Use the Waterfall Project Management Method to Organize Your Life
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The tools we typically use for managing personal projects have a major drawback. To-do lists To-Do List App Showdown: Any.do vs Todoist vs Wunderlist To-Do List App Showdown: Any.do vs Todoist vs Wunderlist Some to-do list apps stand head and shoulders above the rest. But how do they compare and which one is best for you? We'll help you find out. Read More and their variations (like Kanban boards How to Manage Tasks Using Japanese Kanban Technique How to Manage Tasks Using Japanese Kanban Technique Kanban is a Japanese recipe for getting things done. It's an organization technique originally developed for Toyota's production line. We show you how you can implement it for yourself or in your team. Read More ) 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:

  1. Create Content
    1. Brainstorm some post ideas
    2. Write content for posts (separate tasks for posts 1-6)
    3. Edit/proof all posts
  2. Creative
    1. Visual design (pick a color palette, etc.)
    2. Contact logo artists
    3. Select designer
    4. Logo draft
  3. Installation and Deployment
    1. Install WordPress
    2. Install/configure theme and plugins
    3. Upload logo
    4. Create posts
    5. 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 6 Project Management Tips You Can Use to Organize Your Life 6 Project Management Tips You Can Use to Organize Your Life Project Management is the profession of getting things done. Our tips will help you apply a project manager's perspective, skills, and tools to organize your own life. Read More , 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:

  1. Create Content
    1. Brainstorm some post ideas
    2. Write content for posts 1-3 (dependent on 1a)
    3. Edit/proof all posts (dependent on 1b)
  2. Creative
    1. Visual design
    2. Contact logo artists (dependent on 2a)
    3. Select designer (dependent on 2b)
    4. Logo draft (dependent on 2c)
  3. Installation and Deployment
    1. Install WordPress
    2. Install/configure theme and plugins (dependent on 3a)
    3. Create posts (dependent on 1d and 2a)
    4. Upload logo (dependent on 2e and 3b)
    5. Change DNS settings (dependent on 1, 2, 3b, 3c, and 3d)

Resource Management

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 Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking. This time management tactic can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination, and unproductive multitasking at bay. Read More 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.

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 Need a Gantt Chart Template for Excel or PowerPoint? Here Are 10 Unique Options Need a Gantt Chart Template for Excel or PowerPoint? Here Are 10 Unique Options You don't need Microsoft Project to track progress. These Gantt chart templates for Excel and PowerPoint will help you manage your project just as well. Read More (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).

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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 35 Everyday Microsoft Excel Keyboard Shortcuts for Windows & Mac 35 Everyday Microsoft Excel Keyboard Shortcuts for Windows & Mac Keyboard shortcuts can save you a lot of time! Use these Microsoft Excel shortcuts to speed up working with spreadsheets on Windows and Mac. Read More : 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.

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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.

waterfall project management

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 How to Sync Your Google Calendar With Your To-Do List How to Sync Your Google Calendar With Your To-Do List In organizing your life, two tools are indispensable: your calendar and your to-do list. But most task management solutions keep these two things separate. We'll show you how to combine them. Read More , pick a couple of dates, and go on your merry way.

Using lightweight tools like OneNote (how to use OneNote for project management How You Can Use Microsoft OneNote for Project Management How You Can Use Microsoft OneNote for Project Management OneNote is the ideal collaboration tool for managing simple projects in small teams. And it's completely free. See how OneNote can help your projects take off! Read More ) or Trello (how to use Trello for project management A Guide to Trello for Life and Project Management A Guide to Trello for Life and Project Management Trello can help you get organized. It's a free tool to manage any kind of project. Read this guide to understand its basic structure, the navigation, and how Trello can be useful to you. Read More ) 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!

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  1. Abdul Muqeet Mohammed
    December 15, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    Good article! I liked how you made it easy for a beginner to understand PM terminology.

    • Aaron Peters
      December 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      Hi Abdul,

      Thanks for the shout-out. I know first-hand how hard this type of app is if you don't know the basics of project management.

      Aaron