After starting my first online blog back in 2009, I met a few other female bloggers all writing about things like mental health and motherhood. The five of us were cross-generational and spread across the U.S., and by “met,” I of course mean we exchanged lots of intimate details of our lives and spoke into our deepest fears with one another without ever actually encountering each other in person. We formed a close little circle and shot emails back and forth all day, sometimes asking for feedback on a post we’d written, other times asking for advice on how to not smother our partners.
Just having moved to a new city for my final year of my doctoral program, these women and our constant stream of communication became a lifeline. So had my blog, which I wrote almost daily.
I called the blog, Nourishing the Soul, the same phrase I had obscurely tattooed on my hip when I was 17. I wrote about things I was learning as a new psychologist, how I saw these abstract ideas playing out in my own corner of the world. I interviewed people who I found inspiring and told their stories. Sometimes I’d write about the training I was doing for 5k or half marathon, using my experiences running to make over-wrought points about life.
I didn’t know what to call my time spent writing this blog and my connection to this little community of other bloggers, but I knew it was vitally important to me. Calling it a hobby didn’t quite capture it, but I wasn’t doing this for money or even as a professional endeavor. It was more than that – so important that when the coveted post-doc I’d secured for the following year said that I’d have to stop blogging if I wanted to work there, I said I wouldn’t. It was a move that surprised the hell out of me.
Instead, my husband and I rerouted our course and landed instead back in the midwest. I took a different post-doc and he found a wonderful position doing what he loved. I kept writing the blog. We, through a lot of effort, started a family. I kept writing the blog, though less frequently. Through more effort, our family grew. My writing time was now a rare luxury, but I kept paying the fee to keep my domain name, imagining that I would get back to it once things settled down. And then one day, sitting at work with a pony-tail of unwashed hair, I saw the annual email to renew my domain and instead of clicking renew, I clicked delete. Nourishing the Soul went away, it’s intangibility suddenly so evident to me that I gasped.
One of the bloggers in my little circle was a woman from Pennsylvania named Katie. Her day job was in higher education, and she wrote her blog and did other freelance writing in the evenings. At the time being in my fifth long year as a trainee, I remember looking at her life with envy, imagining nothing better than getting a real paycheck and getting to write for fun and other people.
I remember when Katie had her first child, and her writing started shifting to pregnancy and then eventually motherhood. I was a few years from those experiences, but not for lack of trying, and so I read her accounts avidly, so hungry to know being a mom through her lens.
Realizing that her writing was much more centered on these topics (and with “mommy blogs” taking off), she decided to start a new blog with this explicit focus. She called it Pick Any Two. When I asked her about what that was in reference too, she told me that she’d read somewhere that moms get to pick two things; we can have a clean house, a satisfying marriage, happy kids, a thriving career, or sanity. It would be nice to have it all, but we get to pick just two.
As a blossoming, married professional at the time, actively working to make babies and keep my condo company-ready, that didn’t seem like a very feminist attitude to me. “What if I want more? What if I think I can do more?” I asked.
“Sorry,” Katie said. “You get to pick two.”
Brian Little is a professor of psychology at Cambridge University. He’s considered one of the world’s foremost experts on personality and his resume could fill a book, of which he’s written several. He’s also given an incredibly popular TED talk where he explains that what most of us have been taught to think about personality is all wrong. While Dr. Little has his hands in all kinds of personality research, where he’s spent most of his career has been in illuminating this idea of personal projects.
When I first heard that there was interesting research on personal projects, I honestly thought it sounded a little dry. I imagined that this had to do with things like making S.M.A.R.T. goals and increasing productivity – important stuff, but nothing that lit a fire for me personally. But when I started to understand what Dr. Little meant by personal projects, I became intrigued – really intrigued.
Dr. Little explains that there are two different ways that we can think about our personality. We more often think about it as a description of who we are or qualities that we have. He argues, though, that personality is a function of what we do, our personal projects.
Dr. Littles’s concept of personal projects are, at their core, the ways that we spend our time and energy. They are the tasks and domains where we dedicate ourselves and our resources. These aren’t just the things we would traditionally think of as hobbies. They are all of the things we work on with an eye to the future, from parenting to working on managing our anxiety symptoms to cleaning out the garage. Personal projects aren’t necessarily formal projects; they can be short- or long-term, simple or complicated, fun or tedious. They are essentially just where our time goes.
If you have been working on applying to graduate school, that’s a personal project. If you’ve been following the political news, that’s a personal project. If you’ve been working on potty training your kid or supporting your adult child through a job loss, those are personal projects. Even starting a new romantic relationship or rekindling a current one are personal projects. Each of these endeavors requires time, energy, and focus and they, among our other projects, become the fabric of what our life is about.
Our personal projects come to shape and define our personalities even more than labels like “introverted” or “agreeable” do. Personal projects are where we consciously choose who we want to be. Our personality traits might lead us to certain personal projects over others and those traits may impact how we experience those projects (for example, people high on the trait of neuroticism will more often describe all of their projects as stressful), but personal projects are where we are creating or refining our personality in real-time.
