Making Progress

We get so caught up in reaching our goals, completing our projects, and meeting our work deadlines that we sometimes forget to reflect on what we have accomplished. We forget how far we have gotten from where we were, and we become so engrossed in our daily work that we forget to take a step back, pause, and reflect to gain some perspective. We focus on how much more we need to do instead of thinking about what we have accomplished so far first. Much too often, we sacrifice perspective in the interest of having more control over our work, but we need both.

The fact is that progress is the greatest indicator of our happiness and performance at work and in life. When we see progress in our everyday work, it motivates us to keep doing what we are doing. It keeps us moving forward all the time, and we know that when we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward because there is no such thing as stagnation.

We are far more likely to make progress in our work when we feel good about the work we’re doing. As a result, we experience greater performance and creativity and less stress. For this to happen, we need to feel “safe” at work. Only when we feel safe at work can we have the “freedom” to be creative, to make (reasonable and different) mistakes, to learn from them, and to thrive. We need to ask for help when we need it and we can only do that when we feel safe. This requires getting support from our colleagues when they respect us, encourage us, appreciate us, provide emotional support (empathy), and help build trust by asking us to do things, and then trusting us to get those things done.

We can only make progress by doing the work. Here are some ways to do just that.

We need to set clear goals that come from having clarity about our work. We need some autonomy in how we do our work (without others looking over our shoulders and micromanaging us). We need to have appropriate resources at our disposal to get our work done, and we also need the right amount of time to do our work well. Having less time to do our work leads to pressure that comes from tight deadlines, and having extra time results in boredom. As with most things, a balance is needed.

Begin with the end in mind, and then focus on the process to take you there. Think about the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task that you’re trying to get done. Then, take 25 minutes to make some headway on a project. During this time, focus on doing just that one thing with no distractions. This way, you gain momentum to move that project forward. It doesn’t matter how small a step you take as long as you keep moving forward.

As Benjamin Franklin once said:

Little strokes fell great oaks.

Think big, but start small. We can only eat an elephant one bite at a time. Thinking big is great and is required because our goals have to be inspiring (and concrete). But, thinking big should not to be confused with doing big. You can only do small. For instance, you can’t do a project. You can only take small actionable steps toward finishing a project.

Start early and small, not late and big. Instead of putting things off to the last minute and pulling all-nighters, take a few minutes to jot down some ideas as soon as you get a project, which is even some amount of progress.

Another example: when you schedule a meeting (or phone call) with someone, take a few minutes right then to prepare a rough agenda for the meeting; you can always make changes to it later, but for right now, at least you have something to get started and pick things up for later.

Don’t let your projects overwhelm you. Instead of saying, “this project is big and important”, say, “I can take one small step”. If you focus on starting, then finishing will take care of itself. Instead of saying, “I must finish”, say, “When can I start?” Oftentimes the reason we don’t start is because we want to have as much information as possible at the outset to be able to make the best decision possible, and in doing so we often fall into the perfection trap.

The thing is, we don’t have to figure it all out at the outset in order to get started. We can’t have all the information when we start. We just need to know the next step, and leave the rest until later. Aim for success, not perfection, because that’s what artists do. They ship. They know that it is more important to get something done today rather than worrying about making it perfect tomorrow.

How we use language also affects our behavior. Frame your “problems” in terms of opportunities/challenges for growth. Focus on your successes first, and your challenges second. You can change your reality by changing your attitude.

There is something powerful about visually seeing progress toward a goal. To illustrate this point, I want to mention a personal example of how I started practicing mindfulness by way of meditation as a daily spiritual exercise and how keeping track of my progress helped me establish it as a habit.

I wanted to make meditation a daily habit, but I had never done it before. My goal was to start with meditating for a minute and make my way up to 25 minutes. I used an app to remind me to meditate every day at the same time. This worked twofold as a way to keep track of my daily progress. I was accountable to the app, and every time I would meditate, I marked the circle as complete. Over the course of the month, I could see my progress. I could see the days I meditated and the days I missed (twice in two months). In the two months I had been practicing, I made my way up to 12 minutes of meditation.

This way, I was able to build a new habit and see my daily progress, and that triggered ideas for future habits. Anyway, the point of this is that when we see daily progress, it motivates us to keep going forward, and that’s the key. The important thing, of course, is to keep track of things, and you don’t need an app for this. You can just as easily do it with pen and paper. This was an example of just one habit, but it could be applied to so many things.

We look at the big victories and forget the small wins. A “big victory” only comes once in a while; it’s better to celebrate “small wins” (or milestones) as a way to keep making forward progress because the journey is as rewarding as the destination (if not more so).

Keep a daily journal or work diary to reflect on your day, celebrate your wins, and review your challenges. Take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on the day’s accounts. Write about what you accomplished today, even if it’s one thing. It helps you look at the forest instead of hugging the trees all the time. Reflecting on and learning from the past helps you plan future steps, and this doesn’t have to be that elaborate. You could just start small (a few minutes a day), and then schedule appropriate reminders to do it at the same time every day.

Making progress on meaningful work can be the single greatest driving force to our fulfillment. The fact is that small (daily) wins can motivate us to try harder, be more creative, and be far happier than we would otherwise be.

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