Creating a Sense of Progress

One of the biggest challenges for any kind of knowledge worker, especially for those who work independently, is feeling like you're never making any progress. When I was a teacher I very rarely felt like I was making any progress because I felt like I was on a treadmill of lesson prep and delivery. When I got to graduate school I quickly realized that the work never finished there either. No matter how caught up I thought I was, there's always something else I could/should be doing. Now that I have one foot in graduate school and one foot in my professional/entrepreneurial career, I'm realizing that sense of progress I've been craving and missing from before is still the same.

Occasionally, though, I'll get a glimpse of what it feels like to truly make progress. I'll have a big week and knock off two or three meaty and substantial projects. It'll feel like I have actually covered some ground -- that I've moved from point A to a distant point B and it feels incredible. For that reason, I've been trying to pay closer to attention to how I can build more progress into my work.

First, progress is simply the sensation of moving forward on meaningful projects. It's not simply doing a lot of stuff, it's doing a lot of the right stuff. It's the sensation that arises when you realize you're actually closing the gap between reality and your goals. It's being able to look at the ground you've covered so far and making a realistic prediction about when you might be able to finish something.

Second, developing a sense of progress is vital to experiencing flow in your work. In his research Csikszentmihalyi identified three prerequisites to experiencing flow: having a high skill/challenge ratio, having clear goals, and having clear feedback. The combination of having clear goals and clear feedback is also called progress. Without it you don't know if you're heading in the right direction and you're never able to fully lose yourself in the task at hand because you'll be too preoccupied.

Without a sense of progress it's a given that there will be no flow. You will also lose motivation. You will be frustrated. You will push yourself closer and closer to burnout.

Luckily, there are some things you can do to help create a sense of progress as a highly autonomous worker dealing with data, information, and knowledge instead of widgets to be cranked. Here are a handful of my favorites.

1. Work Logs: Looking back at what you accomplished at the end of a period of time and making some kind of record of it is a great way to cultivate a sense of progress. You could close out your day by taking 5-10 minutes and writing out what you did. I actually really like to do this on a monthly basis by asking myself, "What notable things did I do this month?" It's very cool to be able to look back at 12 months of entries and see a complete list of all the things I did that I felt were notable.

2. Keeping a Shipped List: When you finish something substantial don't just cross it off your list and let it slip into the depths of your memory! Slap that bad boy on a "shipped list" and keep it somewhere prominent! I like to keep part of my whiteboard reserved for a list of the major projects I've shipped in the past 2-3 months. It feels good to look at it and see how much I've accomplished.

3. Setting Clear Goals: Like I mentioned when writing about flow earlier, having clear goals is a key component of getting a sense of progress. Goals can operate at multiple different levels, but there are two types of goals I tend to set that I think have the biggest impact on my sense of progress; daily and weekly. Weekly goals are set during my Weekly Review and are usually 1-3 large/medium things I want to accomplish over the work week. Daily goals are the 2-3 things I should accomplish on that specific day to feel like I did what I set out to do. Force yourself to make your goals specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART, yo!).

4. Using Checklists: Checklists are a relatively new addition to my workflow but I'm really digging the sense of progress they give me. I wrote more about them here but in a nutshell checklists help me offload the chore of remembering the specific things I know I have to do in order to have a good day/week/month. As an added bonus (and particularly relevant for creating a sense of progress) checking items off a checklist is supremely satisfying and a great way to feel like you're making progress.


If you have other ways you build a sense of progress into an otherwise progress-less work life I'd love to hear about your strategies in the comments!

Photo by Brent Daley