One of the most powerful opportunities that personal projects give us, in fact, is that we can take on projects that let us act “out of character.” These are the things that might feel like departures of who we’ve always defined ourselves to be.
When I walked away from the most prestigious job offer I’d gotten because of what I would have historically thought of us a silly hobby, that experience redefined who I thought I was. My personal project of writing that blog had itself shifted how I was showing up in the world. And choosing the less applauded path meant I was no longer the rule-following, achievement-oriented perfectionist that I’d always considered myself.
There’s something else about the concept of personal projects that’s been illuminating for me, and I discovered it when I began digging into my own Personal Projects Analysis.
Dr. Little is a researcher at heart, and no good psychological construct is going to be without at least a few excel spreadsheets. His version of this comes in the form of the Personal Projects Analysis (PPA), which is a process of outlining the personal projects we are currently working on and then evaluating them based on all sorts of criteria.
To very briefly summarize how to do the PPA, you list out all the places where your time and energy are going and then try to get it down to about ten core projects. Some people have dozens or maybe even hundreds of personal projects at a time (which may explain a lot about them in and of itself), but for the sake of the PPA, we try to take ten at a time.
In a matrix, you evaluate each of your projects on dimensions like how difficult it is for you, how much control you have over the outcome, how much time it requires, and how aligned with your core values it is, among many others. This process itself is incredibly enlightening.
My own PPA included projects like working with clients, learning a new treatment modality, parenting, managing my house, moving my body, and another area I just called “businessy things.’ I could have broken each of those down into much smaller projects, but I kept it broad for the first round.
When I started rating each project on the different dimensions, I started having so many light bulbs go off in my brain. Among them were these:
- The projects that I rated as “most difficult” were also where I rated my level of “personal responsibility” as the highest, meaning I had the least help.
- Where I had choice, I had naturally spent the least time on the projects that were least aligned with my “self-identity.”
- The projects that were least visible to others tended to stress me out the least.
- Where I had choice, I spent the most time on the projects where I felt the most autonomy and challenge.
- I was avoiding a lot of the projects where “likelihood of success” was rated lowest, which was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the other observations I had was that at this season of my life, I realized I had a lot of agency over what my personal projects were. The circumstances of my life weren’t requiring me to make a project of caring for an ill parent or move out of a house, for instance. The level of choice in our personal projects, Dr. Little confirms, makes a big difference in our mood and outlook.
We see that come to life in one of the other parts of the PPA, the Cross Impact Matrix. This sounds highly sophisticated, but really just involves listing in a left-hand column all of your personal projects and then listing the same projects across the top in a row. You then take each project pairing and rate how much Project A and Project B conflict with each other. The simplest way to do this is to indicate whether Project A has a very negative, negative, neutral, positive, or very positive impact on Project B.
This process was the most intriguing part of the PPA for me. It put into black and white feelings that I’m constantly wrestling with, and so often (mistakenly) attribute to my lack of… willpower? discipline? ability? Here are some of what I recognized:
- For me, “learning new things” was the only project that had a positive impact on every other project. That reinforced that I do want to take time for this project and it serves all the other areas of my life.
- While I’d rated “parenting” as the most difficult project I’m currently undertaking and I can get actually positively impacts a number of my other projects (which surprised me) and came into very direct conflict with some others. Where they were in conflict was exactly where most of my personal frustrations live (“Gah, why can I never find time to do XYZ!?”). Perhaps not surprising, but seeing it in this way helped me understand my reaction differently and remind myself of it being a conscious choice I was making in this season of life.
- Where I have choice, the projects that have a neutral or negative impact on the most other projects might need to go. I’ve been frustrated, for example, that I’m not exercising regularly anymore. But when I evaluate exercise’s impact on these other areas (which for me is mostly neutral), I start to realize that I might need to accept that it’s not going to be a personal project right now and that’s okay. (By the same token, others might realize that exercise – or something else – would have such a big positive impact on things like energy for other projects that it would be worth reinvesting themselves in it.)
- I also started to notice so many ways that my personal projects were positively influencing each other, and that made me more grateful and glad to be doing them.
These are selected observations, obviously, and there was so much more I learned through this process. Thinking about my time in projects has been helping me make better decisions about where I’m saying yes versus no (e.g. “Does this serve one of my top ten projects right now?) and understanding my own reactions when my projects come into conflict with one another.
I’m realizing that I may get to pick more than the two, despite Katie’s insistence, but there is a limit to my capacity. Or perhaps I could pick as many as I want; I will just start to see how they will conflict with each other in ways that will drive me absolutely mad.
I’m not sure that any of us need yet another to-do list in our lives, but perhaps many of us could benefit from taking stock of what we are already doing and reflecting on how those things are shaping us. It’s another way of making the invisible labor visible. It’s a way to see who we are becoming.