The Power of Small Goals

I am an overachiever.

I’ve always set out to excel at things, and I’m not particularly ambitious or choosy about what those things are.

Working the breakfast shift in a hotel kitchen was definitely not what my parents hoped for me when I got my degree in Environmental Earth Sciences – but in everyday ways, I exceeded every expectation. I was the fastest pot washer at every pub and restaurant. I watched youtube tutorials on how to make the best lattes and cappuccinos at a small cafe. I was the most social, helpful, hardworking person everywhere I went, and to be anything less was unacceptable.

I have constantly guessed what expectations people have of me, and tried to exceed them according to those assumptions. And it worked for a really long time.

The problem is that the constant guessing gets exhausting almost as quickly as the work. Every step feels like both a million miles and none: because whether or not it’s a step towards success is all in my head. I made it up! This has gotten worse with time: the more people I know in the industry, the more I learn about testing, the higher people’s regard of me… the larger and less achievable those made-up expectations become.

I must be:

  • An expert on agile practices
  • A test automator
  • A continuous learner
  • An explorer
  • The team glue
  • A blogger
  • A videographer
  • An artist
  • A speaker
  • A legend
  • Somehow also a functioning human being

Oh. My. Days.

I can’t be all of those. I’m not all of those, and in the attempt I have felt like none of them. A shit tester, a shit artist, a shit writer, and not at all worthy of the title ‘Legend’.

I started dropping plates all over the shop. I dropped out of work commitments and social events, posted only one blog post all last year, stopped joining the Testers Hangout and retreated into a spiky shell of despair. Instead of being reasonably okay at all the things, I was a failure at everything because I couldn’t be exceptional.

I am in the very slow process of getting access to mental health services in the UK. The last few months have been a real struggle. The tide swallows me, and every hill is a mountain. Every task broken down into smaller parts is just a massive pile of tasks on fire.

Two panel comic with title "Break down task to smaller pieces". Panel 1. Expectation is many small blocks covering a llava pit so that it can be walked over. Panel 2. Reality is a pile of burning blocks sitting in the llava pit.

“But Bruce, you gave a really awesome keynote at AgileTD recently, you’re doing great!”

I know! It was so awesome! I picked my battle, hopefully knocked it out of the park, and then proceeded to quietly melt down for the rest of the year. Not ideal, but yeah: Bruce sure can Bruce when people are looking.

Taking Responsibility.

So I have to take this into my own hands, and claim responsibility for the problem: me. Not me not being good enough, but me expecting more of myself than is kind or consistently achievable.

That’s why my new year’s resolution this year is to achieve little, often and thoughtfully. To do exactly what I need to do and not one iota more.

I am focussing more on asking questions and knowing exactly what people want from me – “Can you do X?” “Sure, can you be more specific?” – then managing tasks from there, as opposed to facing the mountain of self-inflicted expectations every time someone asks me to put the kettle on.

Small Goals.

My personal goals right now are to get out of the house more and write a little of my fantasy novel every day. In the past, I’ve set goals like ‘walk 10,000 steps’ or ‘write 1,000 words’ which are great when they work – and an awful downward spiral when they fail. If you already know you’re not going to meet 10,000 today, why bother trying for 3,000? If you don’t feel inspired, 1,000 words is a slog so you don’t bother writing even 10.

Since my goal is to leave the house, I’ve literally made that the benchmark. If I get dressed and step outside the front foor with both feet on the ground, then instantly turn around and go back inside, that is a success. Go Bruce! Wooooo! The crowd goes wild!

This works for me because the act of going for a walk is not just that. It’s about getting dressed, knowing where my headphones are, knowing what route to use to avoid Bicycle Man who followed me a few times in the park…

A small goal makes the first steps to achieving it much easier. Do I want to go through the herculean task of getting dressed just so I can do another even bigger task straight afterwards? No, I do not.

Two panel comic. Panel 1. A small hill labelled getting dressed, with a large cliff looming behind labelled ten thousand steps. Bruce stands at the start. Panel 2. A small hill labelled getting dressed, and sunshine behind labelled whatever I can. Bruce is skipping into the distance.

It is infinitely more achievable to get dressed when it is the only thing I need to do. Just get dressed and pop the front door open. And, you know, if I get there and it’s nice and I fancy a walk, well that’s nice too. Just so happens that I am appropriately dressed for a gander round the park: but if I go out there and all I want is a nap, there’s no shame. Goal met.

This might seem like I’m setting myself up for failure, but I’m trying to work around my own psyche. Tricking the Bruce. To be truthful, getting dressed is not always easy. It’s not even easy to get out of bed, and once I’m up I always end up going back. It is a siren calling me into the deep ocean.

So far this year, I have left the house 11 times. On the 7th, I planned to stand on the doorstep for a few moments to breathe before coming inside, but once I was out there it suddenly didn’t seem so daunting to go for a walk. I went, and it was cold but refreshing. It felt good.

If my goal had been 10,000 steps then I would not have gotten out the door, and I would have felt rubbish. I achieved the goal, and I feel good, which means I won’t give up. I’ll go outside tomorrow, and the day after.

Don’t give them the headspace.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if I have a big task or goal to meet for the day, it takes up a lot of space in my head.

Remember you need to write some more of your novel, Bruce.

It’s like you don’t even want to finish it.

You could have got 100 words done in that tea break if you’d tried.

Lunch time is not the time to think about what you should have for lunch, try being productive for once!

And when I have things taking up a lot of space in my head, I procrastinate. Knowing that I needed to write the book meant I couldn’t focus on work or doing the dishes, but I also couldn’t write the book.

Small goals have so far taken that voice all the way down. I need to write 300 words per day. If I get that out of the way in the morning, I can just… not think about it any more? It’s amazing how much time the day seems to have, when you’re not spending every minute paralysed by guilt and torn between the many tasks you have to do.

I’ve written more in the last 11 days than I did in the two months before, when I swear I was thinking about it so much, really putting on the pressure to do something.

I did a little testing around word counts, found that 100 was achievable but bad for flow: writing a couple of paragraphs at a time just doesn’t leave me feeling good. On the other hand, 500 is daunting when I’m uninspired and don’t feel like writing.

300 is the perfect bear porridge. It’s 100 words three times. I’m confident that even on really bad days I should be able to put out this much. Like yesterday! It was a really bad day. It got to 9pm and I caught myself thinking: there’s just no time left to do anything; I don’t know what to write; I always knew I was going to fail; maybe I’ll write twice as much tomorrow instead… But I sat down in bed and picked a place, and wrote. Once I got to 300 words, I texted Chris (Armstrong) to say so, and his celebration cheered me up. I had done it! And though I wasn’t in a place to feel super great about it at the time, today’s Bruce is incredibly proud.

In summary, my goal this year is simply not to fail, and I hope that by the end of the year I can look back and say that in not failing, I actually succeeded. I left the house; I wrote that book; I did everything my team needed me to do, and also cleaned the dishes.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Small Goals”

  1. I can relate to a lot of this (especially the bit about getting on with writing a book). I’ve found that the trick that works for me is to go along with all the demands that I put on myself and those that others try to load on me, and then get to a point where I just have to say to others, “Sorry, I plead guilty to Having a Life.” (And sometimes you just have to recognise that Stuff Happens and something else has to be parked. There’s no shame in that.)


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