Progress is Better than Happiness

Goal ProgressWith apologies to General Electric, where “Progress Is Our Most Important Product,” I maintain that progress towards one’s goal(s) is our most important pursuit. Having a goal—to write a book, to become president, to break a record—is not enough. Making progress towards a goal is a significant source of satisfaction regardless of our traits, abilities, values, gender—in short, goal progress is a guaranteed source of satisfaction for everyone.

Research tells us that stretch goals are more satisfying than gimmies. To make progress on something that I’ve done before and know that I can do again without any difficulty or exertion is not as satisfying as taking on something that represents a challenge—something that I’ve not done before, or a familiar task with a challenging twist. For me, writing a book is always a stretch goal, as each book has its unique difficulties and challenges, while making a lanyard from flat, plastic, colorful cords is a gimmie—like flipping flapjacks. Lanyard-making and flapjack-flipping are fun for me but not as deeply satisfying as making progress on a book. Success on the one is assured, while the other requires effortful attention.

The primary hindrance to goal progress is distraction. The Japanese philosopher and music instructor Shinichi Suzuki once wrote that one must practice every day in order to achieve mastery of one’s instrument. He cautioned against skipping a day’s practice—even just five minutes is better than no practice at all. The same principle applies to all goals. Whether writing a book, training for a race, building a mountain cabin, or developing a new relationship, one must do something every day that provides a sense of making progress towards goal attainment. If a book is your goal, and you just cannot make time to write even one paragraph on a given day, there are still many other activities you could engage in that would get you closer to your goal—you could read relevant sources, google relevant topics for new information, review what you’ve written to date, organize your next chapter by creating a mind map, ask questions of your associates who could provide insight on how to organize or proceed with your writing, and so forth. If you are training for a race and face a wintry mix outside, then you could do indoor exercises, read racing literature for inspiration, study the latest findings on nutrition and racing, organize your training journal, and so on. There is always something we can do that will nudge us towards our goal, if only slightly. If you are preparing for a steeplechase and your body won’t allow you to get in the saddle, then work on your boots, read a Dick Francis novel, visualize your event, google for new resources on steeplechasing, research for new studies on horse nutrition and nurture.

Rome was not built in a day. Anders Ericsson writes that it takes 10,000 of deliberate practice to develop expertise. Don’t let distractions of any form—weather, seduction, illness, schedule conflicts—prevent you from making some kind of progress every day. At the very least, you can always get organized for tomorrow!

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