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5 mins

How to Design Research for your Personal Growth

Blinkist's own User Research Lead digs into how you can take the principles for planning projects at work and apply them to the project that is your life.
by Basim Al-Baker | Nov 8 2019

For many, January 1st signals change — new year, new start. But why wait to explore your personal growth? And why risk setting resolutions that you aren’t really committed to or interested in? And how tired are you of hearing questions like this:

Are you feeling stuck? Craving change in your life? Not happy with how things are?

In 2016, the self-improvement industry was worth almost $10 Billion. Predictably, this lucrative industry churns out an overwhelming amount of media. You could start by reading books, enrolling in courses, attending conferences, hiring coaches, networking at seminars… the list goes on.

So here’s another question: where to start when you want to get better at life? It’s not easy, but with a bit of research and planning, you can improve your personal growth and goal-setting. To explore this topic, I’ll provide my own anecdotes and experiences alongside some general perspectives on personal growth.

A bit about me

My name’s Basim. I have consistently been reciting quotes from The Simpsons for 25 years. My career? A bit less consistent. I’ve been through a few career changes: my first job was selling air-conditioners, the second selling websites, and then I (finally) left the world of sales for the universe of UX. Currently, I lead the User Research team at Blinkist where we focus on deeply understanding user behaviours, needs, and motivations by identifying and pursuing research to inform experiences that put people first.

As I write to you from Berlin, the days are getting noticeably shorter and colder. As if that wasn’t enough, we’ve got the usual holiday stressors around the corner: looming deadlines, travelling to see family, Christmas jingles. And, of course, those dreaded New Year’s Resolutions.

“I’m not saying that investing in products or services for personal growth is the problem. The problem is making those decisions without doing your homework first.”

Here’s some inspiration I’ve taken from my years as a researcher to design the research process you need to inform your own personal growth.

1) Ask questions to clearly define and narrow your goals

You can’t fix everything in life at the same time. Similarly, having an abundance of poorly-defined goals or objectives can set you up for failure in both personal growth and user research. Remember those questions at the beginning of this article? Here:

  • Are you feeling stuck?
  • Craving change in your life?
  • Not happy with how things are?

There’s a reason why they sound like something from the start of an infomercial. These questions are designed to capitalize on indecision and insecurities. Package it with 60% off this online course for a limited time only and you get this:

In all seriousness, I’m not saying that investing in products or services for personal growth is the problem. The problem is making those decisions without doing your homework first. It’s much more effective to understand yourself better in order to find the right solution for you. And it turns out that asking the right questions is a great way to do so. I’ve prepared a small exercise below that you can try when exploring your goals, whether it’s about your career, life, health or even relationships.

So get comfy, take out a journal and pen, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Where are you right now?
  • Where would you like to be?
  • Who can help you get there?
  • What is important for you right now?
  • What would you like to leave behind?
  • When would you like to make a change by?
  • How will you know that you’ve met your goal?

After you’ve spent a few minutes journaling on each question, you should have enough inputs to create personal growth goals that are SMART — specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely. This will really help you in your pursuit of a tangible and high-quality goal.

Let’s illustrate this with an example goal. Now’s a good time to introduce the New Year’s Resolution that’s tormented me throughout my early 30s: reading more.

Now, let’s see how it performs against our SMART framework:

  • Specific? No.
  • Measurable? No.
  • Actionable? No.
  • Realistic? No.
  • Timely? Yes! I mean, no. No.

Yeah, not too good. This goal doesn’t give you much to work with. Firstly, it’s unclear. Read more of what…? Books, magazines, backs of shampoo bottles? Also, without a clear timeline or measurement criteria in place, future me will always wonder whether or not I’ve read enough to achieve this goal. Let’s try it again.

From the beginning to the end of 2020, I will have read one book per month to entertain myself, learn from, or both.

