Life, Inc.

You can achieve personal goals by taking a businesslike approach. What does it take to make the company Me, Myself, and I a success?

As the plane hummed its way to Philadelphia, Leigh Morgan pulled out the diagram of her six "life businesses." The names in the circles, ranging from Spiritual Practice Inc. to Scorpio Adventures, symbolize what she's committed to - personally, professionally, and financially.

On her way to a meeting, she decided it was time to do her annual ROI - the analysis of each business's "return on investment."

Ms. Morgan, a global project leader for the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park, N.C., drew the diagram four years ago, after a workshop on applying business tools to life planning.

Ever since, she says, "I've been very intentional about linking my financial resources to what really brings me happiness. One of the things I learned is that you really don't need a lot of money to feed your soul."

It may sound odd to feed the soul by plotting out one's deepest aspirations in a strategy matrix or a spreadsheet. But as Morgan found, business tools can be useful for identifying what you love - and making sure your time, money, and energy follow.

Her teachers were John Eckblad and David Kiel, organizational consultants in North Carolina who have been refining this "Life Business" metaphor for the past 20 years.

They take specific methods businesses use - to clarify goals and budget their resources, for instance - and then translate them into a personal context. After conducting hundreds of workshops with people inside and outside the corporate world, they have now detailed their 13-step plan in a book: "If Your Life Were a Busi- ness, Would You Invest in It?" (McGraw-Hill).

Although the authors aren't financial planners, their work overlaps with a relatively new movement in the field, says Keith Fevurly, executive director of the Certificate in Financial Planning Program at Kaplan College in Denver. "It revolves around ... looking at money not just for money's sake, but asking, 'What psychological value and importance do I put on money? What can it do for me as it relates to my life?' "

Every conference of financial planners includes some discussion of this holistic view, Mr. Fevurly says, but "it's still a minority [perhaps 10 to 20 percent] who are trying to incorporate life planning into their practice."

Like other life-planning advocates, Drs. Eckblad and Kiel encourage people to look beyond conventional wisdom that sometimes scares them into overestimating how much they'll need for retirement.

"We counsel investing now in your skills and your relationships and your health, to such a point that you can live those parts of your life fully when you finally get there. It's not without regard for savings, but it's putting an emphasis on looking for reward now, as a corporation would," Eckblad says.

When Morgan took the Life Business workshop four years ago, she was skeptical about doing an ROI on her personal life, she says, because at its worst, the phrase can mean putting profits above all else.

But the point was to measure her "returns" according to her own values. "Does it really jazz me where I put my money?" she asked herself. "Do I get a good return on my emotional investment by spending money and time to go on vacation, or would I rather spend it cultivating relationships in my neighborhood association?"

The businesses Morgan identified focus on friends and family, spiritual growth, progressing at work, and being active in her community. And she added another priority to her list when feedback during the three-day seminar helped her see how much she craved adventure travel. "I realized that it can be expensive," she says, "but spending my money on that is exactly what I want to do because it really brings me a lot of joy; it fits with my personality."

After an Outward Bound trip yielded a high return last year, Morgan started eyeing a mountain-biking camp in the Moab desert. And she recently added National Geographic Traveler to her list of subscriptions. She sees the price, about $15, as an investment in Scorpio Adventures, the life business she named after her astrological sign.

For more than a decade, companies have offered workshops on applying management concepts outside the office, all under the rubric of work-life balance.

"Especially in the boom times, there was a real concern about people not being able to manage their lives, that that would ultimately be unhealthy in sustaining the workforce," says Jan English-Lueck, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University in California.

When coaching managers, consultant David Allen of Ojai, Calif., says he spends roughly equal amounts of time on business and personal issues. His advice ranges from practical tips for sorting e-mail to the long-term questions. "The big one," he says, "is 'Why are you on the planet? What's the purpose of the company, or what's the purpose of you as a human being?' "

The best place to find individuals applying business strategies to their personal lives is probably California's work-centric Silicon Valley, says Dr. English-Lueck, who has been studying the culture for 12 years.

She observed one man "organizing Thanksgiving dinner with a Gantt chart - something used in engineering and management that lists the tasks and when you do what."

