How to Trick Yourself into Making Real Progress

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By Janet Choi


Progress motivates like no other method.

Thanks to rigorous research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, authors of the aptly titled The Progress Principle, we know that it’s not money, fame, or fear that drives us to do our best work. Instead, it’s making progress on meaningful work that’s key for staying motivated, productive, and creative.

Even small steps count. Events and experiences that seem trivial or take mere minutes help to build that sense of progress, whether it’s having a constructive chat with a coworker about how your project’s going, a particularly positive customer interaction, or fixing a paragraph in your report.

Progress is so alluring that even the illusion of forward steps increases your drive — which means you might not be taking full advantage of how progress motivates to kick-start your productivity.

Even the Illusion of Progress Motivates

As early as the 1930s, when psychologist Clark Hull noticed that rats tried harder and ran faster as they got to the end of a maze, closer to their reward of food, he identified the goal gradient effect. People, not being so different here, feel a similar extra boost when that finish line is in sight.

The goal gradient effect even applies to something as mundane as those coffee shop loyalty cards. Researchers at Columbia University found that the nearer you are to earning that sweet free beverage, the more likely you are to buy a coffee to get there. A free coffee is a pretty small win indeed, but it’s that satisfaction of making progress that’s stirring enough to change your behavior. In fact, we like that sense of progress so much that, even the mere appearance of progress has an effect.

In the study, the scientists gave one group of café customers a card that required 10 stamps to redeem a free coffee and another group a 12-stamp card with 2 “bonus” stamps already on it. Even though both groups had to make the same ten purchases to win their free coffee, the 12-stamp group zoomed ahead of the 10-stamp group. They won their free drinks 20% faster.

sample loyalty coffee cards

What’s more, the study suggests that the 12-stamp loyalty-card holders experienced more intrinsic motivating. This group was noticeably happier, as they were more likely to smile, chat with the coffeeshop employees, and leave tips.

The Importance of Timing

For most of us, there’s no real equivalent to preexisting “bonus” stamps for our work — but what we can take away from the coffeeshop experiment is the benefit of planning goals to be more attainable and when to do so.

Getting started on big projects and tasks is often the highest hurdle to getting it done, so breaking goals down into smaller bites and smaller wins in the very beginning is probably the most beneficial. Productivity blogger Merlin Mann taps into this technique with his “dash” idea to get your motivation and productivity rolling:

[A] dash … is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project.

Not only is it near impossible to argue that you’re too busy or tired to deal with tiny pebbles, you stand to gain that bonus boost of motivation, and maybe a dose of happy as well.

The Columbia researchers also discovered that we slow down immediately after reaching our goal. While it makes sense that you don’t finish one race and then pop up to keep racing in another, sometimes that’s how we treat work, as if it were this continuous, never-ending sprint. Understanding the natural momentum of our motivation can help us manage those slow phrases better — getting much-needed rest, reflecting on what’s happened, and figuring out the next small steps.

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Even though it seems silly to plan out such easy, trivial, or short first steps, dashes are almost not about the work itself but getting you moving, not a transformation but a shift that will move you.

There is, of course, the curse of wasted time, the deception of false progress, and the trap of busyness — monsters that we generally want to avoid. But sometimes doing that one pushup and then the next one, or starting with five minutes of that crazy presentation you’re working on or bashing the keys to get the words to come out is just what you need.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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