Are you longing to make changes in your life? If you’re about to start a new endeavor, whether it’s related to self development, a class you want to take, or a home improvement project, we have some exercises that could increase your chance for success.
Planning and managing projects is something we all do more or less intuitively. Those who have been exposed to professional project management know of advanced tools and methods used to initiate and govern projects. But you don’t need to be a pro to do a good job; you just need a strategic approach.
The following exercises can help you visualize your future and implement step-by-step changes to work towards your goals.
What Is a Project?
Before we start, lets define what a project is.
A project is a temporary undertaking with the objective to create a concrete outcome, such as a unique product or service.
The defining characteristics are temporary and concrete outcome. In other words, a project has a beginning and an end, and by the time it is completed, we ideally have produced the outcome we defined when starting the project. That said, projects can be iterative, i.e. you reach a milestone, define a new milestone, and continue this process ad infinitum; this “routine” is commonly found in software development and could also apply to self development.
An everyday routine, like checking the mailbox on weekdays or a habit like brushing your teeth or any other repetitive process, is not a project because it’s regular, not temporary, and doesn’t produce a concrete result. Implementing one of these as a habit, however, can be a project.
So how do you go about implementing a new project?
The Jar of Life
A new project needs space in your life. What if you have a full life already? You probably have a job, a family, friends, hobbies, pets, possibly other responsibilities that demand your time and attention, and very little time to spare.
How can you make time for something new?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but maybe this tale can give you an idea:
The take home message is that you can be busy all the time without ever achieving anything. To change that, you need to get your priorities straight! You’ll still find time for the small stuff, while making progress on the things that really matter to you.
Exercise 1: Analyze Your Jar of Life
Spend some time reflecting on your personal “jar of life”. What are the things in your life that represent the rocks, pebbles, and sand? Prepare a list, identify your priorities, and recreate your schedule from scratch. Put your high priority items in first, arrange other important things around them, and finally identify the free slots you have for everything else. Is there space for new projects?
If you’re looking for an everyday time management hack that’s fun, try the Pomolego Technique.
Premortem vs. Postmortem
Maybe the Jar of Life exercise encouraged you to pursue a new project or generally make changes in your life. Now, we all know that projects can fail. Interestingly, research has shown that imaginging a project failure before it was even started can be a way to prevent failure in the first place. This technique is called a premortem.
Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight-imagining that an event has already occurred-increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. We have used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a premortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.
Gary Klein, Harvard Business Review
A premortem is similar to a postmortem, except that it hasn’t happened, yet. Instead, the team members imagine the project had failed and come up with potential reasons for its failure and ways to eliminate those threats.
In the video below, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains the idea of the premortem in the context of business, but the same can apply to your personal life.
Exercise 2: Conduct a Premortem for Your Project
For the sake of this exercise, imagine your project had failed. What could have been the potential causes? Feel free to involve your partner, a family member, or a friend to help you suggest things that could cause your endeavor to fail. Brainstorm, collect as many reasons (obstacles) as you can think of, including crazy and unlikely ideas. There are no wrong answers and no criticism or reasoning is permitted during brainstorming! You have creative freedom.
From your list, pick the 10 most likely reasons you can control that could cause your project to fail. For each of these obstacles, describe a simple solution or strategy that will help you make your project a success. This exercise will help you stay on track and actually avoid failure.
You can use one of these diagramming apps to collect and organize the results of your brainstorming.
A few other recommended free brainstorming tools are:
Forecasting vs. Backcasting
Trends and forecasts are valuable tools to predict what is likely going to happen and then plan how you will respond. For example, you will bring an umbrella or a rain jacket, if the weather forecast predicts rain. But this strategy fails when we need to innovate or plan for the unknown.
Forecasting hinders us from creating something novel because it limits our view to conditions and trends already known or established. That’s why we intuitively apply other strategies for planning and visioning all the time.
For example, you choose to study a subject, apply for a job, or move to a new place not (only) because of past trends and experiences, but also because you envision a better future for yourself and others. Based on that vision, you proceed to take steps in the present to create the future you desire.
One method to developing a strategy based on a future vision is called backcasting (also called “backward mapping”). It is typically applied when planning for sustainable development and innovation.
Here is the definition of backcasting from the European Commission’s Online Foresight Guide:
Backcasting is a method to develop normative [more desirable future] scenarios and explore their feasibility and implications.
Exercise 3: Backcast from Your Vision
For this exercise, imagine you had completed your project successfully. All the desires and dreams that inspired it have become reality. All your objectives have been reached.
Write a summary of your vision, as if it had already come true. Be as detailed as possible: where are you now, how has your life changed, what are the things you achieved, what did you learn, how does it feel?
Looking back at your path from your desired future, backcast the steps that helped you achieve your vision. This is a bit of a brain teaser. To make it a little easier, you can also plan from the present and imagine your vision is pulling you towards it like a magnet.
List the steps from today onward that can help you achieve your vision. Keep in mind what you learned from the previous exercises and try to integrate that information, if possible. What are the opportunities you will seize to make your objectives become reality? Envision your path from the present to your desired future.
Chronologically list 10-15 steps from today until completing your project. Focus on personal milestones and opportunities, not pre-defined events. Be specific when you ask yourself these questions.
- How do you personally expect to develop?
- What do you expect to learn and get out of this project?
- Which opportunities will you create or take advantage of?
Your Way Forward
All three exercises combined, you now have a simplified plan for your project. It combines elements of time management, risk management, project definition, and a strategy to achieve your objectives. Hopefully, the exercises will also serve you as a motivator to get started today.
Have you had any insights while completing these exercises? What other techniques have you used to successfully start and complete self development projects in the past? Please share with us in the comments!