Geeks With Blogs
Caffeinated Coder A Grande, Triple Shot, Non-Fat Core Dump by Russell Ball
I seem to have kicked into a professional goal setting mode lately and fixated on a number of ambitious goals, such as publishing technical articles, speaking at major conferences, and creating my own version 1.0 software. Although I feel invigorated by the challenge posed by these new goals, I also have the nagging feeling that I am making a mistake by going down this road.

Don't get me wrong, it is not that I am morally opposed to having goals. On the contrary, my personality thrives on them. I get a thrill from breaking my own self-imposed boundaries whenever I latch on to goals that seem well out of my reach. I like strategically planning out how to achieve a goal and then carefully charting my progress towards the finish line. The satisfaction I feel right after accomplishing a goal is down right addictive. Mostly, I suppose that I like the structure that having goals provides my life.

Unfortunately, I have been on the achievement roller coaster enough times in my life to realize that the psychological rush that follows attaining a goal is relatively fleeting compared with the sense of disappointment that usually follows. I often cope with this uncomfortable feeling by immediately distracting myself with an even more challenging goal. Sometimes, however, I fall prey to a deep sense of disillusionment and can't help feeling like I have just wasted precious time valuing something that ultimately doesn't matter.

So what is a goaloholic like me supposed to do?

It is not as simple as going cold turkey. Whenever I try to swear off goals, I usually get bored and nagged by the feeling that I am wasting my potential and dulling my senses. This somehow feels like an even worse sin than my goal addiction, so I inevitably get back on the goal bandwagon.

Is there no middle ground between these two extremes?

The one thing that does seem to help me in times like this is to remember back to a lecture that I heard in college on flow. Flow is a mental state of hyper concentration that highly skilled individuals who are doing highly challenging work can attain. Athletes sometimes refer to this mental state as being 'in the zone'.

When you are experiencing flow, then you are so absorbed in the task at hand that you get a distorted sense of time so that you are likely to suddenly look up from what you are doing and be surprised that hours rather than minutes have passed.

When you experience flow, the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding, so your actions seem effortless. This zen-like
focus on the present moment offers a stark contrast to the darker side of achievement, where the focus is completely future oriented and on the end result rather than the process. 

I occasionally experience flow while programming, but would like to experience it much more frequently.

Ironically, since a prerequisite for experiencing flow is both a high degree of skill and a high degree of challenge, most of my current goals can actually help me achieve this coveted mental state. However, elevating the experience of flow over the achievement of goals somehow makes my goals seem much more palatable. They are now merely laying the groundwork for a more substantive and longer lasting experience rather than being the ultimate prize.

Has anyone else experienced flow? Has this experience been substantive enough for you to be a primary motivating force in working towards excellence or are there other more compelling reasons that drive you to excel?

Preemptive P.S. - While having women swoon and throw panties at you is certainly a compelling and motivating force, it is probably not a legitimate expectation for anyone other than Justice Gray.
Posted on Monday, November 5, 2007 12:00 AM Becoming A Better Developer | Back to top

Comments on this post: Hello, My Name is Russell Ball and I'm a Goaloholic

# re: Hello, My Name is Russell Ball and I'm a Goaloholic
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I'm in the Flow during Warm-up and Cool-down. Give me an inane task or topic, and the morning passes by with the speed of a deadline wooshing by.

Invariably, I'll check this blog on a Friday afternoon and find that I haven't posted my status report by the time I'm done contributing!

That's FLOW!
Left by JR on Nov 09, 2007 2:57 PM

# re: Hello, My Name is Russell Ball and I'm a Goaloholic
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@JR - Does your warm-up/cool-down time still involve surfing porn? If so, I'm not sure that qualifies as a flow inducing task...although I have to admit that I do often loose time myself during that activity...:-)
Left by Russell Ball on Nov 09, 2007 3:15 PM

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