January 2016

Volume 31 Number 1


A Winning Plan

By Krishnan Rangachari | January 2016

As a developer, I struggled to be consistently productive. When work was exciting with obscure bug fixes or high-impact features, my excitement would provide a burst of energy for weeks. At other times, my desire to contribute would conflict with my inertia and unproductivity. Over the years, I’ve discovered a set of solutions that helped me uncover my “inner beast” at work and help me be reliably effective.

Inertia in the Face of Complexity

Inertia was a challenge I grappled with every week, particularly when I was asked to lead a project. I’d look busy, wait for a change of plans or deadlines, hope for a rescuer, and reply with increasingly clever versions of “I’m working on it.” I’d finally start the project a few days before the deadline, having exhausted all my energy in spinning wheels for weeks prior. While I’d often get recognized for great work, I grew tired with the sheer inefficiency of it all.

Today, instead, I just start work on some part, any part of the project; the path forward soon becomes clear.

Every day, I do the one task that can move the project forward with maximum impact. I do this by writing down on paper—the previous night—the singular, smallest, highest-impact action item for each of my top projects. This focuses my mind and eliminates distractions. And by doing this the day prior, I don’t fall into the trap of being swayed by the to-and-fro of everyday fire-drills.

I still feel overwhelmed at the beginning of every project, but I accept that overwhelmed feeling as normal and human. Instead of using it as an excuse for inaction, I use it as motivation for taking the tiniest action I can. The best way for me to deal with inertia is to acknowledge it, smile at it and finally ignore it by doing the work anyway.

Strategic Goal-setting

I also began to write down my top-five work goals on paper. I made them simple enough that a child could tell me if I achieved my aims or not, and I set a timeline for each one. For example, I’d write statements like, “I’m promoted to the senior level in my current position by March 31,” or, “I fix 10 Pri1 bugs in feature area X by April 15.”

When my goals were vague, I’d trap myself in a gray zone of unsureness and give myself the benefit of the doubt. I’d discover months later that I hadn’t lived up to my expectations for the quarter or even my whole career.

Once I wrote my goals down, I began to review them every day, as soon as I woke up. I gradually discovered that I was off-track on almost all my objectives; I could fool others at Scrum meetings, but I couldn’t let myself down every morning. Soon, I found myself cutting non-essential meetings and becoming more aware of unproductive habits.

I began to look at my life through the lens of my aspirations. The universe—my colleagues, managers, friends, complete strangers—began to present opportunities for me to hit my targets. Of course, such opportunities had always been there—I simply hadn’t noticed in the haze of a goal-less life.

Through trial-and-error, I also learned that I had to create a new objective when I was on the cusp of achieving an existing one. For example, if I’m about to achieve my promotion before March 31, I craft a new target—“I’m promoted to the principal level by Dec. 31 of next year.” If I didn’t proactively replace goals, my mind would gloat in self-congratulation for weeks.

Focusing on Wins

I found that goals and an action-oriented style by themselves weren’t enough. My mind still tried to dwell on my weaknesses. To combat this, at the end of every night, I began to track my five daily “wins”—successes that I otherwise may not have acknowledged. If I had a pressing problem area (for example, fixing my relationship with my manager), I’d make it a required task for me to jot down one success for that goal every night.

Finding wins allowed me to start appreciating the many small steps I took toward success in my mega-projects. Previously, I’d feel demotivated and inadequate when working on a long-term project; with completion weeks away, my little steps now seemed unimportant. I’d only intellectually appreciated that any project required a lot of work. By focusing on wins, I began to emotionally acknowledge all that I was pouring into it.

Within a year of beginning this inertia-blasting, goal-setting, win-finding journey, I turned from a frustrated drifter to a razor­focused success machine. In the words of one colleague, I became “a force of nature.”

Krishnan Rangachari is the career coach for hackers. Visit radicalshifts.com to download his free career success kit.