Have you ever given up on a goal because you didn’t feel like you were making progress?
Getting motivated is often easier than staying motivated. If you want some evidence, walk into any health club in January, and then go back to that same club on the same day and time in February. There will be fewer people working out in the second month of the year- since many people will have unfortunately given up on their resolutions by that point.
There are a number of reasons why people give up on goals that they were once excited and motivated to pursue. One of the most common reasons is a lack of perceived progress. Whether or not you are actually making progress is not as important as whether you feel like you are.
In this article, you’ll learn a proven strategy for feeling like you are making progress and staying motivated for anything that you choose to pursue.
A Quick Story
When my brother Matt and I were teenagers, we had part-time jobs as caddies at a local country club in our hometown. On days that we worked, we arrived at the golf course around 6:00 a.m., and we waited to be assigned to our golfers for the day. Then, we walked the eighteen-hole course for about four hours. During each round, we carried a golf bag on each shoulder (about fifty pounds of weight in total).
I hated this job and worked inconsistently for two summers. (We did not have a fixed schedule, so we could show up as much or as little as we wanted.) Matt, on the other hand, worked religiously during summers and holiday breaks for nearly a decade. One summer, he even caddied on thirty-nine straight days, en route to earning more than $13,000 in cash in less than four months. How many teenagers make that kind of money legally?
There is a key reason why Matt and I had such different experiences, and it has nothing to do with willpower or discipline.
Matt set financial goals for himself and he tracked his progress. Whenever he got home from another day at the golf course, he updated a spreadsheet that he had created to monitor his earnings.
Each day, he could see and feel his progress. In comparison, I did not have any financial goals or a system to measure my progress/earnings. As a result, caddying felt like pointless torture to me, my motivation plummeted, and my attendance and performance suffered.
Track Your Progress
My brother was on to something. Studies have demonstrated the power of monitoring your progress. For example, one meta-analysis (led by Dr. Benjamin Harkin of the University of Sheffield) looked at 138 studies that were focused mainly on personal health goals. The researchers found that the more frequent the monitoring, the higher the chances of success. They also found that recording progress physically or reporting progress publicly led to even greater results.1
Other research has led to additional insights on how to maximize the impact and motivational benefits of tracking. According to a concept known as the small-area hypothesis, motivation increases (for goals that you want to complete) when you focus your attention on whatever is smaller in size between (a) how far you have come and (b) how far you have to go.
When you are getting started, you are better off tracking accumulated progress and focusing on what you have achieved so far (not how far you have to go, which will be de-motivating). When you are at least half-way to a goal that you want to complete, you are better off tracking remaining progress and focusing on how close you are to your target. 2 Figure 1 provides a visual depiction of tracking yourself this way, which I refer to as the count up, count down approach.
The count up, count down approach is best for goals or projects that (a) have a clear endpoint and (b) you want to finish. Examples might include losing a certain amount of weight, completing a tedious assignment at work, or cleaning out your garage.
A different approach to tracking is more effective for situations when you either do not want to finish, or when there is no clear endpoint to target. (You’ll see some specific examples below.)
When you have a goal, project, hobby, etc. that you wish to pursue but not finish, you are more likely to stay motivated by focusing strictly on accumulated progress. Figure 2 provides a visual depiction of tracking yourself this way, which I refer to as the just count up approach.
When to Just Count Up
As an example, I “just count up” when tracking my progress with my writing. Each time that I write a new article, my content archive and total word count grows. I track this in a simple spreadsheet, and it’s extremely motivating to me. My content archive is like a bank account that gets bigger each week. Each week, I generate new content and accumulate more progress.
I’m certain that my motivation to write would be less consistent if I didn’t track my writing progress at all, or if I followed the count up, count down approach and started counting down at some point to a final word count. Writing is not something that I want to end. It’s something that I want to pursue for as long as possible.
You could “just count up” for any personal or professional metric that is important to you. Here are some additional examples:
- your lifetime earnings
- the amount of money you have donated to charity
- the number of books that you have read
- the number of races or miles that you have run
- the number of community service events that you have volunteered at
- the number of customers that you have served
- the number of people who have visited your web site
- the number of employees that you have hired
Summary and Final Thoughts
It’s often easier to get motivated than it is to stay motivated. Many people give up on goals or projects because they don’t feel like they are making progress. Whether or not you are actually making progress is not as important as whether or not you feel like you are. One of the most effective ways to stay motivated is to track your progress:
- The count up, count down approach: When you have a clear goal or project that you want to finish, count up until you are at halfway to your goal. Then, count down until you finish.
- The just count up approach: When you have a more abstract goal or project (or something that you do not want to finish), just count up.
Few people truly leverage the power of tracking progress. I challenge you to identify at least one area of your life where you could start tracking your progress today. It will be worth it.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.
References for this article:
- “Frequently Monitoring Progress Toward Goals Increases Chance of Success,” American Psychological Association, October 28, 2015, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/10/progress-goals.aspx.
- Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach, “The Small-Area Hypothesis: Effects of Progress Monitoring on Goal Adherence,” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, No. 3 (October 2012), pp. 493-509.