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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Life Is a Project: How Are You Managing?

Think of a typical day at work. Have you ever tracked your hour-by-hour activities (forget minute-by-minute – that’s too fragmented)?

Did any random occurrence that day advance your progress toward where you want to be in life? Did some person do that for you?

How about your own conscious actions? Did you do work, or conduct conversations, or make decisions, that put you further ahead in life?

How about your days away from the job? Where do they go?

In short, as each day of your life unwinds, who is managing it? If you can point to noticeable gains because you set out to earn them, congratulations from that great majority of us who probably can’t. Not that we wouldn’t like to – it’s just that we don’t devote ourselves to that sort of thing. And there are reasons.

Life is complicated. All sorts of things are going on at the same time, many of them causing problems we don’t expect, don’t understand and have a tough time dealing with. And people don’t always do what they say they’re going to do.

The Biggest Project . . . And We’re in It

There you have it: Complexity, unfamiliarity, risk and dependency. The ingredients of a classic project.

One other thing: One person has the sole final responsibility for finding success in all this. This person has no authority over anything or anybody. That’s the manager, the project manager.

Welcome to your life, your biggest project, and to your role as the manager of it.

I’m completing a book, “Life Is a Project: How Are You Managing?” based on my observations and conclusions over more than a half-century, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, then working with project managers.

Throughout, I’ve been a student of the multiple skills of organization, communication, delegation, negotiation and whatever else goes on in our world, particularly when people take on complex problems and innovations – projects.

It has become increasingly obvious to me that the human being is the determining factor in the project management process. Every other project management element is totally dependent upon the competence, actions and commitment of the people who use the process, invest the money and materials, communicate, collaborate and solve the myriad problems that are always part of it all.

There Is One Constant

The project role is, of course, just one functional area of the kaleidoscopic project that is the life of each of those project stakeholders and participants. That person is subject to the variability of all those swirling elements, but there is one constant: Time keeps rolling on. The seconds tick inexorably into minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades.

The manager of the project has no control over the passage of time. Time is the nondiscretionary corner of the famous Treble Constraint – the Triangle of Truth whose other angles are scope and cost. Scope, put oversimply, describes the actions to be taken to carry out the project. Cost is the financing part.

Putting the parts together is the responsibility of the project manager, and that is the central challenge of the project of your life. Many of us leave much of this to circumstance, happenstance and the decisions of other people.

To the extent we do that, we are failing as managers and shortchanging ourselves. The time we spend on low-return and no-return activities is just as gone as the time invested in developing big payoffs. All of that time is gone for good, and our total store of time has a lifetime limit.

When we organize our actions, and our gathering and investment of resources, in advancing ourselves, we are managing our lives. All of us do some of this, and the concept of life as a project suggests that we should maximize the thoughtful actions and investments that will provide the maximum return.

Time Management Gets Swept Away

As in any project, the primary management functions are planning the process, executing the plan and maintaining the necessary relationships. We need to specifically account for the complexity, unfamiliarity, risk and dependencies we will encounter in our lives.

Planning is the working formula that fills in the investments (budget – funds, materials, payroll, etc.; and quality – scope, assignments, control, etc.). The people relationships create the movement of the project parts, and these relationships require a lot of attention.

Schedule is the placement of those decisions at specified points in time. We know that time will keep rolling on whether those things get done according to plan or not. And the deadline will most certainly come.

In considering the management of our lives, we often limit the concept to what we call “time management.” We can’t manage time, of course, so what we’re really talking about is how we will fit our intention-based activities into our days. Time management, even when it actually works, often is limited to seeking reliable production of short-term results. This is a mistake.

Attempts to stick with time management often fail quickly because unexpected demands create higher priorities, and because a thinly-rooted plan is swept aside by our frequent default to established habit patterns. We love our old ways, and deep down just don’t want to give them up.

This is why managing life as a project offers substantial value. When we see this as a project, we carefully examine the real circumstances and issues right up front, and set out to deal with them realistically. Through the clear lens of cold realism, personal behavior change is seen as a major mental/psychological/emotional challenge. Just writing down a neat to-do list won’t touch it.

The Fundamental Question

This is not at all to dismiss schedule planning. That is vital. Goal-setting – for the long term, for this month/week and for right now – is the essential beginning of the project management of my life. It shouldn’t lay out an utterly unattainable vision, but the desired outcomes must have significant value to me. I must be courageous enough to detail what I really want, without softening it because of doubt or the memory of past failures. It must cover all the important areas of my life, including family and health.

Once I’m clear on what I want, I address the fundamental question of this life project: How do I get myself to persist in doing the little things and the middling things that will advance my interests? I need to probe my tastes and interests to build the compelling mental pictures of what the now-specified success will feel like. I need to focus on them frequently.

I must harness my emotions to create the desire that will move me to action, and discipline my thought patterns to continually build fresh evidence of progress and new incentives for continued effort. Studies of human behavior have shown that this conscious manipulation of personal motivation works.

What you think about directs what you do. Thought drives action.

Your busy brain is flooded with a constant stream of thought fragments, impressions, bits of memory and surges of emotion – going four times as fast as the typical conversation. This incoherent rush determines our attitudes and controls the string of mini-decisions that drive our minute-by-minute behavior. It is powerfully influenced by what we are seeing and hearing, and by our instant impressions about what we’re seeing and hearing.

All that is why our days can be chock full, yet we frequently feel by nightfall that we ran hard but got nowhere. Maybe we feel we slipped back a bit, or a lot.

Enter Project Planning

This is where managing the project of my life comes in. I can train myself to enter that stream of mental activity and guide the thinking toward the goals and actions I have chosen. I can remind my emotions how good it feels to take control. I can point to achievements, however small, in modifying my behavior.

The project planning is logical, mental and careful.

The project execution is disciplined, imaginative, persuasive and persistent.

Life is a project. It’s up to each of us to determine who is going to manage it.

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