The Project Management of Self-Improvement

I’ve gotten a few questions on the topic of planning and time management in the last few months, so I thought I’d do a write up. To me this is a very individual issue and your time management tools have to conform as much as possible to your preferred manner of working. Everyone has an approach that will work better for them, some respond very well to highly regimented lives, some do not. Some people have the ability to control their lives to a high degree and can thus implement high levels of detailed scheduling, others need flexibility in order to effectively execute.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion of goals as opposed to systems, however these are complimentary not in opposition to feedbackeach other. The reason for creating a system is to avoid some of the downsides related to goals, outlined by among others Scott Adams. For instance, instead of setting the goal to “lose weight“, build a system of activities that support that goal. Goals do have the downside that while trying to achieve them, a person is prone to feeling like a failure, or building their life around the goal. When the goal is achieved, short-lived elation is quickly replaced by the emptiness left behind by the now achieved goal. On the other hand, systems can have downsides as well, in that if they do not contain milestones, checkpoints, and measurable criteria, most people will destroy their progress through skirting the permissible.

One of the funnier examples I’ve seen recently among weight-lifters and bodybuilders is the concept of “It fits my macros” when it comes to their diet, in that they defend eating highly processed, low quality foods based on that it fits their target macro-nutrient ratios. While this is technically true, I would make the argument that eating the same macros in real food as opposed to ice cream and candy, would be overall better for them. Having a planned cheat-day every 4 – 10 days, may become having a cheat-day every 4 days. Getting 7 – 8 hours of sleep every night becomes getting 7 hours, which then becomes six until they are back at the same (or worse) state they were in.

From my perspective, this becomes a case of complimentary activities that include goals and systems to achieve those goals. Obsession comes from treating goals as ends in themselves, rather a means to an end. If a person seeks to improve their health, diet should be a part of this, and weight loss goals, are a natural progression measurement. Systems are really habits that you develop in order to make improvements. This is in part why goals can be destructive as they focus on the target of effort, rather than the effort itself. Every goal you create for yourself has to be a means towards a distant and probably non-achievable end. Any system must have input, process, output and feedback. A system without some form of measuring is no system at all, because there is no way to measure intended output vs desired output. There is no way to measure the efficiency and efficacy of the process. Thus there is no feedback to be integrated into the system.

The Work Breakdown Structure

A WBS is when large activity packages is broken down into smaller activity packages. This is done in order to break down complex deliverables so that they can be estimated in terms of time and cost. For instance, if you have an activity package “Improve Appearance” this could be further broken down into “Improving body composition” and “Improving wardrobe“. The former could be further broken down into “Improving diet” and “Improving exercise“, the former can then be broken down into “Reduce carbohydrates” and “Increase Protein“. The goal here is to break down the activities in increasing degree of specificity so that you can estimate the effort (cost) and time to achieve (time).

Most important is that your ability to execute and follow a plan is dependent on the time and effort you are able to input to the process. Designing a plan that requires you to combine an additional 5 hours of cooking, 3 hours of cardio and 2 hours of record-keeping, if you only have 4 hours a week means setting yourself up for failure. Furthermore, by breaking down activities in this manner, you create the opportunity to measure progress, compliance, and habit-forming. It also makes it possible to classify activities into critical and non-critical activities, so that the Pareto-Principle may apply.

Critical activities are those on which the progression of other activities depend. If you are making widgets, then the raw materials and production facilities must be secured and set up before production can take place, therefore this is a case of pooled interdependence where a task “Producing widgets” is dependent on both raw materials and the means of production being secured. If either of those activities are delayed, then it follows that the next step in the process, the production of widgets will also be delayed. If the production of widgets is delayed, this means that every activity that depends on the widget being finished on time, is likewise delayed.

The goal is to break down one large goal into multiple smaller goals that can each be treated as separate goals, and habits can be built around each large and small goal. Furthermore, to be able to measure progress and input the feedback into your system, so that you can calibrate the system to better support the desired output.

Few people have lives where everything goes according to play for weeks, months or years. This creates a need to be able to shift activities within the weekly plan. This places some requirements on your activity selections and how they are structured. Therefore, a weekly plan should be built around the principle of flexible shifts and transitions between activities. If specific activities have a requirement of being executed at a specific time/date, then these must be put in first, and the rest of the system built around them.

Interdependence refers to how tasks are related within the system, do they have to be executed in parallel, in sequence, is one dependent on the other or is a future task dependent on the pooled interdependence of multiple other tasks. For instance, in the “Improve appearance” task, the sub-task “Improve wardrobe” is a task, which would benefit from execution after the task of “Improve body composition“.

A flexible system that allows activities to be shifted easily and with as few negative consequences as possible. For weight-training this means adopting a full-body or upper/lower split over the often recommended “bodypart split” , as it is simple to shift upper body from from Monday to Tuesday, not so easy when you have to shift chest-day to Tuesday, which means you won’t have full recovery for your next workout and so on. For long term-repeated activities, this means that they have to be as location independent and time of day independent as possible.

