Welcome to my world! I share insights from positive psychology in order to help you to cultivate your self and your life.

Crafting Your Personal Projects

Crafting Your Personal Projects

My father once said to me, in an unwelcome but necessary moment of tough love, that it appeared that I had no hobbies other than going out at night. He was right, but the comment shook me to my core, and continued to fester away at me for years: what were my hobbies? What is a good hobby anyways? Does reading count? (God, I hope so.) I genuinely enjoy jamming on my planner, too! 

One of my favorite lines of research delves into the study of personal projects - essentially, a broader definition that includes the study of hobbies. 

Personal projects are defined as: 

“a set of interrelated acts extending over time, which is intended to maintain or attain a state of affairs foreseen by the individual” 

Essentially, personal projects are goals that an individual engages with. These run the gamut between very small (floss your teeth in the morning) to superordinate and lifelong (solve world hunger). 

Every single one of us has personal projects in our lives. Hobbies are certainly one type of project, but this definition is far broader. Some projects have been lingering for years, some are brand new, some are things we want to move towards, some are things that we want to avoid; and they span the many domains of our lives, from work to play to relationships to self to service. Some examples, provided by the researchers who identified this construct, could include: 

  • Pass my psychology course
  • Cut down on junk food
  • Figure out my career goals 
  • Play with my cat
  • Clean my apartment
  • Try not to make my parents mad
  • Clarify my religious beliefs
  • Exercise more often
  • Go to Europe this summer 
  • Be a better parent
  • Break off with Robert
  • Climb the Matterhorn
  • Understand Suzanne better
  • Find a part-time job
  • Stop putting off studying until the last minute

Why do personal projects matter to well-being?

Answer #1: They help us to stay present in the experience of our present selves and lives

Personal projects offer a way to translate the inner self into the outer world. Some personal projects may be recognized as true to oneself, whereas others are not at all connected to a person’s self, with major implications for well-being: one study found that the alignment between personality traits and personal projects was positively correlated with well-being (McGregor, McAdams, & Little, 2005). 

Answer #2: They help us to pursue our aspirational selves and lives

A core component of personal projects is that they are related to the way we see ourselves in the future. Marty and colleagues have argued that we are inherently prospective in nature, meaning that we are always looking forward to the future and that this is the fundamental perspective that drives our actions. Personal projects could be considered to be one of the ways that we can realize that future vision of ourselves. In addition, these visions of ourselves can be great definers and stabilizers of our identity over a long period of time, compelling us to make choices and act out behaviors that are in service of it – thus, impacting the trajectory of our lives in a very real way.

One study looked at personal projects and the way that they might facilitate self-completion, defined as “the extent to which the respondent feels that, as a result of engaging in a personal project, she is or is growing towards becoming personally complete, that is, realizing her mental and/or physical potentials, feeling ‘whole’”. Self-completion was a strong predictor of how much individuals evaluated their projects as contributors to their life satisfaction, and are therefore potential facilitators for well-being. 

Both of these answers come together in the research: personal projects that contribute to well-being most be both 1) meaningful and 2) something that we believe is achievable. We must see the connection to our current and future selves, and also find enough meaning in it to make sacrifices in the present moment to move towards the future. 

So what can you do to experience greater well-being?

The personal projects that are most likely to lead to enhanced well-being share five characteristics: they are meaningful, socially connected, manageable and involve a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions. Since you are already engaged in many personal projects, it is important to identify which ones you want to continue engaging in, and then evaluate any gaps you might notice. The below activity is adopted from Brian Little's Personal Project Analysis. 

Step 1: List out your projects.

Take 10-15 minutes and list out your personal projects - everything that you can think of that you are currently engaging with. 

Step 2: Narrow your focus. 

Identify 10 projects from this list that are particularly important to you or typical of your life. You will go through a deeper analysis of these projects. 

Step 3: Assess your projects. 

Create an Excel document that includes your personal projects along the Y axis. Along the X axis, list out the following attributes (you can use my template document here). 

Your list should look a little bit like this. You will evaluate what you think about your projects. 

Go through and evaluate each aspect against a personal project. 

Next, you will evaluate how you feel about your projects. 

Step 4: Reflection

Once you have done this activity, step back and take an objective look at your projects. Notice what trends you might be spotting: are there projects that aren't serving you? Are there projects that are actually bringing you more happiness than you anticipated? What projects are you devoting the most time to, and the least? How do your projects align with your values? 

If you notice that you have a lot of projects that are meaningful, bring you joy, connect you with others - lucky you! You are probably living a pretty great life. 

If you notice that your life is not filled with these types of desirable projects, what can you do? 

Step 5: Take action

For those who have decided that change should be sought, this is a process that will require vulnerability, courage and creativity. However, there are two beautiful things about using this personal projects assessment. The first is that it creates awareness, pointing out exactly where in your life you might want to make changes. With that awareness, any great change is possible. The second is that personal projects are changeable. Unlike personality traits or embedded life situations, many of the projects that we engage in can be transformed or cast aside, and we can always pick up new projects that serve us. 

There are many strategies that we might take, including: 

  • Minimize time spent on particular projects that do not align 
  • Pick up a new project to counterbalance an unfulfilling one 
  • Cognitively transform the way we view one project (i.e. 'do my job' versus 'serve others through my work') 
  • Approach existing projects in a new way, such as in partnership with others
  • Consider changing the language we use - projects with declarative language like "I will eat my vegetables" versus "I will try to eat vegetables" are shown to be far more likely to be completed 
  • Eliminate extraneous projects that are taking up too much attention and time, a la Warren Buffett

Every individual's pursuit of action will take different forms. For those of you who are looking for guidance, I highly, highly recommend Brian Little's bookMe, Myself & Us. It is Brian's work on personal projects that I have highlighted here, and he provides wonderful and thoughtful recommendations to consider on your journey towards fulfilling personal projects. 

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