  • Specific? Yes. I’m now clear on what I will be reading — books. And it’s specific enough without being too prescriptive — there’s lots of wiggle room when it comes to a book for entertainment or learning purposes.
  • Measurable? Yes. One book per month is pretty clear and easy to remember.
  • Actionable? Yes. I can take action on this today if wanted to.
  • Realistic? Yes. One book a month is realistic depending on the length and subject matter. Take a look at the goal again. You’ll see that I haven’t explicitly mentioned finishing the book, something that I’m not holding myself accountable for. If I don’t like a book, I’m not going to force myself to finish it.
  • Timely? Yes. There’s a clear deadline here — the end of 2020.

2) Explore methods and tools to achieve those goals

Choosing the right method for UX research comes after defining the research objectives. The process for achieving your personal growth goals are no different.

You might already have some ideas or assumptions that come to mind about how to achieve them. Now you can begin your exploration of possible tools and methods to aid in this goal. Let’s use a personal growth goal that I had some months ago as an example: keep a daily journal so I can get back into the habit of writing for myself.

When I crafted this goal I assumed a lot. Firstly, I thought it would be really easy to keep a daily journal—all it needed was 5 minutes every day, a Moleskine® journal, and a pen, right?

Well… I failed to start and keep up the writing habit. But I eventually figured out that it wasn’t the goal that was wrong, but rather my idea of how to execute it. I found myself staring at blank pages not knowing where to start with my writing. Soon enough, I was conveniently forgetting my journal at home. Soon enough it ended up in my junk drawer. Through these failures, I eventually realized that I didn’t have to treat the goal of daily journaling as if I was a seasoned writer.

A few months ago, I spent an evening browsing for tools online, stumbled upon an article for Android-specific diary and journal apps (here’s the list refreshed for 2019) and tried one out. And lo and behold, it was the solution I was looking for! Let’s break down why it works for me (and has been a daily habit for 75 days in a row):

  1. It reminds me to log an entry every day
  2. It incentivizes my entries with achievements, streaks, and data visualizations
  3. (For better or for worse) I always have my phone on me

The moral of this story is that you’re not going to be successful at any of your goals if you choose the wrong tools, approaches, and methods for them.

So whatever your goal is, try out a couple of different approaches, methods, and tools before throwing in the towel. And don’t be afraid to discard something that isn’t working even if you have invested time in it!

3) Stay on track with your goals as if it were a research project

I use the same project management tool for both my career-oriented goals and for deploying research plans — Asana*.

Make sure you break down each of your goals into smaller To-Do’s to turn it from intimidating into achievable. The key word there is achievable — remember S-M-R-T S-M-A-R-T?

Achievement and accountability go hand-in-hand, so try and figure out what works for you. You can either hold yourself accountable by carving out personal time to revisit and update your goals (setting calendar reminders or due dates helps here). Alternatively, share that accountability with a friend, colleague, or in my case, your manager through regular 1:1s and goal check-ins.

I also feel #blessed that this approach has seen value beyond just my own goal tracking. Several of my Blinkist colleagues have asked me to share my goal setting template with them for their own use.

I’d like to share this template with you, too. Since Asana doesn’t support one-click public sharing (yet), here’s a Minimal Goal Setting template I made on Trello* that you can use freely. And like any good researcher, I’d love to hear your feedback on how to improve it for future iterations.

* Note: I haven’t been sponsored by Asana or Trello to place their products in this article. Feel free to observe and incorporate these principles into the goal tracking tool/method of your choice.

In summary

I hope this article has given you some starting points and tools to design research for your pursuit of personal growth. Here’s a recap:

  1. Ask yourself questions to narrow your focus and clearly define your goals. Exploring your current situation, desired outcome, and thinking about the journey there, sets the foundation for your personal growth.
  2. Exploring tools and methods for your personal growth goals requires some trial and error. Try several things out, make mistakes and let go when something doesn’t work. Throwing money at the problem without doing your research is rarely a good idea, but it sure makes for a timeless meme.
  3. Stay on top of your personal goals like a researcher would their own research project. Find a suitable project management tool and stay on track with your goals by making them transparent and achievable.

Thanks for taking the time to read this! What’s next after designing the research for personal growth? Executing it! But I’ll leave that to you.

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