Scope Down And Break Down Your New Year’s Resolutions
With the increasing complexity of modern applications and services, many of us software engineers have gotten used to two essential rituals before any project starts: scoping down and breaking down. Why not apply them to our New Year’s resolutions?
Isn’t it March already?
Precisely! And where are you at with the goals set at the beginning of the year? We’ve (or at least I have) all done this: Spent hours creating the perfect plan for the year and feeling pumped. “I’m going to get fit, learn how to play piano. Oh! Oh! Might as well throw in reading 10 books to the list”, you told yourself. However, after a few weeks of making little progress, you began to feel disheartened. Then maybe an unexpected project suddenly popped up with a closing deadline, you started to work a little overtime until one day, you woke up just in time for another round of resolutions. Sounds familiar?
What’s wrong with me?
Not sure how many of you are in the same boat but whenever I missed a goal, quite often I felt disappointed in myself and tried to root cause why.
At first, I thought it’s simple: I didn’t spend enough time working on the goals. “Maybe being a weekend warrior is not enough, I need to spare some time for them during weekdays as well”, I told myself. So I adjusted my sleeping habit, tried to get up a little earlier for my goals and even created a 7-day schedule so that I would wake up knowing which area I would focus on for a given weekday. Sadly, I later realized that this was still not enough to keep me motivated and I began to wonder: “Maybe it’s my lack of willpower? Otherwise, why do I always feel like procrastinating, even for those topics I’m interested in?” As a mature human being, it’s reasonable for me to take the responsibility for my own failures, right? Actually, not 100% true.
It’s the goals!
Of course we should take some responsibilities when failing to meet a goal. However, “what are the goals“ is an equally fundamental and even more thought-provoking question.
Studies have shown that willpower might be a limited resource and after resisting repeated temptations, your willpower get fatigued from overuse.
a growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.
When a goal is complex, ambiguous and daunting, such as becoming a songwriter, our natural reaction is to procrastinate because our brains don’t even know where and how to start, not to mention accomplishing it.
This is where scoping and breaking down our goals come in.
An interesting observation I have as a software engineer is: humans tend to underestimate the complexity and the amount of effort that goes into almost any endeavor. Consider double your initial estimate or in other words, scope down your goal by half. Same principal applies to our New Year’s resolutions. For example, if your initial plan is to read 10 books this year, then reduce it to 5. Having a scoped-down goal and gradually making progress toward it is much more effective than setting an ambitious, unattainable target and end up giving up.
The idea is simple: Break down a complex or difficult goal into tasks such that each does not require too much willpower execute. For example, to complete a cover song, it may require at least the following phases:
- Lay down the rhythms
- Record the melody
- Record vocals
- Mix them to produce the final result
We can further decompose them to make it even more approachable, such as breaking down “record vocals” into “record the verse”, “record the bridge”, “record the chorus”, “record the second verse”. Once the goal has been broken down into enough tasks with appropriate granularity, you’ll usually have a fairly good grasp on how long each task will take and feel good when you check off one, knowing that you are one step closer to the finish line.
This is such a simple and productive principal I’ve been using everyday at work so I was actually really surprised to realize that I hadn’t been apply it in other aspects of my life until reading the book, slash written by Susan Kuang.
Success is not black and white
Don’t get discouraged if you miss some of your New Year’s resolutions, that’s natural. The important thing is: You’ve made progress! Getting started and maintain that momentum is way more doable, effective and rewarding than trying to be “perfect” on your goals.
Lastly, don’t try to work on all your goals at the same time. I’ve been there and most likely the attempt will fail because you will end up making so little progress in a few areas but none of them gives you enough incentive to continue.