Austin Gilliam

2023: Tiny Systems All the Way Down

Yearly Reviews
Tracking Progress

I had to read my own check-ins two times to remember all that happened this year, and I still feel like I'm forgetting something. I visited Delaware for an off-site early in the year, back-to-back trips to New York City and St. Louis with friends and family, and finally a quick trip to Plano to attend DEVUP 2023. I took on new projects, finished some of my longest-running goals, completely revamped my tracking system not once, but twice (stay tuned!). I got burnt out, I recovered, and I completed more in a single year than I have since I started tracking my progress in late 2020.

1 / 10
The last big haul from the garden in late August, and some very stunted root vegetables.
2 / 10
A photo of me and some very smart people at Chase's internal tech conference, DEVUP 2023.
3 / 10
A beautiful July day at Alum Creek Lake in Columbus, OH.
4 / 10
Auri taking a very deep nap, right before she got a boop to make sure she was still breathing.
5 / 10
A clay pumpkin I made at a local art class in October, which I never received afterwards...
6 / 10
A fancy, stylized photo of Manhattan taken on our boat tour.
7 / 10
A view of the Statue of Liberty from our boat tour.
8 / 10
A look out to southern Manhattan from Summit ONE Vanderbilt.
9 / 10
A look out to Central Park and northern Manhattan from Summit ONE Vanderbilt.
10 / 10
A picture of the Arch as we arrived in St. Louis to visit my brother.

It was a good year, defined by the systems I put in place to keep me on track both in the office and at home. The biggest theme across them was automation — if I did a task more than a few times it became a scheduled process with alerts, and I only addressed it again if I got alerted.

This website now builds when I push the source to Github. My backlog tool at work keeps track of our velocity, and beeps at me if the team might be getting overloaded. You get the idea — the goal is to free up the mundane so that I can focus on the things that matter, like going on one-on-ones with my team or making it to dinner on time.

I could talk ad nauseam about all the little tools and scripts I've put together this year, but that's not what this blog is about (although I might make an article about them in the future — they're really cool, I promise!).

To the Almighty List!

The Almighty List

This year is a little different than previous years, since I'm tracking goals with a focus on flow over numeric achievements. For a goal to be considered complete, it's a mix between achieving the tangible outcome and/or my own satisfaction with the progress made — subjective but effective for my purposes. For example, I definitely painted some minis this year, but those 3-4 minis don't offset my shelves full of unpainted plastic.

Of the 13 major goals I set at the beginning of 2023, I stayed true to 8 of them, and the other 5 I either didn't touch or barely engaged with.

  • 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!

Outside of the goals I didn't touch, I'm pretty happy with my progress: I completed 382 tasks, up from 260 in 2022, and 178 in 2021. Some of the metric growth can be attributed to better estimation year-over-year and making sure I'm tracking what I should, but not enough to negate the upward trend. My average velocity was 7.35 tasks/week, largely driven by the first three quarters before I needed to take a break and focus on some things at work.

A bar chart of tasks I've taken on per week in 2023, and whether they were completed (green), carried over (blue), or cancelled (yellow). The red X's mark where I broke my own rules, and took on more tasks than I should've. Weeks surrounded in parentheses are where I took a vacation or had a work trip.

The goals that suffered fit into one of two categories: those hindered by my lack of an efficient workshop — painting and 3D printing — and those that required a similar kind of energy that I was spending elsewhere — storytelling vs. GMing The Centurion's Riddle, programming at work vs. at home, long days at work vs. my physical energy to get around.

My system for 2024 is hopefully going to address those gaps, but I think achieving my health goals is more about getting my priorities straight over anything I could put in a spreadsheet. But before I get too far down that rabbit hole, let's get to the highlights!

The Highlights

As discussed in my Q2 review, arguably my biggest hobby achievement this year was finishing The Centurion's Riddle — the final saga in a roughly 12-year campaign that I've been telling with my close friends since highschool. It was a bittersweet ending, saying goodbye to the characters and places that have lived in my head for so long, but on the other hand it feels good to be moving onto new things, and new ways to tell stories. I finished up content creation for it just this past week with Tragedy, a borderline novella-sized story that encapsulates all the plot points I couldn't fit into the ending at the table, and hints at a happy ending for my player's characters.

The final encounter of The Centurion's Riddle, terrain crafted over the weekend by yours truly, from the foam insert stolen from a Solo Stove box.

Switching over to learning, I spent a lot of time chewing through my educational courses backlog this year, but I didn't complete any of them. I had to hop back and forth between topics depending on what was going on at work, and the courses I pursued this year were pretty large (30-50 hours of content each). Still, the point of the goal was to learn, and I definitely did that!

What I read from my 2023 Educational Reading List.

The same is true of the educational books I read this year — an astute reader may observe that this list is no different than the one I showed in Q2. I have started a few, notably The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost and Engineering Management for the Rest of Us by Sarah Drasner, but after Q2 I had switched most of my learning energy over to the courses, so finishing them will have to be a task for 2024.

