When I was going through chemotherapy eight years ago, I went through extreme lows for about ten days, during which I bottomed out and could barely leave my bed, followed by gradually regaining my strength for another ten days, before going back to be walloped in the next round. I described this brutal, three-week schedule in a letter to friends. An old girlfriend emailed me: “Wow, those up cycles must be so beautiful. I bet you really appreciate life during those times.”
“Yeah,” I wrote back, “but there’s also laundry to fold and sinks to unclog.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, unclogging my sink may have been even better for my recovery that oohing and aahing over the sunset. It’s what psychologists call a personal project.
First coined by Cambridge personality psychologist Bryan Little, a personal project is a task, a plan, or an aspiration we would like to do in our lives. A project can range from the trivial – “cleaning out the cat litter” – to the profound – “curing hunger.” It can be solo – “run a marathon” – or communal – “take the kids to Niagara Falls.”
After decades of research and scores of studies, Little has found a direct correlation between the personal project we pursue and our ability to flourish. “As our personal projects go, so does our sense of well-being,” he writes in Me, Myself, and Us.
Take cleaning out the cat litter. Sounds mundane, but if you’ve just had your hip replaced, it feels like a milestone.
Research involving thousands of subjects has shown that people keep a running tally of around 15 personal projects in their lives at any one time. The single most popular is “losing weight,” followed by “stop procrastinating” and “write a book.” (Call me, if that’s on your list!) But the range is vast. Some examples:
- Work – “Prepare next year’s budget.”
- Interpersonal – “Have dinner with Sally.”
- Maintenance – “Buy more printer cartridges.”
- Recreational – “Take a cruise.”
- Intrapersonal – “Try meditation.”
Some projects, it turns out, are better than others. Interpersonal projects are more likely to make us feel happier and fulfilled, Little has found. If you want to feel better, make sure at least one of your projects involves a friend or loved one.
Also, the way we phrase our personal projects has an impact on their success. Projects that are worded as direct actions, such as “lose ten pounds,” are more likely to succeed that those that are phrased as goals, “try to lose weight. “Trying personalities” should try to rephrase – er, should rephrase – their personal projects as distinct actions.
In my Life Story Interviews, I’ve started asking the question, “What are three personal projects on your plate?” The question comes near the end of the interview, when we turn to the future. The answers have been surprising, even inspiring. Planning for the future is a sure sign of optimism and plowing forward.
What about you? What three personal projects do you have right now?
“What Shape Is Your Life?” I’m gathering life stories and would love to hear yours. These interviews are part of a new project I’m working on about life transitions, how we navigate them, and how we turn the unexpected ups and downs into opportunities for re-invention and rejuvenation. To learn more, to share your story, or to nominate someone you think has made interesting life transitions, please click here, or send me at email at email@example.com. To keep up with the project, including blogs and excerpts of the stories I’ve gathered so far, please sign up for my newsletter.