Noticing progress - helpful or harmful?

This post was originally going to be about how noticing that you've made progress is a really useful motivational habit when it comes to expanding your comfort zone (and of course more generally). But whilst awareness of progress can sometimes be motivating, sometimes it seems that progress can have the opposite effect: we take it as an excuse to lie back and relax, often for longer than is beneficial. This made me think about how achievement and progress affect our motivation generally, and how this has applied to my own experiences challenging myself over the past few months. When is tracking progress helpful, and when might it actually be counterproductive?

When noticing progress helps

Last week, I gave two talks about work I did last year with 80,000 Hours (one at Warwick University introducing the organisation, the second at Cambridge University talking about some research I did on job satisfaction.)

I realised afterwards that I’ve really improved at public speaking - both in terms of my actual performance and my confidence. Less than a year ago the thought of giving these talks would have made me nervous weeks in advance, but now I’m really only nervous just beforehand. My mind used to freeze and I used to rush through talks at lightning speed, but now I know I’m managing to speak more naturally and clearly. The positive feedback I got - from other people, but even more my sense of accomplishment and achievement - felt great, and really encouraging. I now feel more motivated to push myself to speak publicly and improve further than I did before.

Intuitively it makes sense that realising you’ve progressed would be motivating. Achievement, quite simply, feels good, so we’d expect a feeling of progress to reinforce the behaviour that led to it in the first place - i.e. motivate you to progress further. If you have some large goal in mind (say, being comfortable talking in front of large audiences!), realising you’re closer to that goal than you were before also acts as evidence that you can improve, and so progress even further, which can also be motivating. This is supported by a body of research into the psychology of motivation, which suggests that making progress or “small wins” is the single most important factor for motivation, and that a sense of self-efficacy is also crucial.

When noticing progress harms  

On the other hand, it seems like sometimes we also use progress as an excuse to lie back and relax. I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here. I haven’t been back into the free weights room since that first time I wrote about it, even though I’ve been back to the gym multiple times. The first time I went back I had a sense of “well I went last time, so I can let myself off this time - it’s *really* busy today and I’m very tired...” (notice the excuses creeping back in?!) Then the next time it was even harder to go in, because I hadn’t gone the last time... the “progress” I made by going into the free weights room in the first place doesn’t seem to have helped motivate me to do it again.  

Studies support the idea that sometimes noticing progress can be discouraging, not encouraging. A group of dieters who were reminded of their progress were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over an apple than those who hadn’t been given positive feedback. Students who felt they’d spent a lot of time studying comparatively were much more likely to take the night off and go out partying (reference).

So which is it? Helpful or harmful?

There seem to be two directly conflicting ideas about the effect of noticing progress on motivation. In some cases, realising you’ve moved closer to your goal can motivate you to progress yet further - but in others, it seems that it might be used as an excuse to take a break or indulge ourselves. Which is the correct account of the relationship between progress and motivation?

I expect both are partially correct - progress can sometimes be motivating, but also risks being viewed as an excuse if we’re not careful. One explanation for the difference (suggested by the researchers who conducted the study with dieters and students) is that it depends on how we view progress. If we view progress as evidence that we’re really committed to our goal, and that we can achieve it, it’s likely to increase motivation to pursue the goal. On the other hand, if we’re simultaneously pursuing multiple goals, progress might be seen as evidence that one goal is being “taken care of”, and so as justification for then pursuing other, perhaps less important, goals at the expense of the main goal. This seems to be a nice alternative way of thinking about a lot of issues of self-control and motivation - often there is a bigger, more long-term goal (e.g. losing weight, getting a degree) and smaller short-term conflicting goals (enjoying food, having a fun social life.) Progress on the long-term goal might in some contexts be seen as evidence of commitment, so inspire further progress - but other times be used as an excuse for indulgences.

In my case, it seems like I do certainly have two very clearly conflicting goals: a long-term goal of expanding my comfort zone, and a short-term goal of not doing things that make me uncomfortable. The difficulty is staying focused on the long-term goal when it explicitly requires me to do things that go against my goals in the short term. The nice thing about progress is that it helps to reinforce the importance of the long-term goal over the short-term goal, but there have definitely been times where I’ve used it as an excuse to retreat back to what’s comfortable. This idea of framing progress as evidence of commitment to a goal, and the ability to achieve it, certainly seems like one that could be helpful here.

How can you use progress as motivation, not an excuse?

  • Make sure you’re clear what goal you’re aiming for. I think part of the reason progress was motivating for me in the case of public speaking, but not the gym, was that in the former case I had a clearer goal: get *really* good at public speaking. Feeling I’d improved was evidence that I’d moved closer to my goal, but I knew I wasn’t there yet. When it came to the free weights room, my goal was really “go into the free weights room once” - which, once I’d achieved, I didn’t feel the need to do again. But what my goal should really have been was “be comfortable enough to go in regularly.”
  • Each time you notice yourself progressing towards a goal, view it as evidence that:
    • (a) You’re committed to that goal
    • (b) You have the ability to reach that goal

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever allow yourself small rewards or breaks for your progress. But try to view these explicitly as rewards, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can relax because your main goal is “taken care of.”