Using Project Management for Personal Productivity

Ahhh, no alarm.  No ringing.  

The pleasure of waking up when my body wants me to.  It’s something I reserve for every Saturday and Sunday morning and further, something I take pride in.  So when my body naturally woke me up at 5:15AM the day after New Year’s I was like, “cool, time to get stuff done!” 

By “stuff,” I mean work. 

It felt natural to creep out of the bedroom without bothering up my wife; to quietly close my office door and not to wake up the kids.  It was the weekend; a grand opportunity to get ahead for the upcoming week and I absolutely LOVE what I do, so it didn’t feel like a grind.

I worked vigorously from 5:15 to 7:20AM when my youngest woke up and gave me a hug.  I felt great!  I got ahead, took care of some nagging “to-do’s” that I didn’t know how I’d otherwise get done.  So when it was time to shut it down and focus on family I almost sprung out of my chair with a smile on my face!

Then my wife woke up.

She gave me this look, like, “here we go again.” “Ok Debbie Downer,” I thought. 


THEN came the statement I had absolutely no desire to hear:

“I thought the point of you starting your own business was so you wouldn’t have to work so much.” 

How do I respond to that?

She wasn’t trying to be mean or call me out or anything, she was genuinely concerned and curious about what was going on.  

Well, it certainly took the wind out of MY sails! 

I don’t know about you, but my experience shows that it’s not exactly 9 to 5 when you’re starting your own business.  It’s not just me…I’ve seen, heard and read the same from other new entrepreneurs.

However, I’m both starting my own business AND I’m a student and teacher of productivity. 

Consequently, I’ve developed this steady tension between putting in the appropriate amount of time to build something great from scratch, and maintaining my ideals as a “Productivityist.” 

I recognize the importance of applying the principles of what I learn and teach every day in the “productivity space," and feel intensely compelled to “walk the talk.” 

If I don’t practice what I preach, I’m a hypocrite.  So now what?

Recognizing “At-Risk” Behaviors

Productivity’s purpose is to be a tool that well-intentioned people use to live a life of purpose; to do the work and live the life we feel called to live - nothing more.  For me, it’s easy to justify just about anything I do if I use these guidelines as my overarching premise. 

Think about it.  If we’re working hard on something, we can always say we’re doing it for our family.  “I’m building this for you!” I routinely shout inside my head when confronted by my wife’s questions about working late.

If I need an hour or so over the weekend to knock out a little work, it should be fine, right? 

Over the weekend I was working on my goal of getting four episodes ahead for my podcast, so I can mitigate the risk of missing a podcast should something come up and I can’t get a new podcast uploaded and stop recording “hand to mouth.”  I typically spend around 90-minutes or so per episode going through content, removing non-essentials, flagging bad audio, etc. 

Getting ahead on episodes is a large time investment, but I view it as paying my dues now so I don’t have to work as hard later. 

Yet, I discovered this weekend that spending extra time to get ahead is a slippery slope.  My justification for working a few extra hours over the weekend doesn’t necessarily hold water in my house. 

Whereas I think of my efforts as a direct contributor to building a location-independent business that provides freedom to spend more time with my family, to be involved at a deeper level, from the outside (that is, from anyone’s view other than my own), it can be perceived as something that’s controlling me. 

For my wife, there’s a very real fear of me falling into old habits of obsessing over my work and dreams and being unable to let things go.

Hmmm…she’s got a point.

Turning a Problem into a Project

By trade, I’ve worked for many years as a Project Manager.  Being a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), I’ve studied the details of managing projects in great depth.  

A “project” by definition is:

“a temporary endeavor designed to produce a unique product, service or result with a defined beginning and end.” -Project Management Institute

The key word here is temporary.

As I was thinking about my efforts to “get ahead,” it hit me like a ton of bricks:  “Getting ahead” is my project, and I need to treat it as such.

If I don’t manage this project as I’ve been trained, then not only do I fail as a project manager, I'll also lose confidence in my ability to help people manage their own projects. 

How can one help another if he can’t help himself?  

Ok, I’m in.

My project is to get ahead; I cannot continue to work on getting ahead indefinitely, or my temporary endeavor will transform into a bad habit.  A habit isn’t a project, and a habit, especially a bad one, doesn’t align with my purpose.

As a result, my solution for not transforming a righteous endeavor such as “getting ahead,” into an non-righteous habit of obsessing over work, is to adhere to the proven principles required for treating this as a project.

How to Initiate Your Personal Project (the Right Way)

It all starts with starting the right way.  A project has five phases of it’s life cycle.  

  1. Initiate
  2. Plan
  3. Execute
  4. Monitor & Control
  5. Close

In the interest of time, I’ll just going to cover Phase #1 of this little personal project of mine, “Initiate.” 

PMI jumps right into developing a Project Charter.  Yet, starting with a Charter is based upon one fundamental assumption that continuously kills projects more than any other factor considered:

** the problem being solved is correct, and agreed upon **

Projects are usually generated based on (1) a market demand, (2) a business need, (3) a customer request, (4) a legal requirement, or (5) a social need.

The project management process assumes all this is already worked out; however, if the problem the project manager is working to solve isn’t correct, the project is worthless, game over!

The most important part of managing a project is to clearly articulate and agree upon the problem or opportunity statement.  All of our project stakeholders need to agree to limit the project to solving the problem statement, or conflicting agendas will creep in.  

If you don’t get this right, you might as well stop.

First Identify the Problem, Not the Solution

At a cursory glance, my problem statement could be,

“there is too much work to be done within working hours and I need to develop a system for getting ahead."

That’s not the problem though; getting ahead is a solution.

The real problem is,

"I have been unable to complete my job within the hours of 5AM - 4PM and it’s (1) creating a bad habit and (2) causing tension in the family."

My revised problem statement is completely aligned with my stakeholder requirements, i.e., anyone who cares about my project.  In this case it’s my wife and kids.

The Personal Project Charter

It would be silly to draft and sign a document that formally authorizes me to develop a project that solves my problem of staying within work hours, or would it?

Sure, my stakeholders are limited, but am I the project sponsor?  Not really.

If held to my own devices I’d be working all hours of the night.  My customer, my stakeholder is my wife.  She’s sponsoring the project because she has a vested interest in how I spend my time during family hours.

The Project Charter links the project to the ongoing work of the organization; the mission and values of the company.  My values (click here to see them all) are certainly represented in this project because I’ve committed to #4 - Remember Why

If I can’t get my work done and spend distraction-free, quality time with my family during off-hours I’ve forgotten why I’m in business. 

While I may think that putting in extra hours to get ahead is how I’m going to free up time on the back end, the solution may be to let go of some of the things I’m involved in.

That’s why stakeholder feedback is critical, and why they need to be involved at each phase: to be that sounding board, to know we’re all on the same page with the effort being put forth.

In the case of this particular project, developing a Project Charter with a bulleted list of things I think I need to do to make it happen is sufficient.  In PM terms, this is called a “preliminary scope of work,” and it needs to be kept simple.  

In my case, the Project Charter conversation with my sponsor would go something like this:

“hey babe, I’m working hard to figure out how to end my day at 4PM.  I’d like to work with you on going through some of the things I think I need to do to figure this out.  Here’s a list of what I’m going to look at to make this happen (i.e., my preliminary scope of work).  Are you cool with me checking in with you on this once per week to make sure I’m on track?” -Me

Whatever I do to plan and/or execute this project requires setting clear expectations of the project outcome.  At the end, I may think I have it licked, but my wife could expect an entirely different outcome.  Neither of us are right or wrong if it isn’t talked about (although we’ll both think we’re right). 

Now is the time to get it straight, and we can do it by having a simple “Charter” discussion, such as the one describe above, and iron out the details.

Preliminary Scope of Work

Here is my list of items I would consider within scope of this project:

  • Ongoing activities (blogging, podcasting, social media, email)
  • Outsourcing plan
  • Current planning process
  • Current project workload
  • Future project workload
  • Children’s activities
  • Agreed upon work hours

I’m going to setup a reoccurring meeting with my sponsor to review project status once a week and manage this endeavor properly. 

I truly want to knock this one out of the park and get to the point when I can finish my day on time, stress free. 

I’d love some of your feedback as to what you would include in this list.  Community can be a great way to hold ourselves accountable to our actions and commitments, so I’d also encourage you to think about what you need to do to follow suit. 

How would your scope of work differ from mine?  How do you plan to leave work on time?

Please leave a comment and let me know how you’re being productive for purpose.