project planning whiteboard After months of focused work, a small tech company launches an ambitious new app.

What next? After the launch party, the wise thing to do is conduct a project post-mortem—a process aimed at extracting lessons and insights from the recently-completed project.

In the business world, project post-mortems are standard practice (especially among software and IT teams). But I’m a believer that they can be useful for individuals, too—in both our personal and professional lives.

Let’s call this idea the personal project post-mortem.

Why we need a process for reviewing our work

Here are two true but seemingly unrelated statements:

  1. Formal processes sometimes feel unnecessary, but they often uncover hidden insights.
  2. Human beings don’t remember as much as they think they will.

The personal project post-mortem harnesses #1 while defending against #2.

Unless we assess our performance in writing, most of us take, at most, one or two vague lessons from a completed project. And as time passes, those insights fade from memory. It may be months or years before we start a new project that resembles the one we just completed, and by then, any insights we gleaned the last time around are long gone (if they were any good in the first place). Left to our own devices, we’re likely to make many of the same mistakes again.

By taking a few minutes to conduct a personal project post-mortem, we ensure we’re thinking through a freshly-finished project in a systematic way and writing down helpful takeaways while they’re still clear in our minds.

Plus, it’s kinda fun! I just did one (it took a little less than 30 minutes), and here’s the approach I took.

How to conduct a personal project post-mortem

I recently completed a long personal project (15 months), and I decided to conduct a post-mortem on it. The project didn’t end the way I’d initially hoped, and to be honest, I was dreading this exercise. But I bravely forged ahead, ever your intrepid guide, and it ended up being half an hour well-spent.

I used my personal journal for the exercise, and I adapted my process from Seth Morris’ excellent article on StickyMinds. Here’s what I did:

  1. Create a rough timeline of the project. Start and end dates plus any significant milestones.
  2. Break the timeline up into phases. Looking back on the life of the project, where were the beginning, middle, and end? Were there other important phases?
  3. Identify successes, failures, and “themes” of the project. What went well, and what didn’t? Listen to your gut: what words come to mind when you think of this project?
  4. Distill 1-3 lessons learned. Keep it simple. What would you like Future You to remember the next time you tackle a project like this one?

I plan to conduct more of these on future projects, but if my initial experience is typical, a personal project post-mortem is a quick way to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of a completed project. It takes only a few minutes of focused thinking, and when you’re finished, you’ve got a useful guide to ensure your work gets even better the next time.