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The tools we typically use for managing personal projects have a major drawback. To-do lists and their variations (like Kanban boards) are fine to track what should be done and (maybe) who should do it. But they aren’t as good at planning out the when. This is the domain of business-oriented tools, such as the Waterfall project management approach.
One of the primary reasons companies use a set of tools and processes to manage their projects is for profitability. Once management decides a particular project will add value to the business, there is a cost for every hour that project isn’t finished. As individuals, however, it’s very easy to let personal projects slide. We’re sick, or too tired, or work is too busy, or there are too many cat videos on the internet. Part of the discipline of project management is not only to drive projects to completion, but also to set them up initially so they finish in an acceptable time frame.
In this article, we’ll look at how you can use business tools to keep yourself on track and get your projects done.
Waterfall Project Management Principles
There are a couple of important tenents of project management you’ll need to learn:
Work Breakdown Structures
Given a desired end goal, the first step in most projects is to break that goal down into achievable tasks. For example, if you’re looking to spin up a WordPress blog your high-level might include writing some content, designing a logo, and WordPress installation/deployment to your server. Creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) involves dividing and sub-dividing them until you’re left with tasks that are easy for someone to look at, understand, and execute.
The actual WBS for this simple project might look like this:
- Create Content
- Brainstorm some post ideas
- Write content for posts (separate tasks for posts 1-6)
- Edit/proof all posts
- Visual design (pick a color palette, etc.)
- Contact logo artists
- Select designer
- Logo draft
- Installation and Deployment
- Install WordPress
- Install/configure theme and plugins
- Upload logo
- Create posts
- Change DNS settings
The smaller the tasks, the better. For example, the “write content for posts” items could be further split out one per post. Making them smaller not only allows you to see progress sooner. It also provides flexibility in shuffling them around to meet a target date. You should also have a concept of what needs to be completed before something else can begin, known as predecessors or dependencies.
For example, your designer can’t produce the draft of your logo until after you’ve selected her. So the outline of your project now looks like this:
- Create Content
- Brainstorm some post ideas
- Write content for posts 1-3 (dependent on 1a)
- Edit/proof all posts (dependent on 1b)
- Visual design
- Contact logo artists (dependent on 2a)
- Select designer (dependent on 2b)
- Logo draft (dependent on 2c)
- Installation and Deployment
- Install WordPress
- Install/configure theme and plugins (dependent on 3a)
- Create posts (dependent on 1d and 2a)
- Upload logo (dependent on 2e and 3b)
- Change DNS settings (dependent on 1, 2, 3b, 3c, and 3d)
Now that you know what needs to be done, you need to figure out who will do it and when. To assign a task to someone, you’ll first need to be sure they can do it at all (e.g. don’t assign 3.5 to your graphic designer). But you also need to know how much they’re available in general, as well as when. This is called resource management. It starts with understanding how many hours a day someone is available, then tracking that availability against the work you assign.
For example, you may have a day job. At your 9-to-5, you’re available probably eight hours a day. But for your personal projects, you may block off an hour or two at night. This means you have a weekly capacity of: (2 * 5) = 10 hours a week (go on, take the weekends off… you deserve it). This means a given task that a person working full-time at it could complete in one day will take you four working days. Calculating things according to capacity will tell you how long your projects will really take.
Scheduling and (Optimized) Planning
We’re calling this “Optimized Planning,” because creating the WBS is in fact also planning. But what you may find is you’ll make the initial plan for the “best case scenario.” There will be one and only one task going on at any one time (easy to manage), and they all fall neatly one after another. But this is rarely how projects work in practice. During this phase you’ll adjust the structure and assignments in the project depending on:
- Hard constraints on particular tasks (i.e. it cannot start before a particular date)
- Tasks that can happen in parallel (one person does A, another person does B)
- Tasks that two people can work on at once (two people both work on A)
What you’ll likely find is that some parts of the project grow in duration, and you’ll seek out ways to shorten others. Now that you have an idea of what you should be putting into your project plan, let’s take a look at how to actually do it.
Managing Personal Waterfall Projects With ProjectLibre
Before the step-by-step, a quick word in defense of project management tools. I’ve heard something like the following many times, when suggesting or tasking someone to learn one of these apps:
- “I just need a list.”
- “Gantt charts take too long.”
- “MS Project? I’m out!”
There is a reason Gantt charts (which have been around for over a century) are still in use today — and why they’re so popular in Waterfall project management. They are the best single view to visualize your timeline, its status, and individual task assignments, especially if you’re using Waterfall project management.
Calendars don’t give you a one-shot view of your project. Linear to-do lists rarely account for dependencies, and no other tool helps to auto-update start and finish dates like Gantt-based applications.
