Motivational Principle Number Four: Measure Your Progress

In a study of professional soccer players from several different countries, the players showed a consistent pattern: A high percentage of them were born at a time that allowed them to be a little older than their peers. In other words, let’s say the school year starts in September and you were born in December. You’re supposed to start kindergarten at five years old, so do you start school when you are almost five, or do you wait a whole year till you’re almost six?

My brother and sister were both in this situation. My sister started early, so throughout her time in school, she was just a little younger than most of her peers. My brother started late so he was always older than most his peers, and it made a difference. He was always a little more developed, a little further along in his physical growth than most of his classmates.

The study of soccer players showed that most of the players who are good enough to become professionals started school a little older than most of their peers because their birthday was in the middle of the school year.

What does this have to do with motivation? Because they started a little late, they were more physically developed than their peers. So when they played sports, they did better than their peers, and the success motivated them.

Success is motivating. Winning is motivating.

One of the most important reasons for making a list and putting it in order is to break the task into small enough pieces that you can experience successes. Those little wins boost your motivation. You can see and feel you’re making progress toward your ultimate goal. You’re winning. And that’s motivating.

One of the most important reasons for managing your challenge (so you stay within the “just right” range) is so you can experience successes, because that will spur you on, arouse your interest, and keep you motivated.

This is all fine and well, but we’ve got a problem. If you can remember back to when I talked about the brain’s negative bias and reality’s negative bias, you realize something: When you’re succeeding but make one little mistake, guess what your mind will fixate on? The mistake, of course.

That’s why you must measure your progress. Find a way to measure your progress so you can counteract the negative bias (keeping you from feeling demoralized by mistakes), and so you can see yourself succeeding (because it raises your motivation).

How do you measure progress? Simple. Take the most important result, mark it on a chart, and post it. For example, I’ve tried several measurements with my writing and found the best one is simply hours spent writing.

I once measured “pages written” because I’d learned many famous writers did it that way. They would set a goal of writing fifty pages a day or something like that. But when I did it, I would hurry through the task and be verbose, like I used to do in high school when I didn’t feel like writing but had a “word count” quota.

Now I measure just the hours I spend, and it works really well. You might think I’d just sit there and use up time, but I never have. I am motivated to write the book or article or whatever, so I end up concentrating fully on the writing. I even found that measuring writing time had an extra advantage because I would take my time with the editing, and improve it a lot because I took the time. I could take all the time I wanted. I was “being paid by the hour.” It's the best measurement to chart for me.

So find one result you can measure. Experiment and see what works best for you, and then put it where you can see it. It could be how many hours a week, how many cold calls, how many resumes mailed out per month. Chart it and post it. Keep it up to date.

Your posted progress becomes a visible success, and it is motivating. Progress feels good. Progress is success.


Another method I use a lot is keeping a backward to do list. It’s a different way to solve the problem we talked about before: The feeling that you’ve worked all day with nothing to show for it.

How many times have you stayed busy all day, but at the end of the day, had the disconcerting feeling that you haven’t really done anything? This makes your actions feel futile and pointless. All that work, all day long, and it feels like you did nothing worthwhile.

How can this even be possible? I wonder if a hunter-gatherer felt that way? I don’t think so. At the end of the day, she’s got a pile of nuts or a dead deer to show for her efforts. Does a bricklayer ever feel like her actions are futile? Doubt it. When she started the day, the wall was only two feet high. Now it is eight feet high.

What I’m driving at here is that the problem is not you. It’s the tasks. The modern world is full of invisible, hard-to-remember activities — banking online, for example. And these activities are not in any way futile or unimportant. They can be very important. But they aren’t visible. Once you finish your banking task, you close your computer, and what happens? Your desk, your world, looks exactly as it did before you started as if nothing has happened.

Now that we can start to see what the problem is, a solution begins to seem obvious: Make a list.

You can make a list of what you will do ahead of time, or you can make a list of what you’ve already done as soon as you finish it, sort of like making a to-do list backwards.

So as soon as you finish your banking, write on a piece of paper, "did the banking." Maybe even put a check mark next to it. Do the dishes, then write it down and check it off. Keep this up all day, and then — and this is the most important part — before you go to bed, read your list. It doesn’t take very long to do, and it gives you three positive benefits:

1. You will no longer feel your actions are futile. You won’t be disheartened by the sense that you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

2. You will feel more motivated. When you see you are in fact, getting things done, some of which are important to your goals, you are motivated to do even more.

3. You will find out how you spend your time. You will improve the way you use your time without even really trying. At the end of the day you’ll look at your list and you’ll see a lot of things you’ve spent part of your day doing were a waste of time. You may be unaware of just how much time you waste, because those activities have been as invisible as your productive tasks.

Make a done list every day, adding to it every time you complete even the smallest task, and at the end of the day, read it over. This is a simple way to measure your progress. It helps you stay focused and it gives you a feedback that you are succeeding, and success is motivating.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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