A few weeks ago, I blogged about 13 reasons you’re not (yet) successful. In that somewhat lengthy post, I made passing reference to the value of running your life using a consistent project-management methodology.
Over the last week, I’ve put that theory to the test. Allow me to share some core learnings with you.
First, some context. I’m great at planning, but not so hot when it comes to execution. I can — and do — spend hours plotting a major initiative but can’t ever seem to find the time to bring it to completion. Things get in the way, I get distracted, or I suffer the general malaise that comes with intermittent, unexplained crashes in my Vitamin D levels.
This week, while on vacation from the day job, I’ve been astonishingly productive at preparing for 2012. And then in getting a bunch of stuff knocked off the to-do list already. This week alone, I’ve actually finished three major things that I’ve been meaning to do, in some form, since early 2009. Wow.
Here’s what I’ve done differently this week, and how using a PM approach to governing your own life may prove fruitful.
First, set the right framework for success. That means, in particular, watching your consumption. Most of us need to consume fewer calories and more sleep. Exercise, good nutrition and adequate rest are the absolute prerequisites to slogging through the rough stuff.
Second, decide what really matters to you. Think of this in terms of the long haul — the kinds of things you’d like to see (or not see!) mentioned on your obituary. Done right, it takes a long time; we’re remarkably adept at self-deception, and it can take a long time to realize that the life you have and the life you want aren’t even in the same ballpark. Keep at it.
Third, develop a whole-life vision statement. Keep it short and sweet, but relevant. Mine is: “I aspire to be an elderly man who, upon his 70th birthday, can look himself in the mirror free of the sting of regret.” Notice what’s not there? Statements about money, family or social status. A personal vision statement ought to get at the heart of who you are as a human person, not at a material condition that you want to attain. My vision statement has a supplement: “The measure of a man reveals itself in the sincerity of his struggle to realize his natural potential. For me, this potential is rooted in the development of authentic wisdom, obtained through the joyful pursuit of diverse experiences, meaningful relationships and bold new ideas.” The supplement sets the context.
Fourth, identify the strategies you’ll use to achieve your goals. Think of this as something of a scope statement: You’ll identify what tactics are or are not reasonable for you. Philosophy majors may recognize these as Kantian maxims of a sort that weigh the relative fitness of any given action. This list will be personal, but it’ll provide a framework to help judge whether goals, obstacles, opportunities or whatnot cohere to your broader vision. For myself, I’ve identified six key strategies: Reduce consumption; cultivate serenity; nurture relationships; exhibit insatiable curiosity; do fewer things, but do them well; favor action over study. This list has changed over the years; the last two points were added just a few months ago, prompted by my tendency to be a jack of all trades paralyzed by analysis. In general, if my life project needs to change, these strategies help me think through the best options for mid-course correction.
Fifth, establish your top-level goals. Think of it as your bucket list, or a year’s plans, or whatever makes the most sense for you. Keep the list reasonable — and make sure that the goals you identify follow the traditional SMARTER approach (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited, ethical and rewarding). Avoid, if possible, conflating your personal goals with your professional goals unless you’re self-employed.
Sixth, build the right documentation system. Some people use a day planner, others use notebooks, others still use a mix of computer systems. Regardless, pull together a means of conveniently tracking all of the tasks, dependencies, etc. that make up your goals. I’ve settled on task management through Outlook (hosted Exchange account, with robust categories, so I stay in sync on my desktop PC, netbook and Windows Phone), with additional documentation and notes stored in a OneNote notebook and shared among my three screens using SkyDrive. It works for me. Your mileage may vary. If you get really involved in detail planning, you may wish to download the free Open Workbench software — it does the job. Make sure your system allows you to file weekly “status reports” by means of a journal, form, tabbed section or some other mechanism.
Seventh, plot out the project. This is where project management tools really come into the picture. For each of your goals, list out each milestone it will take to get there, starting at the end and working backwards. Identify the time it will take, and when you can slot it. Estimate costs. You should be able to visualize each goal’s execution on a Gantt chart — the start date, the end date, the date of each milestone, any dependencies to any other goals, any dependencies on matters outside your control, a “go/no-go” decision point where you evaluate whether it’s still worth pursuing, a reasonable estimate of total hours to complete, and costs associated with the goal (and when they come due). For example, one of my goals for 2012 is to run in the Grand Rapids Marathon in early October. Although I used to be a decent runner, I’m a bit more out of shape than I’d care to admit. So, my timeline for this goal includes cardio endurance work with a stationary bike in January though March, followed by a mix of treadmill running and running along the trails of Millennium Park starting in the mid-spring. I set a few milestone time-and-distance markers over the summer, and planned out when I need to register, when I should buy new running shoes, etc. This simple goal — “run a marathon” — requires months of preparation and a couple hundred bucks in financial outlay. Plan for it, or it won’t happen.
Eighth, overlay all your goals into a single, continuous narrative. I have eight major goals all brushing against each other over the first nine months of 2012. To avoid overbooking in one month and underbooking in another, I developed a timeline where I put the milestones and substantial tasks associated with each goal onto a single OneNote page. Doing so highlighted that my deliverables for March were insane and that I had almost nothing planned for July. So I moved deadlines around so that there was a fairly even balance across the entire period under review. I also moved a few things that had a high dollar value attached, so I could spread expenses more evenly throughout the year. The upside to this overlay is that you can really get a sense for how goals can overlap the same idea, so you can better sequence tasks among disparate goals to make the entire process more efficient.
Ninth, adjust your daily routine to focus on goal achievement. If you’re really got fire in the belly to get your goals accomplished, then plan your day accordingly. Set aside time in the morning or evening dedicated specifically to your goal-oriented tasks. Even if you work a rough day job, picking a fixed hour every night, or a two-to-three hour block a couple nights per week, gives you the temporal flexibility to get stuff done. It’s too easy to let the detritus of the day’s mundane activities obstruct progress on your goals — so structure your day in such a way that you have no excuse for not making time.
Tenth, evaluate successes and failures honestly. When you complete something, celebrate it. When you don’t, evaluate whether you need to move the goalposts a bit, or whether you genuinely can’t achieve it. If you find you are consistently kicking the can down the road, ask yourself some hard questions: Do you really want to do it? What’s stopping you? Is what’s stopping you merely an excuse? Is your problem that you’re conflicted and need to engage in more personal reflection? Are you excited but too lazy to do what you’ve set out to accomplish?
Forrest Gump teaches us that life is like a box of chocolates. I disagree. Life is like a project, and holding fast to a clear PM methodology can mean the difference between success and failure in achieving your dreams.