What many people get wrong about these apps is how they use them. But we’ll show you how to do things the easy way. We’ll be using ProjectLibre for our Waterfall model example project, although the steps should work almost identically in anything that provides an interactive Gantt chart (desktop, mobile, web, even Excel files).
Installing ProjectLibre is as simple as downloading the latest release (1.7 at the time of writing) and running the EXE installer (Windows), dragging the DMG to your Applications folder (Mac), or installing the RPM or DEB package via your preferred method (Linux).
Once you’re installed, fire ProjectLibre up and select the Create Project option. It will give you a dialog to enter some preliminary information like name and a start date.
Step 1: Create Your WBS
The first step is to create your WBS. Start jotting all the tasks you know about down anywhere: email message, plain text file, Word Processor document, OneNote. Whatever you’re comfortable with while brainstorming is fine. Now, open ProjectLibre to the Gantt view, and paste the text into the cells at left that resemble a spreadsheet.
Many people’s first mistake is using these apps in a point and click fashion. Don’t. Treat the left side of the screen exactly like spreadsheets and use keyboard shortcuts: arrow buttons to move around, F2 to edit, and Enter to commit.
The only additional things you’ll need to know are the keystrokes to indent (Ctrl + . (period) for ProjectLibre, although it’s Tab in MS Project) and outdent (Ctrl + , (comma) in ProjectLibre, Shift + Tab in Project) tasks. This part works just like an outline in Word. It allows you to quickly create the various phases and tasks (which are bottom-level entries) in your plan.
Next, put in your Predecessors (i.e. A must finish before B can start). Here again, use arrow keys and Enter/Tab for quick entry. Finally, add Work, or the amount of time you think each item will take.
You’ll notice two things happen when you start adjusting the WBS. Firstly, lines that become “parent” items are converted to phases, meaning they finish when all their child tasks are complete. Second, as you add predecessors, you’ll notice the start and end dates are automatically adjusted. While it may still seem like a big undertaking, watch the following for an example of how quick and easy this can be. (The time to create this plan was just over three minutes. The only part not shown below was typing in the prior tasks.)
Step 2: Register Resources and Assign Tasks
Although you entered Work for each task, you’ll notice their Durations all show something like “.25 days?” including the question mark.
This is because the app assumes each will be performed within an eight-hour day. But this can be affected by other factors including resource capacity. Your capacity.
For this project, I’m assuming I’ll be available for a couple of hours a day. Based on an eight-hour day, this equates to 25 percent capacity (if I was available full time, this would be 100 percent). When I enter my name as the resource for each task, I’ll be adding “[25%]” after it, which is ProjectLibre’s notation for capacity. Watch in the short screencast below what happens to the “Duration” column as I assign these tasks to myself. Taking into account my capacity, ProjectLibre has increased the duration of each task fourfold.
Now I can see that while the project is only a little over 80 hours long, it will actually take about five weeks to complete.
This is one of the advantages of the Waterfall methodology: it shows you more realistic timelines.
But don’t fret! There are a couple of adjustments we can make to dial that date back.
Step 3: Adjust Timeline for a Realistic View
Once all your resources are entered, you have a chance to step back and examine your plan. For example, you can see that the Visual Design and Logo Draft tasks aren’t assigned to me. This is because I’m a terrible artist, and if I tried to do this myself it wouldn’t go well. But it also means that while some talented artist will be working on these tasks, I can work on something else in the meantime.
We’d set the initial version of our plan in a strictly linear way: each task was started when the one before it ended, and likewise with phases. But let’s adjust the predecessors such that phases aren’t dependent, and remove the ones for the tasks I won’t be doing. Note how it moves the parts of the timeline around.
Now we’ve scaled the project down by about a week. Considering I’m doing the bulk of the work, this isn’t too shabby. We could probably do better yet by moving the Creative section first, and working on content while that logo is in production.
Use the Waterfall Methodology to Plan Realistically
With your own projects, it’s all too easy to just pull out a calendar, pick a couple of dates, and go on your merry way.
Using lightweight tools like OneNote (how to use OneNote for project management) or Trello (how to use Trello for project management) gets you a little closer to the mark, as they at least account for who is doing what.
But going through this exercise in something like ProjectLibre forces you to think about how much time you actually have to dedicate to it, what bottlenecks exist, and places where you may want some help. It also helps to break your projects down into manageable pieces to make sure you’re making progress. While you may think a tool like ProjectLibre was overkill, hopefully, we’ve shown how easy it can be.
Do you typically just wing it when it comes to your pet projects? Or do you use a system like Waterfall project management? Let us know how you “self-project-manage” below in the comments!