Bold Boasts, public goals and social reality: making a goal and sticking to it

At the beginning of the year, I saw a blog post from Adam Yuret explaining how he planned to sit down and read "Agile Testing".  He's blogged before about having difficulty staying on track to finish most books, so I was interested to see how he'd planned to reach his goal - "Agile Testing" is a bit of a behemoth of a book, 500+ pages.  I haven't finished it yet myself, so that added a bit of additional interest for me. :)


I decided this was definitely an idea worth stealing, and promptly nicked it for the Software Testing Book Review club.    Then, a couple of hours ago, Phil Kirkham posted a comment.  Public resolutions don't work.  Oops.


At this point I should confess that I had come across the idea that going public with a resolution can actually give you some of the same satisfaction that completing it does - thus reducing your motivation to complete it, though I'd never got around to reading further about it.  But it seemed to have been working for Adam, and I could see Michael Larsen going great guns with his 40 day Boot Camp. So I figured it was worth a go...  but then Phil came along with that comment, just as I was having to admit that, enjoyable and short though it is, I hadn't completed my own Bold Boast.


That's right - although I should have been able to finish Steve Krug's "Don't Make Me Think", I'm actually only 85 pages in (though I've skimmed ahead).  I could make various feeble excuses - it's all Rosie's fault - she distracted me with an online chat about usability on Thursday!  It's all James Christie's fault - he mentioned his MSc thesis on the chat and so I ended up reading that on the train Friday instead of "Don't Make Me Think"!  Now, while both the chat and James's thesis were both things I wouldn't have wanted to miss, and I learnt a lot about usability this week - I still didn't finish the book. 


So, getting distracted yet again, I decided I'd better go check out the final paper mentioned on the blog:

When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-...

It's pretty interesting.  To give a wildly inaccurate and deliberately partial summary (don't trust me! Go check it yourself! Link's right there!), it seems that when you're committed to an identity goal  such as "I want to be a great tester!", then while accomplishing a goal like reading a testing book may increase your feelings of being a "good tester", it's also possible to get some of that warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment and identity boost by *talking* about your plans to read it, and having other people notice that.  And the effect appears limited to people who have a strong commitment to achieving a particular identity.


Curses.  I can see some problems with this. :)  Naturally, I want to be able to talk about stuff - because one important way of getting better for me is to allow myself venues where I can make mistakes in front of my peers, thus giving me the greatest chance that someone will take the time to point out my errors/offer an alternative approach, so I can learn something new and move on.  But I also don't want talking the talk to become a substitute for walking the walk. (Okay - this saying is muddied a little here by the fact that writing about testing is in itself practising a number of skills relevant to testing.  But I won't get into that here).


I've also noticed another behavioural trait in myself, that is likely to amplify this effect: namely, the more important a goal is to me, and the more pressure I put on myself to complete it and the more I push, the more likely I am to seek reasons to avoid doing it or just end up with complete brainlock if forced into a corner.  There are actually things I've been planning to learn for ages, that I'm not tackling, simply because by now the only way to approach them is to let them lie fallow for a while then sneak up on them sideways so I don't trigger that OMG REALLY IMPORTANT GOAL! brainlock.  So, just raising the stakes won't help me to learn here.


So, what to do?


The conclusions section of the paper gives several suggestions for possible ways in which you might be able to counteract that effect:  I think what Adam did seemed to be an effective tactic:

1) He sat down and read for a while to work out:

    a) how long he could maintain concentration for without getting distracted or losing focus

    b) how many pages he had read in that time

2) He then worked out how long it would take him to finish the book, if he committed that amount of time per day.  Given that his "reading time" was about an hour, then it was a reasonable goal to fit into the day.

3) He committed to blogging his progress.


And given that it worked for him, perhaps it might work for me.  So, let's see.

1) From what I've read so far, and knowing what I'm already committed to over the next week, I think I can probably safely bet on being able to read about 20 pages a night.  I could do a bit more, but I'd like to be able to give myself some time to think them through and take a few notes on things that seem particularly relevant.

2) I've got about 100 pages left.  That means I should finish on Friday the 28th of January.

