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Some people are born project managers, others do their best to learn.
Of course, you can train to become a project manager, and you can get certified as a project manager, but it’s just second nature to so many of us.
I found that I was one of those folks when I started a job as a project manager at a digital agency a few years ago. That job felt like coming home, and I totally rocked it.
You’ll find us natural project manager types (we’re mostly the traditional Type A folks) all over the place: event planners, account executives, producers, COOs, the friend that gets every detail down for your monthly group brunch date.
Our fixation on efficiency and deadlines and action items can be tiresome, I’ll admit, but there is so much you can learn from your naturally organized, spreadsheet-obsessed friends.
Even though I no longer have “project manager” in my official title, I always rely on my old project management tricks to run my freelance business and to help me plan my personal goals and make them happen.
Here are some tools of the project management trade that you can use to help you reach your goals too!
6 Ways to Project Manage Reaching Your Goals
#1. Write a Project Scope, and Stick To It
A scope is basically a definition of a project. It details what this “project” (i.e. the project of reaching your goal) is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.
“Scope creep” is a term that PMs use to describe when extra, unplanned ideas get tacked onto a project.
A clear definition of your goal and how you’re going to get there can be a litmus test for new ideas. Does it fit into the scope? Yes? Cool! No? Save it for later, or think about redefining your project if needed. If you do redefine your project, rewrite your scope so you can keep using it as a guide. Use it to help you complete your project on time.
Your scope should also include a timeline. Yes, it might change (it often does, actually). But writing out a realistic plan will hold you accountable to those deadlines and make sure you keep things moving. It will also make you think about what steps (or “deliverables” in PM speak) are involved in your project and how long they’ll take.
Let’s look at an example as we talk about these ideas. Maybe I’ve decided that next year I want to go to grad school. Awesome goal, right? My project scope will detail exactly what I want to study, how many schools I want to apply to, what I need to research to choose those schools, who I need to ask for recommendation letters, etc. It will also detail when I need to do all of those things.
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#2. Plan Your Budget
Reaching your goal might cost money. It’s definitely going to cost your time and energy. Planning your money budget might include classes you want to take, the materials you need to buy, or other investments you need to make.
That part is probably pretty straightforward — figure out what you need, price it out, and see if it’s affordable for you right now.
The time and energy part can be a little fuzzier, but it’s important to think about. How many hours per week is this work going to take you? Even if you technically have that time available, how is it going to affect your energy? Humans are notoriously bad at estimating these things, so you might use the trick of multiplying your estimate by 1.5 or 2 so that you have extra room in case things change or something comes up.
Sticking with our grad school example, your money budget will include application fees, testing fees, and any other materials you need to buy. Your time and energy budget might be an easy few hours a week at first, just doing research. As you narrow down your options and start putting together applications, you’ll need more time and more energy to devote to this project. Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see that you probably shouldn’t take on other new or extra projects during that time.
#3. Use Project Management Software
Trello is my favorite way to organize my work projects, and I also use it for my own personal projects, and I also use Wunderlist for small tasks or projects that just include a couple things I need to do. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, but sometimes I need to get outta there and into a more specific tool. Trello has a ton of inspiration boards you can, um, be inspired by.
Just about any project management software will have basic, incredibly useful features like due dates and reminders, lists and tasks, and collaboration with other users.
A project management system for your grad school goal might include lists like research, test prep, recommendations, essays, and application submissions. You could organize the deadlines for each piece of this project and each different application within these lists.
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#4. Work in Sprints
When I’m working toward a new goal, I can easily get totally consumed by it. I can also get super overwhelmed by everything it entails. If I don’t set clear boundaries and well-defined steps, things will either never get done, or other important parts of my life will suffer as I focus almost entirely on the new, exciting thing.
There are lots of different project management strategies out there, and one that’s been really popular in recent years is Agile, which is often used in software development teams. You don’t have to go full-on with learning a new system and implementing every part of it, but working in sprints is one part of Agile software development that can be applied easily to many projects with great results.
A sprint is a defined period of time with defined work. You can set your sprints to whatever length of time works for you, and you can even go totally micro with it and work in tiny chunks of time with the Pomodoro technique.
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Breaking your project into smaller chunks of time and smaller chunks of work will keep you from getting overwhelmed, and it will also limit how much you take on at once. Especially for a project that’s going to take a lot of time, this is key to mitigating burnout.
With our grad school example, maybe you give yourself a two-week sprint time. In one of those sprints, you could break off a chunk of your work and plan to write the first draft of a standard application essay and ask three people to write recommendation letters for you. At the end of two weeks, you can evaluate what you’ve done and plan what needs to happen next (including any re-do or follow-up on previous tasks).
#5. Strategize and Delegate
Project managers don’t do all the work! I’m not gonna say that I never designed a graphic or wrote a page of content to help move things along, but as a project manager, your primary goal is to make sure things keep moving. You don’t need to be an expert in every part of your project; you just need to know enough to create strategy and delegate.
Some goals lend themselves better to this than others, for sure, but what about our grad school project? There are a lot of pieces of this project that you can get help with. Maybe you take a GRE prep class to delegate your study planning. Maybe you ask an English major friend to proofread your essays. It’s easy to fall prey to the myth of being totally self-made or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or whatever other capitalist nonsense, but that’s not real. What’s real is: we all need a support system, even if we’re ultimately in charge.
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#6. Create Action Items
“What are the action items?” is every project manager’s catchphrase.
When you journal, brainstorm, or have a brilliant shower idea related to your goal, don’t let that energy slip away. When you wrap up a meeting or any creative activity that might be related to your goal, take that positive, productive energy and make it concrete. Write out all the things you (or others) are going to do, who’s responsible, and when they will happen. You might think you’ll remember, but you likely won’t, and you’ll thank yourself for these detailed notes.
Maybe one day you’re journaling and you end up writing about how your undergrad degree in art history was so much fun but you wished you had taken more business classes. From there, you might create action items related to looking into MBA programs, taking a few business classes for free on Coursera or similar, and so on.
Printable Strategic Planning Workbook
Need help with meeting your goals deadlines? Get the Printable Strategic Planning Workbook to help you create your project manager approved plan.
And there you have it!
I hope these tips help you make the most of your time and energy the next time you’re setting and working on a new goal.
And I hope you’ve gained a little bit of new appreciation for all the project manager types in your life 😉