Answering Step Two: Or, How to Beat the Underpants Gnomes at Their Own Game

In the second season of South Park, the boys uncover a colony of underpants-stealing gnomes. The gnomes have a purpose for their nefarious deeds — profit. They even have a three-step business plan. Step One: Steal underpants. Step Two: ?  Step Three: Profit!

So far, so good. A nice little satire about the business world, yes?  How many enterprises start with some sort of asinine idea (say, build a mobile app that does something 37 other mobile apps already do, but differentiate by using “creatif misspellingz” in the app name), and then … profit! Somehow. Err … Umm. Yeah.

But funny thing about those underpants gnomes: Like all good satire, there’s a hidden truth behind the laugh track. In this case, I think the secret is that people are either really good at generating ideas, or at profiting off the ideas of others, but there aren’t that many people who are good at moving something from concept to execution.

Lately I’ve been on a “life as project management” kick (have to put that CPHQ certification to use at some point!). Having taken the week between the holidays as vacation, I’ve enjoyed the spare time to get caught up on a bunch of mundane things like laundry and cleaning — but I’ve also invested considerable effort into figuring out, relative to my goals list, how to get from idea to outcome with maximum efficiency.  Long-time blog readers know that I undertook the “idea” phase seriously in late 2007. Prior to that, I drifted in the wind. After that, I had a game plan, a series of goals and attitudes and bucket-list wishes that I intended to guide subsequent decision-making. And I even identified my personal version of the “profit” phase: Being content at what I saw, when I looked at myself and my life’s history on the morning of my 70th birthday.

But darned if I didn’t have a big red question mark in the middle.

Oh, sure. I had an idea that certain goals required certain things to occur in a defined sequence. One of my goals, for example, is to earn my divemaster certification. I am currently open-water certified. To get to divemaster, I’d need to get certified for advanced open water and rescue diving. Then log  a minimum of 40 dives to meet eligibility requirements for the divemaster program. But did I ever put those things on a calendar or in my budget?  The total cost of getting eligible to earn that divemaster c-card will probably run between $2,500 and $3,000, factoring in the cost of the two major large courses, the cost of air for dives, and all the equipment I’d need. (And don’t get me started on the professional training costs … I think it’s running more than $1,000 these days.)

Again: For a long time, there was just a big red question mark between “I want to be a divemaster” and “Yay, I’m a divemaster.”

And the story repeats for so many other parts of my bucket list. And the thing is, the items on my lifelong goal list aren’t even that unreasonable. The things I want to do in the short term are eminently doable. I’ve just spent so much time defining the concept and clarifying “what done looks like” that I never really said, “Hey, idiot. Are you actually going to make progress on any of these things, or just tweak your goal list year after year?”

So the last few days, I’ve been plotting the execution. I’ve looked at all of the things I want to accomplish in 2012, what the material costs are, what the reasonable timing may be, and then slotting everything on a monthly calendar. Much of it has been guided by a consistent project-management methodology: Identifying scopes and exclusions, setting key dates, budgeting, linking dependencies, noting potential constraints.

The great thing about this exercise is that it provides a sense of purpose, a feeling that one’s actions are leading to a significant conclusion even if any given tasks seem boring in the moment. It also helps to level-set expectations. If I want to get everything in the “Jason 2012” project accomplished as planned, I’m looking at a total cash requirement of between $25,000 and $27,500 and a wrap-up date of September 30. I’ve separated everything into blocks, so that routine living expenses (food, utilities, rent, etc.) are wholly covered by my hospital income, so the costs of my goals require a totally separate source of funding. Like, you know, my business.

Having thus identified the financial resources, I can then back into what I’d need in terms of client development, projects, etc. Suddenly, that $25k doesn’t look so daunting. It’s just roughly $3k per month between now and September. Just $100 per day. I can do that.

And scheduling. Instead of saying, “I’d like to do X in 2012, or Y by 2020” I’ve moved into breaking down complex goals into logical milestones and then scheduling those milestones for a specific month. So, with the divemaster goal — pick up essential diver gear (BCD, regulator, octo, gauge) in February; pick up wetsuit and remaining accessories in March; sign up for advanced training in April; schedule rescue diving training in June; log 40 total dives by Labor Day. At which point, I can enroll in the divemaster program and work through it in September.

And so on, and so on, for a dozen different goals. Heck, I’ve got one item on my task list with a due date in late 2016.

This planning carries within the seeds of implication, though. It means that every day, I need to be focused on the future. It means I need a defined set of tasks that I perform each day, and a mechanism for tracking detailed tasks on an ongoing basis. It means that coming home and thinking, “Hmm. I guess I’ll just veg out on the couch or play Star Wars: The Old Republic for hours” must become a thing of the past. Thanks to a subscription to Office365, I can use the power of Exchange and SharePoint and OneNote to keep all my devices in sync using the right tools for the job.

This story has a moral beyond public peacocking, though. To wit:

The first stage of self-actualization is thinking seriously about who you are and who you aspire to be, removing the pernicious influence of others and understanding the you that most of us keep hidden even from ourselves; done right, it takes months or years — not just an afternoon spent with a pot of coffee and a notebook. The second stage consists in identifying clear life goals — with a solid expectation of what it takes to say you’ve achieved them. Come back to them every few months for a year or so until you know in your heart as well as your head that you really want to make it happen. The third stage is moving from planning to execution, to put away excuses and endless tinkering and simply begin. The fourth stage is, having been successful, you mentor others in the art of success.

In short … we need to beat the underpants gnomes at their own game. A little project management for your life can help.