Happiness and Small Progress

For most people, it’s easy to notice the big achievements in life: finally cleaning the entire house after ignoring it for half a year, finishing your dissertation, going through 2000 unread email messages that have been stressing you out for months.  But sometimes envisioning the end result isn’t enough.  You stand in the middle of the room gaping at the mess around you, you sit frozen in front of your blank Word document, you notice with a sinking feeling there are now 2001 unread messages, and you feel overwhelmed with somehow even less motivation to take care of business.  You’re feeling anything but happy and you desperately try to come up with some barely justifiable reason to ignore the problem a little longer.

What do you do to actually get going?  Here’s what doesn’t work – flogging yourself with shame and guilt and fear, then setting unreasonable goals for yourself.  “I should be able to do this.  Everyone else does it with no problem, what’s wrong with me?  I shouldn’t have put this off for so long.  I’m wasting time – this has to get done soon!  I’m just going to stop messing around and do the whole thing right now.”  Besides probably being ineffective, it’ll strengthen your bad feelings and the inertia, and chip away at your self-esteem.

So here’s my short and sweet antidote for project stuck-ness: step, notice, reward.  Select one small initial step and do that.  It doesn’t matter how small it is; you just have to be able to do it right then.   Acknowledge that you did it – revel in it!  Then reward yourself in some quick way, either praise or some outside reward.  You’ll learn the task is do-able and you feel good about it.  You’ll find you have at least enough energy to do the next small step (and if you don’t, make the step smaller).  Keep noticing these small bits of progress and rewarding them, and pretty soon you’ll have gained the momentum needed to keep moving towards your goal. 

Not convinced?  Have you ever taught a child to tie their shoe, or gotten a dog to learn a new trick?  If you were successful at it, you probably introduced things one manageable step at a time and then used praise or an external reward to reinforce what they did.  You knew shame and guilt and fear would make them shut down and stop trying.  Why not treat yourself as well as you treat them?   You deserve it!