Applying construction project management strategies to life

Applying construction project management strategies to life
Dr Gretchen Gagel inspires construction professionals to embrace a project management mindset in their approach to life. (Image:

Dr Gretchen Gagel advocates for the application of strategic plans to personal life, mirroring the organisational approach commonly employed in construction project management.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

Those of you who regularly read my Inside Construction editorials know that I try to align my thoughts with the theme of the edition. Hearing that the theme for this edition is effective project management, my mind immediately conjured up all of the elements of effective construction project management. These include putting in place a physical and mental safety plan that ensures every project team member goes home in the same condition they arrived; aligning the team on the goals and measurable objectives of the project; making sure the project schedule is achievable and that we are meeting project milestones; developing a game plan for ensuring that the quality of the construction meets the specifications and the expectations of the client.

Then I thought, wait a minute, all of these construction project management practices apply to our lives as well. My work on the Steering Committee of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT) here in Australia and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee has underscored many of the challenges I’ve witnessed in the construction industry during my 40-year career – high suicide rates, people that are stressed out and not taking care of themselves, and people not attracted to our industry.

We are incredible project managers when it comes to construction projects. Should we be applying some of these principles to our lives as well? I would argue yes and here’s why.

Physical and mental safety plans

We would never start a construction project today without a solid physical and mental safety plan in place. So why do some of us do that in our personal lives?

A dozen years ago I was CEO/president of a company, working long hours, raising two teenagers, volunteering for everything under the sun, and divorcing. During this time, I was not taking care of myself, physically or mentally. I went down hard. I developed severe heart arrhythmias, including premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) and premature atrial contractions (PACs). Essentially, all four chambers of my heart were beating out of rhythm. I learned that there are cardiologists who function like plumbers, addressing blockages, and others who act like electricians, dealing with electrical signals in our hearts. Who knew? I spent a month in bed until they found a beta blocker that controlled the problem without me passing out every time I stood up. I’m thankful I didn’t just drop dead of a heart attack.

After five years of focusing on my physical and mental health (yoga, the gym, running, more ‘me’ time), I was able to stop taking the beta blocker. Now, I only slightly experience these arrhythmias when the adrenaline of something like speaking in front of hundreds of people triggers them, or when I neglect my wellbeing routine by not getting enough sleep or not exercising. It’s like having a little stress meter in my body, and I listen to it.

We shouldn’t wait for a situation like this to ensure that we have a good physical and mental safety plan in place for ourselves. As I often say, you must put on your own oxygen mask first. You are no good to anyone – your work team or your family – if you aren’t physically and mentally safe.

Project schedules and goals/objectives

When considering a construction project schedule, we divide it into activities by trade and develop critical path schedules outlining the necessary steps in the project, their sequence and the estimated hours/days required to complete each task. We prioritise activities to meet this schedule and the ultimate deadline for the project, with the hope of completing the construction project on time.

Applying construction project management strategies to life
Dr Gretchen Gagel. (Image: Heidi Victoria)

I argue that we need to apply that same schedule discipline to our lives. We vote for our priorities with our time. Not only should we take the time to align ourselves with the goals and measurable objectives of a construction project, but we should also take the time to align on our personal goals and measurable objectives – our life priorities.

Back when this heart problem began, I started doing what I call the “pie of life” exercise. Every so often, I draw a large circle in my journal and write ‘168’ at the top. The significance of this number? It’s the number of hours in a week, and it’s the same for all of us. We all think we can blow up this ‘pie of life’ like a balloon, creating more hours, but we can’t. It’s the same for all of us.

The first time I drew the ‘pie of life’, I carved out the slice of ‘sleep’ first, but I wasn’t truly making it my top priority. I realised that, to regain my health, I needed to prioritise both sleep and exercise. Here’s a vulnerable moment. I said my family was my next most important priority, but was I voting for that with my time? Probably not, and more needed to change in my life.

We all experience weeks when the world seems to collapse, and we find ourselves spending more time at work. However, if we allow work to consistently interfere with our life priorities in the long term, we won’t find true happiness. It might even lead us to let down our project teammates or eventually leave the industry.

I encourage you to have a long-term outlook on the project plan of your life. Think about how all of our effective construction project management elements – safety, budget, schedule, quality – apply to your life to ensure that you are living life to the fullest and in line with your priorities.

Dr Gretchen Gagel is chair of Brinkman Construction (US), a member of the National Academy of Construction (US), a member of the CICT (AUS), and a member of the AGC of American Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. As president/managing director of Greatness Consulting, she continues to advise organisations within the construction industry on optimising capital program delivery and developing great leaders. You can hear more from Gretchen on her Spotify podcast, “Greatness”.

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