Progress, Not Perfection, is the Way
When you set a goal, do you focus on what you have yet to achieve, or on the progress you’ve made?
How do you keep the momentum going when you’re not at your peak?
Do you measure success against an ideal, or against what you gained?
This is episode 39: Progress, Not Perfection, is the Way
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach and host for this show.
As I mentioned in Episode 38, I’m experiencing grief as I mourn the death of a loved one. But even in the midst of profound sadness, I’m finding that you can make room for joy, laughter, comfort, and even progress in daily life. You can keep practicing good habits, engaging in active rest, and taking care of the essentials. These actions are important for maintaining health and wellness, which you need especially in tough times.
Progress comes from positive inner work life, say researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their book The Progress Principle. Your perceptions, emotions and motivation levels affect your performance. Favorable perceptions about your work and colleagues, positive emotions like joy and excitement, and higher intrinsic motivation lead to better performance. The most critical factor in shaping your inner work life is your sense of making progress in meaningful things. This is known as the progress principle.
Small wins make you more productive, creative, committed, collegial, and focused. When you track the progress you’ve made, no matter how small, you gain confidence that builds on the momentum. With an incremental approach, you take daily actions that move you in the right direction, instead of take big leaps that are more likely to steer you off course.
You’re not just checking things off the to-do list and getting many things done as quickly as possible. You’re being more intentional about your daily actions. You give yourself enough time, but not too much, to accomplish what matters. You feel challenged and motivated, but not rushed and overstressed.
Defining specific targets and clear goals is a catalyst for progress. They help you decide what’s important and what has value. You get to determine if it’s worth it to spend your time and effort on this project or this task. You pay attention, stay engaged and stick to actions that will help create desired results. You’re not distracted, disengaged or disillusioned.
As you set high and expansive goals, you have milestones and mini-goals along the way to track your progress and to course correct. You can learn from your mistakes, celebrate your wins and achieve one important thing after another, day by day.
You’re not worrying about going down the long road to mastery. You’re maintaining a positive mindset as you experience the progress loop. You understand that any big project will have obstacles and you embrace them as part of the learning process.
Even as you face setbacks and dips, you experience an upward trend in overall progress. You guard against the downward spiral and negative loops by not repeating the same mistakes or getting swept away by mistakes. Listen to Episode 36, how to learn and master any skill for more on this.
There are different pathways to create a meaningful and satisfying life. If you don’t achieve the goal, it doesn’t mean what you did was a waste. You learned, you grew, and you became a better person as a result of the experience. You gained wisdom and insights that you would not otherwise have.
To make progress, focus on one important thing before your day gets hijacked by distractions and interruptions – whether it’s from social media, unscheduled phone calls, or perhaps your kids wanting attention.
Stop comparing yourself to others. People in higher places can be sources of inspiration. But they are examples of how you too can step up and keep going, not demotivators to step down or give up. You don’t have to compete against others for limited opportunities or to measure yourself against external reference points. Figure out ways to make and follow your own unique path. Measure yourself against your own internal standards.
If you devalue your progress because you’re too focused on perfection or the ideal, you lose momentum.
Reflect on your progress and gains and how you got better day by day. What you couldn’t do yesterday, you can do now. What you didn’t know last month, you know now. Incremental, consistent improvement grows into expertise and mastery. Having gratitude and celebrating progress help you to focus on what you have, not on what you lack.
Small wins improve your inner work life and make every day a success. Doing one truly meaningful thing matters more than checking off all your to-dos. Even if your day didn’t go as planned, you likely did something to move further along the path. Even if you didn’t reach the ultimate goal, you still gained – you grew your imagination, acquired knowledge, built confidence and became more skilled at navigating setbacks.
When I had to take the bar exam to become a lawyer, I didn’t spend hours reading and rereading to master the material. I found it more effective to do many practice tests, score poorly at first, and focus on what I got wrong, and what I didn’t know. I corrected the mistakes early in the practice tests instead of dealing with them in the exam.
In life, be willing to invest in loss and try things out instead of worrying about getting it right and perfect. Why be embarrassed just because you’re naïve and unskilled? You don’t develop mastery without first starting as a beginner or a novice.
Applying lessons from your mistakes is more critical than being perfect. This doesn’t mean you’re free to perform poorly or make shoddy work product. Rather, you’re practicing deliberately to build the skill sets for success.
Making mistakes and encountering obstacles are part of the learning process. By breaking big projects into smaller chunks, you give yourself more opportunities to make errors with lower stakes and fewer consequences. Whether you’re launching a marketing campaign, composing a song, or writing a book, you need to have a feedback loop. You need to have prompts to adjust tactics and strategies and to switch methods and approaches.
When you’re learning and growing, it’s hard to reach the ideal and be done. Because as you learn and grow, your goals expand, your priorities shift, and your beliefs change. What matters more is the gains and progress you made, no matter how imperfect and incomplete they might be.
I’m in maintenance mode as I record this episode. I’m in a season now where I will be making the minimum viable effort to get things done well and done consistently. During this transition period, new episodes on The Incrementalist might be shorter or less than weekly. Nevertheless, progress remains a core principle.
In my book, The Incrementalist, I write, “As a productivity system, Incrementalism does not require you to have willpower and motivation to get the right things done. By breaking the project down into small steps and micro-goals, you can get curious about what works and what doesn’t, and develop routines and schedules that keep you on track no matter what. You concentrate on daily progress, instead of the big goal you want to accomplish.”
If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and network. And subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts or other app to get new releases as soon as they drop. Your five-star rating and review will help others find the show. Thank you for joining me and tune in again to The Incrementalist.
Join our newsletter
Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit