There are many practices that have emerged in recent years to accelerate progress at work: daily stand-ups, weekly review meetings, and my favorite – sprints. In this context, a sprint is a set period of time that is dedicated to achieving a goal. Many tech companies have adopted this method in some form based on years of trial-and-error experimentation.

After seeing how sprints helped accelerate ideas at Degreed, an idea popped into my mind: “What if I applied this exact same concept to my personal life, using the same techniques of iterative innovation and rapid feedback loops?”

And so the journey began.

Drawing inspiration from sprints, I wanted to see what would happen if I did a personal reflection every month instead of waiting for a whole year to pass before checking in with my resolutions. I wanted to see how my life would change if I had a clear focus and achieved a goal each month, instead of setting and forgetting my goals each year.

2016 was the year of experimentation, when I started and finished 12 projects in 12 months. These projects ranged from hosting Sunday dinners in a new city to exercising every week. Because of these projects, I was able to explore my interests, build up skills, and become a more effective learner over time. Having that foundation set me up for things I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. For example, starting One Month Projects, an online project accelerator program for those who want to make their life more effective via personal sprints.

The Foundation of Personal Sprints

A personal sprint is similar to a work sprint, except we focus on goals in our personal life. I’ve found it helpful to think about personal sprints using Google’s design sprint framework:

Google’s sprint framework:

Modeled after IDEO’s design thinking concepts, Google has greatly benefited from these sprints, which have led to products like Gmail. Other companies such as Uber, Slack and Blue Bottle Coffee have seen significant results as well.

The process consists of generating an idea, building it, launching it and learning from it to improve the idea later. As shown by the grey circle above, the sprint is a process of understanding and testing a problem to be solved, before fully launching into solution development. We can apply this same concept to ourselves, except what we are developing is not a product, but our life paths.

Why do a personal sprint?

A personal sprint is based on the process-first approach of productivity, where the main focus is creating a system that can be seamlessly used over and over again. After all, no one is equipped with perfect knowledge – rather, we pick up what we need to learn, mostly through trial and error. This iterative learning serves us well, especially with today’s ever-changing technology and the fact that the most in-demand careers today did not even exist ten years ago. Personal sprints give you a process to keep up and evolve with the changing landscape.

My personal sprints are done in 30 day iterations, consisting of monthly reviews (in which I document the progress on my goals) and monthly projects (in which I experiment with and live the month through those lenses). These personal sprints have empowered me to acquire skills in the areas of being a full-stack freelancer, building educational chatbots, and creating my own focused MBA program, etc.

Benefits of a personal sprint

While everyone’s goals are different, and will lead to different creations and experiences, here are some common foundational benefits to personal sprints:

Shortcut time: The difference between a yearly review versus a monthly review is vast. Think about the compounding effects you get to reap when you iterate every month (twelve times a year) versus yearly (once a year). When I used to only do yearly reviews, I’ve found that usually I would either forget the goal I had at the beginning of the year (which often became less relevant as time passed); or, I was just floundering in different directions without a goal. More frequent reviews give you more data points, and as a result a clearer direction.

10x your productivity: Productivity matters the most when you are both effective (working on the right things) and efficient (getting things done). For example, with personal sprints, I was able to experiment with a variety of side businesses to test out potential careers. As a result of testing five side businesses in five months, I quickly learned that I liked some ideas more than I actually liked doing them. For example, I thought I wanted to be a dance teacher, but after experimenting for a month, I realized that I preferred not to teach dance moves repeatedly. This is similar to an intensive internship: you can test out which direction you’d like to go towards and get clarity on your preferences.

Prototype life: Instead of waiting forever to “launch” when all the conditions are right, or delaying on trying out something until it’s perfect, you can get an experience of what it would be like with a miniature version. Personal sprints are all part of your life MVP: it’s better to know what doesn’t work now rather than wonder whether it would work for an undefined amount of time. Frequently, we wait for someday, but often that someday never comes and we end up regretting the things we missed out on by not trying. The first step is the hardest – and also the most impactful. Many aspects of my current life, such as my work, hobbies and lifestyle, were shaped and jump-started by the 12 projects in 12 months that I did in 2016 (this is also an example of small batch projects for focus, creativity and perspective).

How you can get started

Ready to try out personal sprints? Here’s how you can apply each step of Google’s sprint framework to create your own personal sprint:

The Google Sprint:

The Google sprint is a five day sprint. On Monday, you brainstorm the problem and choose an area to focus on. On Tuesday, you sketch out potential solutions, and on Wednesday, you make a hypothesis to test. You then spend Thursday creating a prototype and test it with users on Friday.

