potential to connect you to others in your field. You want to show them grattitude and reaffirm that you are a good candidate for recommendation.

3. Volunteer and take on part-time work

Don't make applying for work 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. 

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 a consistent block of professional development time for yourself consistnetly each week. Before the scheduled time each week, define what you'll be working on (i.e. taking an elearning course, networking, discussing obstacles with mentor, etc.). After each session, reflect on if the time 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

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 stick with your plan to achieve your goals!

Want help with your career goals? Contact Cella here.