High water mark

Achievement, overachievement and underachievement

It strikes me that we often measure ourselves by what we've done previously, but in some cases that can result in very perverse incentives. The classic example here is the employee who pulls the heroic all-nighter to meet a deadline. The project is saved, the people shout and cheer, and that employee is branded as the all-nighter hero. But guess what happens next time the project is running behind schedule? Oh hero, where are you? Soon the heroism becomes expected and you've created yet another crunch-cycle zombie.

One thing that has surprised me is that this effect seems to persist even without the necessity of the bad-project-management-stress bogeyman. On my own projects, if I achieve beyond what I expected for any length of time, my expectation rises to meet that achievement, even when I explicitly set more modest goals to anchor that expectation. I like to visualise this as a high water mark being set by the steady ebb and flow of productivity, and it's very dangerous if left unchecked. As inflated expectation stacks upon inflated expectation, a small project with modest expectations can quickly swell into a Sistine Chapel behemoth.

I find that the only way to reset that expectation is to sometimes deliberately do the bare minimum. Watch the clock and get out at 5pm exactly. At least 1000 words? Sounds like exactly 1000 words to me! Minimum fifteen pieces of flair means I'm wearing fifteen pieces, and if you want more you need to set the minimum higher. I'm not saying do this all the time, that sounds like a recipe for mediocrity, but I think it's healthy to wipe out the high water mark on occasion.

Never pushing down means the only influence on expectations is upwards, and there's no way that can keep up forever.