Hashtag Goals

It has been nearly 18 months (72 weeks if you're a new parent) since I started working as a full-time Software Dev. Though this is not my first job ever, this is my first job after graduating. It has been an interesting ride so far and I enjoy coming into work. But as with anything, there are days when I'd rather be doing anything else. My enthusiasm to come into work is usually a function of what project(s) I'm currently working on and more often than not, it is a function of what stage my projects are in.

I've observed myself to be an enthusiastic person in general. I go full throttle on anything I do because, why not? Since I started at work, all my objectives -- both short term and long term -- have circled around work. Last year, I set several annual goals for myself. Among those, the one I considered most important had to do with me doing meaningful contributions at work. Though it is great to have objectives and goals at work, I've since come to realize that it is very important to detach my life's happiness/satisfaction quotient from my happiness/satisfaction quotient I use at work. It is difficult to draw that line, and it sometimes is impossible to create an emotional barrier between work and life. Sometimes there's little I can do to stop a crappy day at work affecting how I feel afterward. There have been times when I've had a terrible Friday at work which ended up ruining the whole weekend. Likewise for personal issues creeping into work. There is only so much I can do to stop a personal issue affect my workday. These usually balance out and a healthy work-life balance brings about that equilibrium. It's something I've learned by experimenting, reading, talking to my colleagues and friends.

What I realize when I look back is I've constantly optimized my life for being more conducive to making progress as fast as I can at work. This is great and has proved useful in aligning my objectives at work to what I desire in life. Progress here doesn't refer to climbing the ladder at work. It relates to simpler things like getting better at writing code or at communicating ideas. There have been weekends where I've obsessed over how I could make this tiny thing at work that will improve my team's systems thereby earning me recognition or accolades or simply a pat on the back from my manager. These have been meaningful metrics to me which I've optimized my days/weeks/months for. But when I look back, I realize I've been chasing local optima all along. Though some of which contribute toward the bigger picture, chasing local optima has left me blind to long term progress in life. Call it quarter-life crisis or what not, I find it difficult to digest the fact that I let existential dread be existential dread and not something I should act upon.

I see people around me who are goal oriented/driven. It is very inspiring and I aspire to be one of them but it doesn't always work for me. I like goals. I like when I achieve them, look back and feel good about it. Yet, I don't seem to be driven by them. I struggled to find out why I was doing well with certain goals while others only received reckless abandon. I started 2017 with a list of I wanted to do before exiting the year. One of which was to visit at least 3 new states in the U.S. A reasonable, fun goal. I set out to look for opportunities to travel and around the Memorial Day weekend I visited Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. I did one better! Another one of my goals were to run a certain number of miles before the end of the year. It saw abysmal results.

Was the reward not enticing enough? Were the goals too ambitious? Was I simply not good? The answers to these questions eluded me.

It was then by happenstance I learnt about what's known in criminology as the Broken Windows Theory. In the 1990s, inspired by James Wilson and George Kelling, the formulators of the theory, Rudy Giuliani, the then newly elected Mayor of New York City started implementing the learnings from it.

The theory goes like this: A broken window signifies neglect. It draws attention from the wrong kind of people. Vandals gather and they tend to break more windows. More broken windows signifies even more neglect. Graffiti starts appearing, drug peddlers start using the place as a rendezvous. What started with a single broken window results in a neighborhood becoming a 'bad neighborhood'. To someone who passes by the place after a significant amount of time, it would seem as if graffiti appeared out of nowhere. It would seem as if drug peddlers and vandals drove people away and claimed the peaceful neighborhood as theirs. Wrong. It all started with a broken window, and the gradual doom spiral goes pretty much unnoticed.

The broken window here is just a metaphor. Rudy Giuliani was hell bent on eliminating broken windows. He made it clear to the NYPD. He made sure there weren't neighborhoods labeled as bad neighborhoods. Graffiti was cleared overnight. Vandals punished. Homeless people were confined to shelters. Litter was not collecting anywhere. Broken windows fixed.

It is possible that you'd have come across a lot of things ruined by a single broken window. More often than not the problem doesn't lie in fixing broken windows. It stems from the first broken window going unnoticed.

Technical debt is a result of a single broken window.

Procrastination is a broken window. That single cheat day? Broken window. You better be sure that there are going to be more.

I've been reading Robert O'Neil's The Operator. (A fantastic book. It starts with what made him become a SEAL, goes into his life as a SEAL, eventually ending with him encountering Osama bin Laden face to face and shooting him down). Almost everything that people who are going through military training learn is about discipline and being orderly. Discipline is the most important lesson one can learn in life, and is perhaps the hardest too. Why do you think there are courtesies in the army? The trimmed mustache, the neatly shaved head. Why do you think the first thing you're asked to do at bootcamp is to learn to make your bed? And do it religiously everyday? It gives a window of opportunity (pun intended) for a broken window to creep in.

I realized me chasing local optima, forgetting the big picture, and not acting on some of my important goals that could eventually shape my entire life, all boiled down to me not paying attention to broken windows. I started fixing broken windows.

There was a short period of time this year when I went to work super early (like 7.30ish). It was so amazing that by the time my colleagues rolled in around 10/10.30 I nearly had a day of work under my belt. I could then laze around and work slowly till end of day and yet complete a day and half's worth of work. What's better? I could leave earlier than everyone else and have a whole evening to myself. It was as if 24 hours had become 48. It didn't last long. A single day of sleeping-in became two, a weekend or two came by, then it was entirely forgotten. When I look back I realize that the single morning of sleeping-in was the broken window I'd neglected.

I came home this evening and cleaned my room to an extent I could on a weekday. I washed and dried by bed linen, changed my pillow covers, and did everything I could have done any weekend. The fact that I could have done this any weekend was the one making me procrastinate and neglect it. No better formula for failure than "It's right here, I'll do it some other time."

Did I just write a 1000+ word post to brag about the fact that I did my laundry? Perhaps. But that's a broken window that's no longer being neglected. I think fixing one after another is my next course of action. Find them, fix them. What's even more important is not let any of these break again. Isn't that the challenge? I'll gladly chase this local optima in the coming year.