Austin Gilliam

Measuring Success

Tracking Progress

"Why am I not sticking to my goals?"

I've asked myself this question often over the last few years, especially as I became serious about tracking both my overall and weekly progress. Some weeks it was just because I was traveling for work, or I got sick, or I had to drop everything and handle a genuine emergency. But more often than not, I found myself just... deflated? Unmotivated? Tired? I didn't want to do the tasks I'd assigned myself, or I'd fallen out of love with an idea, and—

Suddenly it was next week.

This phenomenon really hit me last year, as the way I was living during the pandemic had to change, return-to-office reared its ugly head, we moved into our first house, and an additional 8 hour/week commitment popped up at work. At the time, I kept thinking of the problem in terms of me — my energy, my discipline, my priorities — that I blinded myself to every other possibility. If I had taken a step back — which I finally did while writing my 2022 Review — I would have realized that part of the problem was that I was setting myself up for failure from the beginning.

I was setting extremely detailed, numerical goals to achieve by the end of the year, with no room for the unexpected or a slip in the process. Write 750,000 words, finish these 10 games, paint 50 models, walk 7,000 steps a day. But that means 6,999 steps is a failure. There is no difference between 48 and 49 — it has to be 50, and has to be by the end of the year, and that means I need to do ~1/week or fail.

I'd essentially recreated the Waterfall model, designing everything up front and throwing down a deadline that I would never be able to meet. After a short bout of laughing at myself for not realizing it sooner, I started reevaluating my process, pushing for an Agile-like approach instead. I'm about 10 weeks into using that process, and I'm really liking it! I've had to travel for work one week, I got sick another, but I don't feel like I'm failing to achieve my goals.

Shifting Away from Deadlines

I think the three biggest changes to my process are:

  1. Tasks I failed to complete in a previous week don't stay with that week — there is no longer a concept of "going back" to a task, it just returns to the backlog.
  2. I've made a distinction between repeatable tasks — the only thing that used to be on my board — and one-off tasks that I need to do but take up my time.
  3. If I assign myself N tasks in a week and I complete N-1, the following week I'm only allowed to take on N-1 tasks.

I also changed the flow of my spreadsheet, cutting about 60% of the content in favor of a simple flow.

A quick Excalidraw doodle of my new spreadsheet flow.

Don't let the goal status on the far right confuse you — I'm not expecting to read 5 textbooks in 2023, the bars just help me visualize what I've gotten done so that I don't have to continuously parse the task stream. My priority in this new setup is flow. After 10 weeks of running this method, I've found I can comfortably get about 10 tasks done each week, and so my focus is to keep that number more or less consistent (i.e. N=10). This has been really helpful in terms of keeping my motivation up, because each week I'm able to predict what I'll get done, plan for it, and get the dopamine hit of checking all those boxes.

Since I started including one-off tasks in my backlog, I've also stopped underestimating my work as much, and even when that does happen, the work from a previous week no longer spills into the next. It's a subtle difference, but psychologically it's a major shift — instead of feeling like I'm constantly playing catch-up, each Saturday I can focus on the next week with a clean slate.

Now that my little experiment is done, and I'm pretty comfortable with the new process, I'm finally ready to commit to my 2023 Almighty List (now with less tyranny!).

The Almighty List

These are the goals I've decided to set for myself in 2023, taking the focus away from the number and placing emphasis on the intent. Since it's already March, some slight status tracking is included.

  • Reading
    • Read textbooks from my Educational Reading List, but especially ones about software architecture.
    • Read books from my Social Reading Pile, but especially ones I borrowed from other people...
  • Storytelling
    • Try new kinds of storytelling that aren't novel writing, and share it with the world!
  • Professional Development
    • Complete online courses that I've purchased, but especially ones about Docker and Kubernetes.
    • Keep my website up to date, and iterate on the process.
  • Video Games & TTRPGs
    • Publish articles in my WorldAnvil wiki that are currently sitting in draft status.
    • Complete my Starfinder campaign, The Centurion's Riddle.
    • Play video games a few hours a week, and forget about everything else!
    • Release a mod to any video game before the end of 2023.
  • Miniature Printing & Painting
    • Print models from my criminally-underutilized Patreon/Kickstarter files.
    • Paint new and existing models (slay the gray!).
  • Health & Home
    • Continue improving and decorating the house.
    • Get away from my desk and walk around — particularly outside!

Compared to where I was this time last year, it feels like a night-and-day difference, even if it might not look that way on paper. By end of Q1 2022 I'd already cancelled a task, was about to cancel another, and while I was making progress, I could feel myself slowing down — which can be seen quite evidently in the gap between Q1 2022 and end of year.

This time I feel great, and I got nearly as much done. I've already read two educational books (The Phoenix Project and Fundamentals of Software Architecture: An Engineering Approach) and three books for fun (from Naomi Novik's Temeraire series). I completed a Udemy course on Jenkins, tinkered with my website, started getting back into the modding scene, and made progress on the house. I've published over 20 articles on my wiki, and prepped, ran, and released the reports for 10 episodes of my Starfinder campaign. I've taken 10+ miles worth of walks outside (baby steps, I'm an introvert!), I'm eating better, and I'm allowing myself to relax and play a few hours of video games each week.

The three goals I'm not making progress on — storytelling, miniature printing, and miniature painting — are only stagnant because I've chosen not to start them yet. With weekly Starfinder games and me prepping to (finally) finish that campaign, I didn't overwhelm myself with new stuff to do, so I'm going to pick those up in the second half of the year.

Wrapping Up

Changing my process this year has really worked for me, but it's not a silver bullet. I still need to make sure my tasks have a consistent scope, and that I'm not focusing so hard on work and my list that I let other things in my life drop. Very recently I've started replacing 1-2 repeatable tasks each week with one-off TODOs, that include goals like taking my wife out to breakfast, or scheduling time to hang out with friends I haven't seen in a while. At first it felt silly to formally schedule those parts of my life, but I've found that it makes sure my priorities aren't too "me-centric".

And from there... We'll have to see how it goes! As long as I keep focusing on flow over the numbers, and avoid hard deadlines that don't stand up to the entropy of life, I think it's going to be just fine. But only time will tell — until then, I hope all is well with you and yours, and I'll see you in the next one!