It's ok to start small

Even if you’re setting big goals, especially long-term goals, you can’t forget to take small steps sometimes. I’m one year post completing an MS in Computer Science and after a year of maybe less directed pressure on myself, I’m forming out aspirations for the next 3-5 years. It’s exciting, but it hit me with a bit of paralysis at first. It seems silly now that I look back on it, a good 4 weeks of just emotionally staring at a giant wall. The next step I needed was to get out a step ladder and ascend to the first rung.

New big goals

Writing a book

One of my aspirations is to write a book. I have a topic in mind and have even started a detailed outline. I have no delusions of this book making a significant sum of money or fame, it’s content that needs to be etched down to pages. As I set out to begin drafting and adjust the outline based on recent developments, I realized just how rusty I am with the written word, especially beyond the email setting. How embarrassing! I write a good handful of blog posts for work but the format to those is much shorter than a chapter or even section in a book. There’s some mental muscles to be built up, and the best way is to practice. Back to the analogy of taking a small step at first - I let myself step back from trying to write the book I’ve been dreaming about for a few years now.

It can wait. That book can wait, while I write on a shorter and slightly less complex topic. I want to write a book, and to get there I have some work to do on the fundamentals of writing sessions, content formation, and confidence in the process. The first step is doing other writing, both in a secondary and smaller book as well as through blog posts and documentation. So I’ve started a book, and my intention is for it to be a smaller project than the grandiose dream and more of a practicum of book authoring. Even within that book, there’s content I’m more confident in and for that section I’ve set my first concrete timeline and benchmark. The first step is broken down until I know how to approach it and is sufficiently small that it falls into motion with consistent hard work.

Certification exams

Before the MS in Computer Science and other career events, I took a bunch of certification exams (usually passing). It was my way, as an employee of a smaller company, to force myself to get exposed to and learn technologies that we didn’t use because of our size or application architecture. Way back in school (decades ago) I actually liked taking tests, activating the retrieval pathways in my brain felt good. Certification exams aren’t for everyone nor do they equate to magical career advances but for me they were part of the structure of my learning and spurred interest in aspects of software development. I know, I’m weird.

By now many of my certifications have expired or are superseded by new exams. Old me would have made a list of exams, set out a time frame for completing them (one every 2 to 4 months), and been well on the way. Somehow starting from scratch this time around seemed quite disorienting, I couldn’t pick which focus path to take up first and I had no confidence in my timelines between exams. Every time I thought I knew which path I wanted to go down first, the uncertainty about how long it would take to learn the material and what taking the exam would be like crept up and pushed me back to indecision.

Girl Scout badges for Microsoft technologies

To get more practice reviewing materials and practicing with sandbox environments, I did something I might now have done in the past - I signed up for a fundamentals exam. In taking DP-900: Azure Data Fundamentals I had the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the online certification platform, question styles, and digesting a small amount of new material. Building a bit of confidence brings some inner peace or calm as I move back to more challenging exams. Given my current role in Azure Data, I’m not actually surprised I passed DP-900, but the sensation of taking the exam and passing felt good. Reviewing the content, taking a practice exam a few times, and finally the actual exam environment all brought me enough stress that seeing the pass screen gave a small shot of endorphins. Runners sign up for more races right after they’ve finished one, and it’s with similar momentum that I plan further exams.

Keeping up with the 5-minute rule

There’s a little overlap between starting with a small step sometimes and the 5-minute rule as I use it. There’s a few versions of the 5-minute rule, but the particular one that I leverage is a queue of wins that I can make at inopportune times. On a nearly daily basis I glance at my ToDo list and picki out the items that are lingering on the list but realistically take about 5 minutes. Have 10 minutes before the next meeting? Perfect time to grab something off of the “5-minute” pile. With a small amount of internal bargaining, I offer myself a large-sized feeling of accomplishment for buckling down and knocking out 1-3 of those smaller items within a limited span of time.

Sometimes the first step in something bigger is an undesirable item that fits on the 5-minute list. These recent reminders of starting small with big goals is another great reason for me to keep chipping away at the 5-minute list and avoid letting the many tiny tasks get out of hand.

Let that first step be small

It is so tempting to set a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) and start by jousting at the biggest dragon it contains. That’s the exciting part, after all, the pinnacle of the accomplishment. Even when finding the way towards the end of the BHAG is confounding, you should feel free to explore your nearby vicinity for the best path forward. It doesn’t always have to feel like its in the right direction, because as long as you have some direction you can leverage that momentum for future work. So I find myself humbled a bit, ready to run at some new challenges, but at the same time balancing my approach for more assured success and less stress by starting small.