When personality tests were all the rage in the workplace, they showed up in relationships, too. "People would joke, 'I learned how to talk to my wife by going through this seminar on how to work with a difficult colleague,' " says English-Lueck.

One downside to the pervasiveness of business metaphors, she says, is that it tends to reinforce a cultural bias toward work as supremely important. "It supports the idea that work equals morally good - and that's very limiting, because there are other kinds of good out there that we rarely talk about."

The language of business does have its limits, says Vic Cocowitch, a leadership consultant in Chapel Hill, N.C., who took the Life Business workshop two years ago.

"I could talk about my son as a business proposition, but he's not," he says. What the metaphor does, though, is help him devote more time to what he's been "underinvesting" in, including building relationships with his 5-year-old son, Kyle, and his 3-year-old daughter, Anya.

Before this planning effort, Mr. Cocowitch says, "the financial part of my life ... was all in one bucket called 'Oh my gosh - what do I need to do with my future?' " Now, instead of focusing narrowly on the money he needs to retire, he asks his financial planner, "How can I figure out how to fund these businesses?"

One of those businesses is called Me, Myself, and I. It includes hiring a personal trainer and planning a small sabbatical - 49 days off because Cocowitch is 49 years old. After 16 years of independent consulting and traveling, he felt nearly burnt out. "I was crispy," Cocowitch jokes. To fund the break, he and his wife chose a cheaper life insurance plan and created a rental apartment above the garage.

His wife also took the workshop and created some of her own "businesses." Together, they've taken ownership of "Pop-up Camper" - family travel plans.

Another business, Tap Root, focuses Cocowitch's desire to spend more time with his family and local community. But to carve out that time, he had to identify his internal board of directors - aspects of himself that helped or hindered his goals.

"I had one guy named Default Dan - the guy that would say 'yes' to clients [and traveling] just because I felt like I needed the financial security." In the power hierarchy of his board of directors, Default Dan got demoted.

The major Tap Root project right now is creating a walking path with Kyle. They've had good conversations as they've planted flowers along the route that winds through their 2-1/2 acre property.

"I might have missed [this experience], if I hadn't stopped and given it some real attention," Cocowitch says.

Before you write your own 'annual report'

Envisioning your life as a cluster of businesses, blossoming and evolving over time, implies a long-term commitment to investing in them and periodically reviewing their success. But to get started, you don't need to already have a 10-year plan, or even a one-year plan, mapped out.

The first steps can be likened to writing an annual report, which in the business world includes the company's mission statement, its expenses and income, and an analysis of the return on its investments.

Here are some recommendations for putting these concepts to work as you become your own CEO, drawn from "If Your Life Were a Business, Would You Invest in It?" by John Eckblad and David Kiel.

Review the past year. Look at financial records, calendars, and journals. List the amount of time you spent on recurring activities, special one-time events, and relationships. Account for where your money came from and where it went.

Do this over the span of a week or two so you have time to reflect. Consider questions such as what skills you used during the year and which people helped you the most.

Discover and name your life businesses. Cut out images and words from magazines and create a collage that depicts your past year and your values. Cluster your activities into five or six groups to show what your main commitments are - hobbies, relationships, personal or professional growth, etc. On the basis of these clusters, create names and definitions that sum up the essence of your life businesses.

You might choose Homestead Enterprises if running the family household is a key part of your life. Or if you're devoted to art projects, music, and cultural outings in your free time, you might call that business AIM (Artist in Me).

Assess your businesses. In one chart, show how much you spend on each business. Homestead Enterprises could include everything from lawn-care expenses to the food budget. Some of your businesses, on the other hand, might bring in revenue.

You should also note the percentage of time spent on each business. When totaled it should not exceed 100 percent.

Finally, you can chart what's called a Got/Gone ratio. Try to estimate how much "return" you get on the energy you put into your businesses. Perhaps AIM is 2:1 because you get so much joy from playing a musical instrument for a short amount of time.

Think about whether these businesses are sustainable and for how long. Consider whether they reflect your core values.

Once you know what businesses you are in, you can decide how much further you want to go in using tools from the corporate world for everything from budgeting to strategic planning.

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