Successful people don’t focus on accomplishing goals. They focus on establishing systems where the byproduct are goals getting done.
I’ve heard this truth time and again. I believe it. It is a losing effort to focus on the goals we create. They are important as milestones, but it’s more important to focus on creating powerful systems. Use the system to hit your goals.
This is what I attempt to do when I want to get things done.
I create habit rituals that set me up for success. I wish that I could claim this concept as my own, but I cannot. I discovered this tool after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. One of his big takeaways in the book is the idea of habit stacking — use one habit to build on top of another successful habit. For example, you may want to go for a walk every evening. What is the best way to incorporate this new habit? Stack it on top of your dinner habit. Choose to do it either before or after eating dinner so that it becomes routine.
Success is the product of daily habits — not once-in-a-lifetime transformation.
– James clear, Atomic Habits
Once I discovered this little golden nugget, I started utilizing this technique in my professional life within the software development space. There are a few common rituals that you will find when working in product teams. You have your daily standup meeting, an end-of-sprint retro meeting, and a quarterly planning meeting. These 3 events help keep the product continuously moving towards a positive course when implemented right.
I, personally, find great value in these meetings. I wondered whether I could apply them to my own personal routines. Why couldn’t they work for own professional life if they work so well in the cloud software development space?
So I decided to give it a try.
Habit #1: Quarterly Rock Planning — Determine your big objective for the next 3 months.
The first experiment I started with was the quarterly rock planning. This is the big event that charts the course for the next 3 months. We set the X on the map and the route to get us to that treasure.
This ritual can take between several hours to a whole day whenever you have a solid product team. I borrowed the concept of “Rocks” from Geno Wickman’s Traction. In the book, Wickman suggests that the leadership team should do quarterly rock planning. It is a whole structured event where everyone gathers to review the past 3 months and plan the next 3 months. Did you hit your goals? What were the issues that you discovered along the journey? What objective would you like to get done in the next 3 months?
This is a fun and tiresome meeting, even when you have a small product team. Everyone has an opinion on how things are going and where they want to take the product. There should be available data to review to confirm whether your initiatives were a success. It’s a great time for debate and a refocus on your product goals.
How did I incorporate this ritual into my own personal life?
I’ll admit. It was lonely. But it was much shorter. I did debate with myself. Luckily, I wasn’t in a public place for people to experience my heated arguments with myself. It was a little awkward, but I found it to be a useful hour spent of my life.
I added a personal appointment on my calendar right after lunch. I like meetings immediately after lunch because I have my energy flowing from working in the morning, and I’m relaxed after a good lunch. It’s a good time to get into a flow state.
During the personal time, I reviewed some data from the previous 3 months. I noticed that I was all over the map when it came to my own professional goals. One week, I decided that I would build a new app. The next week, I spent all my time networking on LinkedIn. The 3rd week, I ignored all my own professional development and spent it all doing client work.
It was a very scattered quarter of the year, and it wasn’t good.
So I created an objective for the quarter. It was a problem that I wanted to solve. In reality, It doesn’t really matter what the objective was. It is more important to have a direction to follow.
The objective helped clear the noise and shiny objects around me. If a new idea or an urgent request came across my table, I reviewed whether it would help accomplish my objective. I’ll put in the backlog to get done for the quarter when it did. I put it into a wishlist or ignored it when it didn’t.
It is easier to make good decisions whenever you are working towards something bigger than the present.
Habit #2: Biweekly Reviews — Review your progress towards your big objective.
Once I had my big objective, it was important to make sure I stayed on course. It is easy in the busyness of our daily life to lose direction of where we want to go. It happens even when we are laser-focused on bigger objectives. We can get so into the trees that we lose sight of the forest.
In the world of Scrum, a product team will have an end-of-sprint retro. Teams use the retro as an opportunity to review the short time-boxed period (generally 2–3 weeks) allotted to finish a defined set of work. The team gathers together to determine what went well, some challenges, and some opportunities to improve.
The goal of retrospectives is help teams to continuously improve their way of working.
— Ben Linders, Getting Value of Agile Retrospectiv
I scheduled the same post-lunch hour every other Friday on my calendar for my own retro. I used the same questions and format to structure my personal meeting with myself. I was honest about what went well, what sucked, and places where I could improve.
I wanted to make sure that I was still headed in the right direction to accomplish my rock for the quarter.
It was a success. I have conducted several of these personal retro meetings with myself and am proud to announce that they keep me on track towards my rock. I have learned a lot about my patterns and what easily distracts me. I can get so zeroed into code or some problem that hours become days.
After conducting my own personal retros, I have learned that I suck at estimating my own tasks. I don’t give enough time to the details a personal project is going to take. I assume that it can be quick as it is only X and Y, but I forget about all of the other variables. I didn’t put the time into the opportunity like I would if it were for a paid project to scope out the details.
I discovered this little nugget after conducting a biweekly personal retro. It was an easy solution to fix. Stop jumping into new personal projects without giving them the proper time to scope. If I don’t have time to scope it, I don’t have the time to do it.
Habit #3: Daily List Setup— Create a daily priority list of roadblocks and items to get done.
The final habit I implemented was my daily list setup.
I took a page from the infamous daily standup used in many agile product teams and incorporated it into my daily routine. I use daily standups with my teams to uncover any roadblocks or opportunities to solve a problem another teammate may encounter in daily work. You may find out that 2 team members are working on the same issue from different angles. The daily standup is an excellent way to uncover needs preventing the team from getting the objective done.
The standup IS NOT a manipulative management technique to uncover lazy developers. *Spoiler: All great developers are a little lazy.
Let’s be clear. It is easy for standups to morph into a way to check that the product team is doing something, but this is a big waste of time. Developers make up little things to do to sound busy. Every day is a bigger success than the previous day. This is just terrible.
We all have roadblocks. Good days where we got a lot of work done and bad days that were just total and complete crappers. We need an opportunity to be real without fear that management will threaten our livelihood.
I put a daily calendar event on my calendar right at the time I start work. I sit down in my chair, put my coffee on the desk, open my laptop and see a big reminder: “Do your hotlist, Stephen!”
I use the first 5–10 minutes to create a personal “hotlist” for myself. It serves 2 purposes for my day. It first helps me prioritize my larger rocks over the noise that comes in the day. I don’t get lost in the day and forget the big things that aren’t as urgent that need to get done. It also helps me refocus my thought process into more long-term thinking of my big rocks. Many times, I’ll have an unsolved problem or more tasks to do when I close out a day of work. It is easy to try and jump right into the problem. The hotlist reminds me that the most pressing problem isn’t always the most important item to do.