3) I'll blog on Friday night, either to say "I'm done!" or "Er... still have X pages to go :( "  If it was a longer period, I'd say I'll blog mid way, but that seems a bit overkill here.  Perhaps I'm wrong - we'll see.


I'm hoping this will work, this time around.  My original BBB was a bit vague around when I'd finish.  I also didn't actually work out how much I'd need to read to stay on track, so a few days missed meant I didn't really feel I was behind.  And I didn't commit to blogging when I crossed the finish line.  I'll see if those things seem to help this time.


Want to join me in the experiment?  Can we figure out together what will work?











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Comment by Lisa Crispin on March 1, 2011 at 4:17


I'm glad you're finding Agile Testing helpful!

I think you achieved your learning goal here even though you didn't complete the task you set for yourself. You learned this wasn't a good way to motivate yourself. I think most of us learn a lot more from things that don't go so well than from the things that work well.

I just participated in my first Code Retreat this past weekend. It was pretty intense and way outside of my comfort zone. I'm still not good at writing Ruby code, but I learned a lot about experimenting and practicing to improve skills.

Comment by TestSheepNZ on February 28, 2011 at 20:19

Reading a book gives you one authors take on a subject.  But to develop your own take, you have to really read a couple of articles - esp with opposing opinions.


I've been looking through my blog ... last year I started reading Agile Testing in July and finished it in October.  It gives you a fantastic foundation to a lot of ideas, for which I'm really thankful, but it doesn't make you an Agile Tester because you got to the end.


I took on a few exercises afterward - I tried to write a short summary on Agile testing afterwards, and showed it around.  People said there were some aspects I'd really picked up on well, but other ones I'd seemed to have failed to recognise the value of.


I'm trying to read a couple of articles on Agile every week, to kind of expand my exposure to ideas, and likewise talk to people whenever possible.  I find Twitter useful for that.  We also have an Agile Professional Network in Wellington too, which helps.

Comment by Anna Baik on February 28, 2011 at 19:19
"Bad student" - in quote marks because I don't believe myself to be a bad student. However, according to my teachers and study guides, good students have a plan and they stick to it. Good students start at the first chapter and read through methodically ensuring they understand each step before moving on. They don't skip o the end, drop the textbook and go read 3 other books/articles on the subject instead.

Don't get me wrong - the approach above clearly works amazingly well for a lot of people. It works horribly badly for me and in fact had me convinced for a while that I was either not very bright or incurably lazy. Eventually I worked out that my "disorganised" approach was a) not disorganised, and b) very effective for me.

Re: making mistakes. Ha. I'm also a recovering entity theorist. Mistakes are bad when you have that mindset. Not a mindset conducive to learning. This is another reason I'm a much better learner now.
Comment by TestSheepNZ on February 28, 2011 at 9:56

Interesting - how do you define being "a bad student"?  I don't think we can learn without the freedom to make mistakes.


Talking to people about learning it's interesting but the general concencus seems that people learn a lot more from their failures and how they faced them, than they did from their successes.

Comment by Anna Baik on February 28, 2011 at 8:16
Good point - yes, it's not a race. Often I don't realise I've learned so much from a book until I run into something months later that needs it.

I'd disagree though - I think I'm a much better learner now than when I was younger. (Realising that being a "bad student" was actually my most effective way of learning helped).
Comment by TestSheepNZ on February 28, 2011 at 7:50

I think the problem is we're all guilty a bit of wearing rose coloured glasses when it comes to learning, and think "we learned better when we were younger".


If a book is full of big ideas, it's going to be challenging mentally.  I found with Agile Testing I sometimes found myself going "oh you're so wrong" at bits of it, as it challenged the experience of every project I'd ever worked on.  And yet when I sat to think about it, I could see the point they were making.


Learning about any subject is not a race to the finish.  Any new idea worth thinking about has to be fermented against your own experience, and it's not an easy thing.

Comment by Michael Larsen on February 28, 2011 at 3:45

So far, I have completed the following books, and done reviews for them as well:


Selenium 1.0 testing Tools Beginners Guide (not a smooth ride, but I did finish the book)

Selenium Simplified (a smoother ride, but that's because it focused on programming the tests from the outset and spent a lot of time on "what could go wrong's early in the book)

Stephen King's On Writiing (and it was such a blast to read it I actually went out and re-purchased "The Stand" so I could reread it again, it's been a long time).


