When it comes to professional development, many engineers struggle to put concrete plans into action to achieve their goals. They know what they want; they just can’t get started.
When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. Many professional development goals are intangible. “Improve communication” or “become expert in technology X” have no real endpoint. They represent a continuum of growth and improvement. They are aspirational. They can only be tackled by steady progression.
As goals, they also tend to have lagging indicators. For example, an engineer might only find out their communication has improved or be seen as a subject matter expert in technology X over time through feedback.
One approach I use which has worked well for many engineers is setting execution-based goals.
What is an execution-based goal?
In Steven Siebold’s book “177 mental toughness secrets of the world class”, secret #111 is “The Pros Reward themselves for execution”. Instead of focusing on your ultimate goal, an execution-based goal re-frames the goal around the act of simply executing. Execution is the reward.
Execution is the reward.
If you can identify a concrete action to take, you can set a goal to execute it a set number of times in a fixed time-frame. Don’t worry about the larger outcome. Just do it. Just completing the action gives you a sense of accomplishment and a small dopamine hit. This keeps you motivated and creates momentum.
At the end of the fixed time-frame you can reflect and decide what to do next. It might take on a life of its own, or you might decide to re-work the goal with some changes and do it again.
Do X, Y times in Z weeks
I like to suggest a simple formula as a starting point and then adapt it to the situation as necessary:
“Do X, Y times in Z weeks”.
- X is the action to execute
- Y is the set number of times to perform the action
- Z is the time-frame in weeks 
It’s also important to have a place to track and mark progress. And that’s it!
“Do X, Y times in Z weeks”.
OK, so far this is a bit abstract. Let’s look at some concrete examples in common areas of development that come up for many engineers:
- Getting out of your shell, building confidence – voice your opinion during a team meeting 3 times in the next 4 weeks.
- Get an amorphous or creative task done, like writing a blog post – Spend 15 minutes, 2 times/week working on a blog post for the next 3 weeks.
- Improve time management – Improve focus time by committing to block out time in your calendar and shut off slack for 2 hours, 2 times/week for 2 weeks to see if it helps.
- Learning – pick a short list of 3 books you want to read. Commit to reading the first chapter of each book, 1 week for each book, and then select a single one to read at the end that caught your interest. If none of them grabbed your interest, then don’t read any of them. This is part learning and part discovery. If books aren’t your thing, you could try this with blog posts, conference talk videos or podcasts (say, by listening to the first 5 minutes).
There’s a virtually unlimited number of ways to construct these goals, so use your imagination. With a little effort, you can find a way to turn an ominous goal into an execution-based goal and immediately start to make progress.
Specific numbers are important
Avoid framing goals like “speak up in 50% of team meetings”. This lacks the concrete completion quality after each instance of execution. Favour a fixed number. For example, if there are 8 team meetings within a 4 week period. 50% of those meetings would represent speaking 4 times. The dopamine hit is critical. You’re going to want to mark your progress after each time you execute.
It’s a good idea to check-in weekly on goals with your manager or mentor. After a few weeks you can back it off to less often, depending on how long the time-frame is. The idea is to provide you just enough of a kick in the butt to do it. It helps you feel accountable to yourself and to know someone else (me, your manager) knows about the goal so you are more likely to keep yourself honest.
Continuing with the confidence building example, if you are hesitant to speak up in meetings but you have a specific documented goal to do it 4 times in the next 4 weeks, you’ll be less likely to hold back in a meeting.
Even with small, focused and achievable execution-based goals, it can still be hard to get started sometimes. This is especially true for open-ended tasks like writing a blog post or preparing a tech talk.
In these cases, I find pomodoros work really well. Pomodoros are essentially execution-time blocks. A typical pomodoro is 25 minutes. I have experimented with pomodoro lengths and found that even as short as 10-15 minutes works equally well. This essentially hacks the “getting started” problem without sapping too much will power.
Personally, I have had a lot of success with execution-based goals. I’ve been using them to write blog posts for years (like this one!). I set myself the goal to sit down and spend 15 minutes writing. I find each time personally satisfying. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. Over time I am able to build up a post to the point I feel it’s good enough to publish. I find now that I no longer need the Y and Z anymore for my writing. I just do X indefinitely.
Just like playing the piano..
Recently I’ve been learning to play the piano. One of the challenges beginners face is learning how to play with the left and right hand independently. The common advice on how to develop this skill captures the essence of execution-based goals perfectly. It boils down to 3 things:
The compounding power of incremental progress
Practice, sleep, repeat. That’s the formula. Every practice session gives your brain the opportunity to build new connections that, spread out over time will yield significant improvement.
Go slow to go fast
People are impatient and in a hurry to achieve their goals, but this can be counterproductive. Take it slow. Reward yourself for the baby steps along the way. You’ll end up getting where you want to go much faster that way anyway.
Have faith in the process
People get better at things with deliberate practice and study. Know that you will get better over time if you put in the time and effort.
Making progress on ambitious personal goals can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be. The next time you or someone on your team is struggling to make a development goal concrete, consider giving execution-based goals a try.
With small goals that focus only on the act of executing, you can take a lot of the uncertainty and procrastination out of making progress. Get a sense of satisfaction and momentum from the feeling of getting things done. Repeatedly. It might just be the spark you need to start your next growth journey.
 I like weeks (rather than months) so we can measure progress faster