What I read from my 2023 Social Reading List.

My social reading list tells a similar story, with all of these books being addressed in my Q3 review except for Gosu, but only because most of the reading I did in Q4 were manga/manwha that aren't complete yet. I've recently caught up with both Jujutsu Kaisen and The Player Who Can't Level Up, and am keeping tabs on the latest from My Hero Academia as it rounds out its final arc.

The games I played in 2023.

My guilty pleasure this year was definitely video games — according to my 2023 Steam Review and Nintendo Switch statistics, I spent close to 500 hours playing games this year, a.k.a. roughly 1.4 hours/day. A third of that was spent in Elder Scrolls Online earlier this year, but once I hit my Aldmeri Dominion run it was time to try other games. Kingdoms of Amalur and Tears of the Kingdom made up another third of that playtime in the early months of the year, played in between ESO sessions. After that I did two runs of Baldur's Gate III (a lawful good Tav run, and a sinister Durge run) and am currently working my way through a Street Kid run of Cyberpunk 2077.

I highly recommend BG3 to anyone who's curious, it is without question the game of the year for 2023. I can also recommend Cyberpunk 2077 after the 2.0 update, I haven't faced any of the problems encountered by others during the infamous 1.0 release. In addition to the two incomplete games above, I plan to pick up more indie games next year, and have decided I'll probably give Starfield a pass.

And... That's it for 2023! But unlike last year, I actually have something to share about what's coming next, and my system for 2024.

My Goals and System for 2024

After switching to my flow-focused approach earlier this year and getting critical about my tracking system, I had four problems with the way I organize tasks:

  1. There was no concept of story points in my system, everything was sized so it's roughly 1 "point".
  2. Most of my goals ran through the whole year, meaning I couldn't finish most of them until December — a.k.a. they occupied a bit of my brain space all year.
  3. One week started feeling too small for a cycle, as any planning I did was easily undone by illness or an emergency.
  4. The spreadsheet I use required a lot of manual labor to maintain.

I had opted for simplicity when putting my tracking system together in late 2020, and through my revisions I've tried to honor that design constraint. However, now that this is something I'm keeping an eye on pretty much daily, a few minutes of manual labor each session adds up fast.

It also meant I spent a lot of time breaking tasks down into their smallest components, even when that didn't really make a lot of sense. I can break down a 3-pointer about reading a textbook by assigning 1/3 of the book to each task, but doing that to a house repair task with set cure times and contractor engagement is a little more nebulous. The new system I put together tweaks these three things:

  1. I'm allowing tasks to have 1, 3, 5, or 8 points.
  2. I have two kinds of goals, those that run all year (usually a habit-forming goal) and those that are definitively done by measure of a tangible objective.
  3. My cycles are now two weeks long, ending on Saturdays.
  4. I made a new spreadsheet with macros and helper sheets that automate all the repeatable tasks I was doing each day.

In other words, I've created Jira with fewer bells and whistles, and a UI that doesn't make me pull my hair out.

When I finished setting everything up, it just clicked for me. It was easy to start planning out my goals and assigning tasks to them, and I spent about 8 hours over this vacation building up a backlog. While the tasks themselves aren't complete, my goals can be summarized by the 2024 Almighty List.

  • Reading
    • Read textbooks from my Educational Reading List.
    • Read books from my Social Reading Pile.
  • Professional Development
    • Complete the web design course I started last year.
    • Review lesson material for renewing my AWS Solutions Architect certification in 2025.
    • Keep my website up to date, and iterate on the process.
  • Game Development
    • Publish a very simple 2D game to Steam, currently dubbed Project Blackblood.
    • Start work on a 3D RPG, currently dubbed Project Redwood.
  • Video Games & TTRPGs
    • Play video games a few hours a week, and forget about everything else!
    • Craft stuff for the tabletop games I play in, or pieces for the board games I own.
  • Health & Home
    • Start a house maintenance routine, and stick to it.
    • Build a garden in the backyard — no really, go full homestead.
    • Finish decorating the game/craft room in the basement.
    • Finish setting up the workshop in the basement.
    • Finish building the library (or get someone else to do it).
    • Remodel the guest bathroom, before my wife burns it down.
    • Finish remodeling the butler's pantry, before the butler moves in.
    • Finish setting up my wood shop in the garage.
    • Get away from my desk and walk around — particularly outside!

While some goals are carryover from last year, of note are the multitude of house remodel projects slated for 2024, and a growing interest in game development as a new way to tell stories. I'm also dropping my recurring 3D printing goal until I get my basement workshop setup, which may not be fully complete until Q4 2024. I've also got to start studying for renewing my Solutions Architect Associate certification, although part of me is thinking it might make sense to just study for the Professional certification instead...

I'll see how I feel after a few more weeks back at work. ;)

Wrapping Up

And that's a wrap! Sorry for the long one, 2023 was jam-packed.

I hope all is well with you and yours, and I'll see you in the next one.