PM 101: How to Project Manage Your Life

This week, as I was explaining one of my personal goals to a colleague, he retorted in disbelief, "Not everything is a project! You can't project manage your life." Notwithstanding how much it irks me when someone tells me I can't do something, I beg to differ. The Lyft driver I met this week agreed with me 100%. He was recovering from major surgery and driving Lyft to cover his medical expenses while he coalesced. "Life is a project," he told me. "You have to make the most of the time you have to achieve your goals." Project managers can be criticized for worrying too much about the future and therefore not taking the time to be spontaneous and enjoy life in the present. This conversation affirmed something powerful for me. Even though someone may have had a near death experience--and therefore might be more inclined to "live in the moment"--they can still believe that failing to plan is planning to fail. Given that most projects fail and the potential dire consequences of personal failure, how do you begin to manage the daunting project that is your life?

A Note about Scope: The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. Projects differ from operational activities because they have a defined beginning and end. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that the scope of our project is limited to this life, as we know it, on this planet, regardless of what we believe may come before or after.

Before you throw up your hands and give up, realize that managing a project simply means  applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to help you meet a set of defined requirements. (Again, I'm quoting the PMBOK.) So, how do we break that down to the example of your life?

You can live your dream if you invest the time to project manage your life.

You can live your dream if you invest the time to project manage your life.

1. Define requirements. What are you trying to get out of this project? What do you want to achieve? You don't need to answer this question in terms of the guiding principle of your life. That is a much bigger question, and I am not a spiritual adviser. Rather, think of your requirements for the various projects that you want to undertake as part of your portfolio (aka your life.) I like to divide this into a couple key areas and figure out what I want to get out of each one. Examples of areas might include health, home, career, finances, family, friends, spiritual development, etc. Then, think of what you want to achieve in each of these areas. It helps to make these goals SMART. That way, you'll know when you've achieved success. Narrowing the scope to a 1-year, 5-year, or 10-year timeframe may make this exercise less overwhelming.

2. Address stakeholder concerns and expectations. If you decide that you want to relocate your home to Italy, and your home includes your children, spouse, pets, etc., then your stakeholders are the other people that will be impacted by this decision. Likewise, if you want to quit smoking and you know that this is going to put you in a bad mood at work, your colleagues are your stakeholders. You need to think through how your requirements will impact others and what you will do to address these issues. Check in with your stakeholders regularly to ensure open lines of communication. Remember: your primary stakeholder is yourself. Is what you are doing working?

3. Manage constraints. The PMBOK identifies numerous constraints to project success, including scope, schedule, cost, quality, resources, and risk. It may be easiest to analyze these constraints in terms of a specific project example, like weight loss. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the scope of the project? How much do you want to lose?

  • How long do you have to achieve this goal? Are you really wanting to lose three pounds to fit into a dress for an event next month? Or are you trying to drop weight in the long term to be healthier?

  • What is the cost? Are you going to sign up for a gym membership? Personal trainer? Nutritionist? How much can you afford to budget towards this goal?

  • What quality standards will you apply? For example, will you lose weight by any means necessary, or does it only "count" if you're eating healthily?

  • Who will work on this? You? Other family members or friends? Is this goal more important or less important than other goals you may have set for yourself?

  • What risks may arise that could threaten your goal? How will you address those risks?

Stay tuned for future posts that will go into greater detail on each of these areas. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with the concept of being able to "project manage" your life!