Making progress feels good. Often, it is evidence of progress that motivates us to work harder, stay the course, and not give up. Concrete progress makes us believe in ourselves and helps us to sustain change over the long term. However, recognizing progress is not always easy, and sometimes we wonder, “Am I even making progress?” While you might think this is a simple “yes” or “no” question, the truth is that the answer can be surprisingly complex.
For the purposes of this post, let’s use the example of organizing your home.
At first glance, it is tempting to say that progress in organizing a home would mean reducing clutter, establishing efficient storage systems, and maintaining consistent order. However, rather than describing progress, this actually describes an end result. If we evaluate our progress against an idealized finished product, we may proclaim ourselves failures partway through the process. This is unfortunate because progress is not a “pass/fail” measure.
Why should we avoid associating progress with results? The reason is that while we have control over what we put into an endeavor, we lack complete control over the results we achieve.
Let’s think of this organizing project as an input/output box. Look at the image below.
We have control over what we put into the box. For example, we can…
- Set aside time to review belongings that have accumulated.
- Sort accumulated paperwork into recycle, shred, and file piles.
- Clean out a drawer, closet, shelf, space, or room.
- Remove objects from our home that are not loved, needed, or wanted.
- Load donations into our car and drop them off (or schedule a pickup).
- Designate time each day to review our calendar and tasks.
- Walk around once a day for 15 minutes and put things away.
- Hire a professional to help us with difficult decisions.
- Buy products to improve the structure in our space.
These are just a few examples. There are any number of steps we could take to move us toward the goal of having an organized home.
At the same time, while we put our efforts into the box, there are many other things happening inside the box – things that we don’t control – that will impact our results. For instance…
- Other family members, who may undermine our efforts to put things away
- Guilt inflicted by others about letting go of things
- Naysayers who criticize or belittle our efforts
- Space constraints in our current living situation
- Illness or health issues (mental, physical, emotional)
- Unexpected emergencies that steal our time
- Financial pressures/uncertainties
I hope you are seeing that results come from a combination of factors: those we control and those we do not. Therefore, evaluating our progress strictly by results means we are basing our sense of accomplishment, at least in part, upon external components. Furthermore, we may be doing a great job, but still not ending up with exactly the outcome we desire.
This leaves us with a question: what is a better way for assessing our progress?
Rather than measure progress from results, a better way to think about progress is as personal movement toward a goal. What do I mean by personal movement? It can be any number of steps to which you commit and upon which you consistently follow through. This might include:
- Positive self-talk
- Improved daily/weekly behavior and/or habit
- Pushing through a well-entrenched excuse
- Seeking and then heeding good advice
- Researching options for a troubling situation
- Hiring professional help
- Addressing a painful “off limits” topic
- Implementing more effective solutions than the ones we have previously employed
Of course, the specifics will depend entirely on the type of progress you are trying to make. In order to figure out exactly which “inputs” you will pursue, consider these four steps.
1. Clarify what you are trying to achieve.
If we think about the input/output box above, this would be the “result” we would ideally like to have. This helps us know where we are going. In our example, this would be “Organize My Home.”
2. Make a list of all the various steps you can take to achieve your goal.
Bear in mind that you will never have complete control of all factors; therefore, focus on what you personally can do. This list may be short or long, but it needs to be very specific.
3. Intentionally choose which step you will focus on first.
Don’t try to implement a long list of life changes all at once. Rather, start with one step, and make sure it is realistic and possible.
4. Evaluate your progress at a pre-determined time.
For instance, let’s say you decided to sort through one drawer a day in your kitchen. Count the number of drawers in your kitchen, and then look ahead on your calendar that same number of days and assign yourself the task of evaluating your performance. During the intervening days, track your progress. You can put a check mark on a chart or in your calendar. When the day to review arrives, consider how well you did. Once again, bear in mind that your kitchen may not look any different from when you began for a variety of reasons (e.g., people are still piling stuff up in your kitchen, your kitchen is still quite small with limited storage, etc.). Nevertheless, if you stuck with your goal of reviewing one drawer a day, that is tangible progress worth celebrating!
If you fell short of your goal, this is the time to reevaluate. Ask yourself:
- Why do I think I fell short?
- Do I want to try again to complete this same task?
- Did I find that this was too difficult a task for me to stick with?
- Can I tweak this object to make it smaller/easier, or do I need help to make it happen?
- Do I want to try focus on another task from my list instead?
Make a new “contract” with yourself and start again. Each time, remind yourself to focus on keeping the deal with yourself, rather than on the visible results you are getting. The big “win” is to realize that progress is having behaved in such a way that you are pleased with yourself. Even if the results are slow to come, you can still feel good about the efforts you are making.
* * *
Once you prove to yourself that you can make incremental, but consistent, changes, you realize that the world is your oyster. You have agency over your life. When you make choices that align with your goals and desires, you are making progress. Small steps start to add up, giving you a sense of satisfaction and achievement that isn’t based on circumstances, outcomes, or the way other people behave.
What if you make progress but still aren’t getting the results you desire? Since we cannot wave a magic wand and change our world or others, the best question to ask is, “Am I doing all that I can?” If you hit a wall, this is a great time to invite an expert into your situation.