Two “Magic Rules” for Achieving Great Things

Ok, I lie – but it got your attention.

This week I want to talk about the two most important rules you can follow if you want to deliver great work and hit goals. Regardless of whether they’re software projects, books you want to write, or exams you want to pass. They are utterly underwhelming…

Rule 1: Start doing it

Rule 2: Keep doing it until you finish

There you go, I told you they were underwhelming!

However, I want to go a little deeper (otherwise this would be a very short post).

Failure to start is one of the biggest reasons people don’t do things. How many times have you planned to do something one evening only to get home and fail to do it? The reason (according to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits) is because it takes energy and effort to start doing things. Far too often our brains follow a pre-programmed pattern to avoid decision fatigue. Do you want to go running tonight or watch television? What do you need to do to start running? You’ll need to get changed, then you’ll need to find your trainers, then you’ll need to actually do the running… oh, and then there’s the shower. But the TV remote is just there.

In his book James describes ways to reduce the friction required to take on these individual habits and actions and make them easier to do day to day. I do this myself. I want to listen to audiobooks each day, so I leave my headphones by the side of my bed so they’re the first thing I pick up each morning. If you want to go for a run after work then put your kit on your bed before you leave in the morning – or even better put it on before you leave the office so it’ll actually be more effort not to go for a run than it will be to just get out the door!

Photo by mentatdgt on

Once you’ve got started that’s a huge step forward. But a single run doesn’t make you fit. A thousand words doesn’t make a book. So how do you keep that momentum going day after day to make progress until the work is done?

The first step is to understand what “Done” is. Is there a done? If it’s about fitness then you may be looking for a particular weight or time, but you may also be looking to maintain. If you’re building a product you may be looking for a number of active users. Just like in product management and software development we should always be clear about what we want to accomplish before we set off. We can evolve that view, but it helps to act as a beacon.

This leads directly into the motivation question. If we understand our objective we can track our progress towards it. Visibly seeing our progress towards a concrete goal is a very powerful motivational tool (as well as the other benefits of transparency and adaptibility). Burn up charts for your personal goals may seem like overkill, but they’re really not.

Here’s my burn up chart for my reading goal (you can see I actually made the goal far more ambitious because I was doing so well).

You can see I’m doing something similar with my cloud computing exams. This one isn’t going so well, and what am I going to do about it? Revalidate the goal, recalculate the effort and expectations, and then really myself. As with all things agile create transparency, inspect, and adapt.

I know this post started a little tongue in cheek but hopefully it helps and has provided some valuable tools to meet your own goals. Don’t forget, start… and then continue until you are done!

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