The issue of compliance is a frequent one when it comes to both goals and systems. If a person builds a system, to which it is impossible to remain compliant, they have set themselves up for failure. The key lies in building a system for yourself that makes compliance be a natural part of your system. This means planning in cheat days, weeks off, flexible structures that can easily be moved around.

Many people when they schedule their weeks do not make distinctions between repeated tasks and singular tasks. Thus, they end up shifting the tasks that support their long term goals, in favor of the tasks that are short-term maintenance tasks, because of a sense of urgency, this is why it is beneficial to divide up tasks in a manner where appropriate effort can be allocated.

Long-Term Repeated Tasks – These are tasks that support long term goals.

Medium-Term Repeated Tasks – These are the tasks that support current lifestyle.

Maintenance Tasks – These are tasks that have to be done all the time in order to keep life relatively smooth.

The long term repeated tasks has the greatest compounding effect in terms of creating positive life changes, due to time-duration.

What Gets measured Gets Managed

The statement above is from management guru Peter Drucker, and refers to the fact that if you are not measuring things, you will tend not to manage them. From a project management perspective, this is a case of determining a goal, establishing the gap between where you are and your goal, coming up with milestones and working towards those milestones. In general, there are two measurements measurements of time and measurements of progress.

For instance, if you set a goal that you want to lose 12 lbs in the next 12 weeks, you need to set up the two criteria as follows:

A) Measurements of time (Time measurement)

B) Measurements of weight (Progress measurement)

The measurements of time starts with the 12 weeks you have outlined as the total running time of the project. I prefer to break this down further into milestones to track progress so that I have an opportunity to adjust if I see that actual progress deviates from planned progress. If such milestones are to have any value, they have to allow enough time to correct deviations, yet not be so close that they result in constant corrections that may not be necessary. A 12 week weight-loss initiative for instance, allows a milestone every 4 weeks, and can be broken down into 2 week increments as well.

The measurement of progress, in this case, weight needs to be broken down as well. 12 lbs divided by 12 weeks is 1 lb pr week, which translates into roughly a 3500 calorie deficit each week. However, with weight loss it is not always linear, and it can be affected by other variables such as hydration, food consumption prior to the weigh-in, and a few others, therefore you need to figure out a way to conduct progress measurements in a manner that ensures accuracy. The general recommendation here is to average your weight over 3 days and to ensure that you weigh yourself at the same time, in the same state. For instance, right after getting up in the morning, after using the bathroom, but before drinking or eating anything.

Now, the trouble here is that the measurements only gives you actual progress, but what use is actual progress without planned progress? None at all. You need to set up a manner in which to track actual and planned progress, so that you can see if you are behind or ahead of schedule. This means that just like when managing a project according to common project management principles, you must establish planned progress. To do this, I employ a concept called “WBS” or “work-breakdown structure“.

Summary and Conclusions

The emptiness after achieving a goal is not due to the goal itself, but what a person expected that their life would be like after achieving the goal. If a person sets a massive and lofty goal, which is then broken down into a series of separate and often interdependent goals, that will take years, or even decades to process, then they create a structure by which they can transform their habits. People end up as Yo-Yo dieters because while they have lost the weight, they have not dealt with the habits and preferences that resulted in the “non-desired state“. So, when people talk of systems VS. goals, they are often taking the position of longer-term habit and preference change as opposed to shorter term frantic effort to achieve a short-term goal state.

Achieving a goal without adjusting the habit, and treating a goal as an obsession often leads to a non-desired state when the achievement is not perceived as being grand enough to warrant the effort. It also leads to a situation where it is very easy to fall back into the habits that were not changed, but merely suppressed for a time being. This is a common thing with weight loss, as the trainee starve themselves for 4 months to lose 20 lbs, yet once they reach what they thought was the desired state, they realize that the only thing that changed was their clothing size.

Thus, goals and systems are not opposition forces, but complimentary. Your over-arching system needs to be one that forms habits, builds a life around positive activities, and ensures the long-term vision. Your goals need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound). From a business perspective, this is a distinction between strategy and tactics, the overarching vision and mission of your life, as opposed to the objectives and efforts you need to put forth now to make your vision a reality.

People set goals without thinking, and view a singular goal as the “pill” that will make everything in their life the way they want. The reality is that their life is a system working on a feedback loop, that is not ideally configured. Goals are not aligned with the overall system, the system gives poor feedback, or feedback on the wrong time horizons. When this is combined with our natural tendencies for selecting simple solutions and desiring fast results, most people fail at attaining their goal state. Those who attain the goal state on the other hand have invested so much in it, that little thought has been focused on what to do after the goal state is reached.

More reading

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams

Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Krogan and Suzette Blakemore


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