Books now in the hopper:


-Everyday Scripting with Ruby

- Four Jerry Weinberg books (Perfect Software, Weinberg on writing, Secrets of Consulting, More secrets of Consulting)


As far as the motivation to do it with the public boast, really it comes down to "are you really someone who can be motivated by such a thing, and will you use it?" Some people are, and other's aren't. The sure way to do it, though is to make it a regular part of your blog or reminder system. I had several books and practices that I said i would do on my blog, but fell by the wayside because I didn't follow up on them (and neither did anyone else). If you perhaps make a "bold boast" board as a page on your site, and force yourself to go back and make updates, you might find it more effective. again, what's your motivation? Do you want to solicit outside help? Would you find it helpful or annoying, or would you care either way? the answer to those questions will help determine if you will follow through or not.


Personally, i use a combination of both methods. For things I know are going to happen, I keep quiet until they become reality. For things that I want to make happen, but I have some resistance to do ing, hanging it out there helps motivate me. Things with huge amouints of resistance or a large frustration factor, those are the areas where even "bold boasts" and lots of public facing

Comment by Anna Baik on February 27, 2011 at 20:15

Lisa - I'm really enjoying reading Agile Testing, and have found it incredibly helpful on moving from a waterfall environment to an Agile team.  Perhaps I should take Michael as an example and review as I read, rather than waiting until I've finished to do so.  I rather like the idea of a personal Kanban board, as being able to *see* stuff works really well for me.  I used to keep a personal learning plan where I'd set out a few broad themes for the year, and then log anything monthly that I'd done that fell into one of those themes.


Adam -

Well, I think I can conclusively say: this blog post's experiment didn't work for me.  In fact, it appears to have done the opposite - I've still not read "Don't make me think" AND I didn't blog about it either!  So I failed doubly.


Why is that?  I'm not sure: but I suspect this kind of motivation just doesn't work that well for me.  I don't feel like I'm failing on a commitment, because I know it won't actually make any difference to anyone except me if I don't follow through on this - it's purely for my benefit, nobody's relying on me.  James' approach to his German Higher level similarly wouldn't have worked for me, for various reasons (probably better analysed at more length elsewhere).


However, I am pleased that there it does seem to have worked for at least two other people in the book review thread :)  Just not me!


James - your dissertation is on an interesting topic, and very well written to boot.

Comment by James Christie on February 4, 2011 at 17:02

Wow! You got distracted from "Don't make me think" by my MSc dissertation? That's a great compliment, but frankly I've got to question your judgement! "Don't make me think" is a book I've been happily plugging for a few years.

I can see why public boasts may serve as a substitute for action. I think the trick is to frame them in a way that nails you if you backslide.

I think Adam's tactic of committing to writing the blog, and not just reading the book was crucial. If your boast is something that can be verified by others then there's greater pressure to fulfill it. In a small way he was staking his reputation on it, a tactic Michael recognises as being important.

A few years back I decided to brush up my German. I passed German A level at school. I knew it would slide down my list of priorities, so I signed up at night school to do Higher level German, a Scottish qualification that is easier than A level, but a lot more advanced than O level or GCSE. To make sure I'd be motivated I told everyone that having passed an A level I should have no trouble getting an A grade, the top mark.

My motivation was therefore simply pride, or vanity. I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Brushing up my German was, in a sense, a happy by-product, though it was the whole point of the exercise.

Oh, I did get an A grade, and it did give my German a great boost.

Comment by Adam Yuret on January 25, 2011 at 18:17

Lisa: Your book was great, I enjoyed the new things contained as much as I did seeing some of the things I already knew codified. :-) 


Michael: You motivated me subconsciously with your PRACTICUM to do the BBBC and now you're motivating me to blog my experiences with since it puked on me around chapter 5. I hadn't thought about blogging my failures, maybe somebody from will point out to the world that I'm a maroon, but that would be fine with me if it got me through to lesson 6 ;-)


I would rather display my failures to the world than hide them. Embracing discomfort and failure are vitally important to growth and success. This, of course, is only a theory I have, I'll let you know when/if I achieve success if it proves true or not. ;-) 



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