Almost everyone in tech knows “agile” — the technique for managing software development projects divided into short iterations called sprints. Spotify, Atlassian, IBM and other big names use agile for managing software development projects divided into short iterations called agile sprints. It helps them stay on their toes, adapt to change, and stay ahead of the game.
So why aren’t we using agile to rock our personal goals, too?
This is exactly what I wondered when I first came across the agile concept while studying at MIT. I was pretty intrigued and decided to give it a try at my startup. We were building this cool pipeline for processing satellite imagery, and let me tell you, agile sprints were a game-changer for us.
And then a lightbulb went off in my head: we were nailing our projects, adapting to changes, and just crushing it as a team. If agile worked so well for our startup, I thought, couldn’t it help us all become more focused, adaptable, and successful in our personal lives?
When I sold my startup, finding an answer to this question became urgent. At 23 I was the youngest executive in the global aerospace industry, building satellites in NASA in Silicon Valley. I was young, successful, but utterly miserable. I knew I needed to find a sustainable solution to maintain my growth while also enjoying life. So I dove headfirst into neuroscience research.
The result of my search was NeuroSprints — a whole new approach I created to tackling personal goals and dreams. It takes the best bits from agile, adds a dash of neuroscience and empowers us to move toward our goals and dreams one sprint at a time.
Using NeuroSprints changed my life. I grew my career, developed new hobbies, traveled the world, and even found love and started a family. In the past few years they’ve helped over 27 000 individuals from 40+ countries transform their lives, careers, and relationships.
So how does it work?
Step #1. Ditch Long-Term Goals
In the fast-changing environment long-term goals are counterproductive. They keep us trapped on a path that no longer aligns with our needs.
What’s more, long-term goals are not effective for our brain. There’s this study from UC Berkeley that showed we’re better at reaching goals when we can actually see the finish line. When the finish line is far in the distance, it’s harder to stay motivated. Also research in psychology and neuroscience shows that shorter, focused bursts of effort are more effective than trying to slog through long, drawn-out projects.
That’s why the 3-week sprint is such a game-changer – it’s perfectly aligned with how our brains like to work. Three-week sprints are long enough to get something meaningful done but short enough to keep the finish line in sight and motivation up.
And because they’re short, NeuroSprints come with stakes that aren’t as high as with long-term goals. This takes off the pressure and resistance we often feel when facing big, daunting goals and allows us to jump in without fearing failure.
Step #2. Plan your Sprint
Each NeuroSprint focuses on three projects that you work on for three weeks.
The first project is your Growth Project, which revolves around pursuing new opportunities and challenging yourself. For example, you can apply for a promotion that you’ve hesitated to pursue due to fear of failure or learn a new software program or tool relevant to your work or personal interests
The second project is your Joy Project, which is all about dedicating time to savor life as it is right now. You can take a few classes of a new creative hobby, like calligraphy, plan a “staycation” for a weekend or host a themed dinner party or game night.
The third project is your Foundation Project, which supports your physical and mental health, enabling you to experience both joy and growth. You can work on improving your sleep, completing several workouts or practicing mindfulness.
Once you’ve picked your three projects, break down each project into a list of tasks. For example, if you have decided to work through a relationship challenge, your list might include “find a counselor,” and “talk to my partner about my wish to work through this.”
Then, estimate how much time each task will take to complete. I recommend keeping the total time budget for all tasks for all 3 projects to approximately 30 hours. Why 30 hours? Attempting major life changes can be overwhelming, and our nervous system might resist these changes. With NeuroSprints, we introduce small, manageable changes impacting no more than 10% of our life each month while keeping the other 90% the same. This gradual approach allows for substantial growth in the long run without triggering resistance.
When you subtract sleep time, one week is approximately 100 hours. The sprint is 3 weeks long, so it’s 300 waking hours. Ten percent of that — 30 hours — is your recommended time budget for all three projects in your sprint. If you find you’re exceeding this, you may need to simplify some tasks or move some to the next sprint.
Step #3. Execute on your Plan
Now comes the fun part – diving into your projects! With your three projects broken down into manageable tasks, it’s time to get cracking. For each task, set specific time blocks in your daily schedule.
Sprints are all about imperfect but consistent progress. The idea here is to make mistakes but maintain momentum. If you stumble, remember it’s all part of the process. Use any hiccups as learning experiences to improve your strategy moving forward.
Check your progress on a weekly basis and adjust your plan if needed. Sometimes, tasks may take more or less time than estimated, or unexpected roadblocks might appear. It’s important to stay flexible and adapt your plan as needed.
Step #4. Integrate & Iterate
Once you’ve wrapped up your 3-week sprint, it’s time for an integration week. Think of it as a little breather where you can process your experience, learn from both your successes and failures, and plan your next sprint based on all that juicy wisdom. Studies have found that this kind of deliberate practice and reflection can lead to major improvements in performance. This way, you get to iterate and adjust your approach, setting yourself up for even more success next time.
This whole cycle – sprinting for 3 weeks, integrating for 1 – happens 12 times a year. That’s a solid rhythm for personal transformation. And with a little help from neuroscience and psychology, it’s a recipe for a great life!
In working with my students at NeuroIntegration Institute, I’ve seen people using NeuroSprints to launch businesses and nonprofits, to write novels and to produce films, to train for marathons and to lose weight, to learn coding and foreign languages, and even to plan their weddings.
Over to you to give it a try!
Katerina Lengold is the founder of the Neurointegration Institute. Her career transformed from space tech entrepreneur to brain researcher and mental health advocate. By the age of 23, Katerina sold her space tech startup, ImageAiry, and had become the youngest executive in the world aerospace industry. After severe burnout, she turned her interest from launching satellites to studying the human brain. A graduate of MIT, Katerina started college at age 14 and holds multiple degrees, including in computer science, business administration, economics and data science. She also received a certificate in interpersonal Neurobiology from the Mindsight Institute.