Since you know yourself the best, you can easily tailor the process to your personal sprints, whether it is five days, a month, or longer. For the monthly sprints that I do, I tend to create an action plan at the start of each month based on a hypothesis I want to test, spend the rest of the month implementing the idea, and do a review at the end.

Below is the process you can use to start your personal sprint!

The 4 step process for personal sprints:

  1. Idea

Choosing your goal idea is a two step process.

First, I usually have a bucket list of goals or things I want to concentrate on or get better at. Perhaps you already have some from your Project List Mindsweep, where you already filter the ones that are projects. If you’re having trouble, you can also refer to the Wheel of Life, as it covers 8 areas of life that you could generate a project in. The goal of the first step is to write down 3-5 goals.

Second, similar to work sprints, choose one that is the most relevant and has the highest ROI to your personal roadmap right now. A question you can ask yourself is: Where do I want to be in one month?

  1. Build

Now it’s time to build an action plan. Viewing them through the lens of SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, time-bound), what are the weekly deliverables you need to finish to hit your month-end goal?

The action plan acts as a blueprint of the steps needed to achieve the goal, for example, your current resources, your success metrics, your working sessions, etc. to make a sprint successful.

  1. Launch

These is also some frontloading you can do to make launching your personal sprint as easy as possible. Think of how a product launch would have a lot of work to be done ahead of time like contacting the press, as well as debugging the program and perhaps even having a backup or emergency plan.

When personal sprints revolve around creating habits, sometimes I even start half a month before the actual month to acclimate. For example, for meditation, I tried to start practicing the month before so I could get used to it for when I had planned to do it every day the month after. By making these preparations, I could consistently set myself up for success for the start of each month.

  1. Learn

The blue line that connects “learn” and “idea” on the the sprint cycle indicates where reflecting on your learnings would inform and strengthen your ideas over time, whether it’s making future ideas more feasible or relevant.

To track progress, you can ask yourself questions for weekly reviews such as: What went well? What didn’t? How can I improve for next week? To reflect more holistically, at the end of each month, you can write monthly progress reports for your goals. I’ve found it really helpful to see  how the chosen personal sprint fits into my bigger life vision as well as to consider any major changes I need to do for next time. (See monthly review is a systems check + weekly review is an operating system).

Results + impact of personal sprints

As a result of doing monthly projects for the last two years, I’ve been able to experience the following results:

Workplace productivity: Before, my afternoons at work would miraculously disappear (but be really spent on the endless tunnel of news). Now that I’ve started to create projects for myself, I’m able to hone in on the internal management of my digital and mental workspace, as well as more self-awareness around my energy levels so I can optimize tasks accordingly.

With the use of these “meta-organization skills,” I was able to pick up a variety of skills in Excel, design, and front-end development during my previous daytime job.

Business growth: Due to the last two years of trial and error with learning, when I decided to quit my job, I was able to create a learning bootcamp for myself around writing and instructional design complete with monthly goals and action plans.

As a result, I was able to launch two businesses at the beginning of this year around  those two areas: a content consultancy agency for EdTech companies and an online coaching + course called One Month Projects.

Life well-being: Right now, I’m as mentally and physically healthy as I’ve ever been.  Before, I would dabble in creative pursuits, and exercise here and there. Now, I have solid habits around meditation, writing and videography as well as the ability to do twenty push-ups (which I’m still super proud of given the fact that I couldn’t even lift up my own mattress before!). Keystone habits like eating healthy and sleeping regularly also naturally became a priority.

In addition, with personal sprints, I was also able to align my life and career. My designed career allows me to have the flexibility to spend time with those closest to me (friends and family) and spend time on things I truly care about (education and self-expression).

Conclusion

When I first started the year-long project in 2016, I was wandering amidst the fog of confusion. With each iteration, it became more clear which direction I wanted to go in and how to get there. The future of work is experimentation, and personal sprints are ongoing experiments to create the life you want.

Your Turn

Now the next step is: what will you choose to be your first personal sprint?

Whether you have a concrete idea or some rough sketches, check out this personal sprint project checklist to get started. Or take my course One Month Projects and I will take you through the process myself!

I’ll also be available at yunzhe@yunzhezhou.com if you have any thoughts or questions.

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