How to Feel Progress

Artwork by Yukai Du.

As humans, we can’t help but be goal-oriented. We love to move forward. We love to feel a sense of momentum. And, more than anything, we love to tick things off a list.

This manifests as something called completion bias, a happy-making hit of dopamine that we get whenever we recognize a task as complete. And because we are hard-wired to crave completion, there are few things that keep us more engaged at work — and in life — than feeling a sense of progress.

In a fascinating study, Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile tracked emotions, motivations and perceptions of 238 knowledge workers over the course of 4 months, ultimately collecting over 12,000 diary entries. The results were unequivocal:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

Making progress in meaningful work is the key to staying engaged. And, as Amabile notes, progress doesn’t necessarily mean great, bounding leaps forward – in fact, it usually doesn’t. A palpable sense of progress typically emerges from studiously tracking our “small wins.” Here’s Amabile again:

When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions. Consider this diary entry from a programmer in a high-tech company, which was accompanied by very positive self-ratings of her emotions, motivations, and perceptions that day: “I figured out why something was not working correctly. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me.”

However, if you want to feel progress, you have to track it. Most of us make advances small and large every single day, but we fail to notice them because we lack a method for acknowledging our progress. This is a huge loss.

A pervasive sense of overwhelm is common these days. We feel like we have too many things to do, and not enough time to do them. We work tirelessly but rarely feel like we’re accomplishing anything of import. What’s wrong?

There are a few factors contributing to this overwhelm, and progress — or a lack thereof — is at the crux:

  • We’re addicted to meaningless progress. The whiz-ping world of apps we now live in provides an infinite amount of ways to occupy our minds and get a quick hit of progress, whether it’s whittling down your unread message count, ticking off notifications on your social media feeds, or grazing on metrics like email subscribers or pageviews. All of these activities give us a strong feeling of progress, but it’s fake. Because we’re not really doing work that advances us toward the goals that matter.
  • We fail to define our meaningful goals. So caught up in this cycle of busy-ness, we often neglect to zoom out and clarify where we’re headed in the grand scheme of things. And it’s very hard to feel a sense of accomplishment if you aren’t clear on what exactly you want to accomplish. As the expression goes: You can’t score if you don’t have a goal.
  • We lack a method for tracking our progress. Even if you’re great at setting lofty goals, it’s hard to stay engaged if you don’t have a system in place to document your progress toward them. Big wins are few and far between on the long journey of realizing an incredible idea, which is exactly why tracking our “small wins” is so very important.

Artwork by Yukai Du.

And there’s one more factor to be conscious of: uncertainty. When you’re doing new things, mapping new territory, you rarely know how long the journey is going to take, because no one’s made the journey before. A concept that we can distill down to the phrase: Everything takes longer than you think it will.

The writer Oliver Burkeman recently introduced me to Hofstadter’s Law, which ingeniously captures this dilemma:

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Wikipedia elaborates: “The recursive nature of the law is a reflection of the widely experienced difficulty of estimating complex tasks despite all best efforts, including knowing that the task is complex.”

Because everything takes longer than you think it will — even when you know it will take longer than you think it will — tracking progress is crucial. If you’re not going to hit the finish line on time, the only way to stay engaged is to feel, at the very least, a satisfying sense of momentum.

So whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask myself:

  • How can I create a feeling of progress?
  • Is it possible to break this project down into smaller pieces?
  • What are the metrics & milestones that really matter?

I’m currently developing a new podcast called Hurry Slowly, launching this October 2017, which requires me to conduct 30 interviews, create 10 episodes, and land 2 sponsors. And each of the interviews has multiple mini-phases: booking the interview, conducting the interview, and editing the interview. It’s a lot to do, and I was feeling a little overwhelmed.

So I bought a 4-foot-wide roll of kraft paper, and I created a roadmap of everything I have to do over the next two months to reach launch. And I built in “progress trackers” for all the key pieces. This is the roadmap:

My (slightly messy) progress tracker for the podcast project.

Here’s all the things it tracks:

  • Number of podcast episodes completed
  • Number of interviews completed, including current status (booked, complete, or edited)
  • Number of sponsors booked (drop me a line if you’re interested ; )
  • Upcoming calendar of daily tasks and appointments
  • Key action items I need to complete each week

It also tracks some other stuff, but you don’t need that much detail. The point is, there are lots of things that I get to cross off as I track my progress: weekly tasks, interviews booked, episodes completed, sponsors landed, etc.

It’s worth noting that I am also tracking all of these items in a Google spreadsheet, but having a digital document gives me zero feeling of progress. You need the analog for that: You need to be tracking your progress by writing things down. We need to see our progress, writ large in the physical world, to feel it.

The minute I created this roadmap, I felt more grounded, motivated, and in control. I can see the path forward, and I can see myself progressing down that path. It’s hard to overestimate how good this feels.

We need to see our progress, writ large in the physical world, to feel it.

Of course, you needn’t create a roadmap this complex or neurotic to feel a sense of progress. The core idea here is thinking about how you can break projects down into smaller tasks, track metrics that have real meaning, and document your progress as you go.

Simpler ways of tracking progress could include:

  • Making a Post-It grid of all your tasks. My motto is: When in doubt, Post-It. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, one of the easiest things you can do is break a project down into a series of small tasks, all of which can be written on Post-Its. Slap them all up on your wall in a grid, and then cross them off or remove the Post-Its as you go. Easy peasy.
  • Track metrics on a daily calendar. If you don’t have a larger project or have trouble breaking it down into milestones, you can instead select a daily (or weekly) metric that’s meaningful to you and track that. So, for instance, a writer tracking words written per day, a salesperson tracking cold calls made, or a programmer tracking lines of code written. Tack a monthly calendar up on your wall — the bigger, the better — and note down your output day by day. Seeing yourself put up good numbers again and again is deeply motivational.
  • Write in a diary for 5 minutes a day. This is what the participants in Teresa Amabile’s study did. You simply make a practice of writing for just a few minutes at the end of each workday, noting down both your “small wins” and any setbacks. Then, at the end of the week or the month, flip back through your notes and see how far you’ve come. Likely, you’ll start to develop more consciousness around the progress you are making and observe patterns around when you experience setbacks. Again, I recommend an analog approach: Get a Moleskine rather than using your smartphone.

The designer Maira Kalman once told me that she likes to start her day by reading the obituaries. It sounds morbid, but she does it to be inspired and gain perspective. To ask: What is the measure of a life?

Artwork by Yukai Du.

We all want to make progress, to create something that matters, and to be remembered fondly. When I find myself hunched over my computer, powering through my email, I try to remember this. Do I want my tombstone to say:


Jocelyn Kendall Glei

“She checked all her email.”

Or do I want to strive for something grander?

What about you? Do you want to be the person who regularly attains “inbox zero,” or do you want to achieve something more meaningful in your one wild and precious life?

The difference between one outcome and the other is as simple as sorting out how to track the right kind of progress.

You can get sucked into the false progress of email, social media, and big data, or you can commit to defining meaningful metrics and milestones that will keep you engaged with the long-term creative projects that matter most to you.

The choice is yours.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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