To keep making progress, start small and get better. Oh, and love your own limits.
When we fail to reach our goals, or carry around a stack of unfinished projects, we end up carrying around a mental burden. We’re trained to think of failure as a negative. And we want closure on things. Open yet incomplete projects leave us feeling like we have a long list of undones. (Because we do!)
Over time, the perceived negativity of failing, plus the burden of the undone, will sap our energy and motivation.
Our Need for Progress
Some people choose to give up on goals or big projects altogether; the mental burden becomes too heavy. The risk of failure seems overwhelming. But we need growth in order to feel alive and fulfilled.
Making progress on something — a small or large projects, a big or small risk, a personal or work-related endeavor — requires effort and growth from us. And without growth, we feel stagnant and uninterested. We become unmotivated. Even with work we love and relationships we value, lack of growth devalues.
It coats everything in dull gray.
Avoiding goals and challenges is a good way to avoid failure, yes. But it also requires us to forego growth and progress. It’s self-protective, the psychic equivalent of curling up in the fetal position and telling the world — and your ambitions — to leave you alone.
The Trifecta of Failure
The problem to fix is the type of goals we set, or projects we take on, and how we go about pursuing them.
There are three issues that steer us wrong:
- A mindset that says more is always better,
- A lack of awareness of our own limitations, and
- A need to prove ourselves.
These three things combine into an unpleasant trifecta that cause us to create goals that are unreasonable and unsustainable. And, often, they’re not even related to what we value. If we set goals to “prove ourselves” to someone or some group, we get caught up in what seems impressive or meaningful to that group. That’s great, if it’s also meaningful to us. But many times, it isn’t, and we waste our precious time and energy pursuing goals that we don’t really value.
Let’s stop doing that.
If we turn those three issues around, we can find a path that helps us to grow consistently. We can learn to make progress — regular, small steps of progress — that add up to reaching our goals.
Stop Skipping Levels
Instead of a mindset that says more is always better, let’s cultivate a mindset that says enough is best.
Enough is all that you can handle. Enough is you reaching your goals. If you’re at level 3 in some pursuit, the next goal is level 4, not level 10. Reaching level 4 is enough. Attempting to reach level 10 in some giant leap is too much; it’s too much to attempt and it’s too much to achieve. You need the lessons and skills you master in levels 4 through 9 in order to do justice to level 10.
To apply this concept to your own goals and projects, start by looking at the big picture. It’s good to get a broad, long-term perspective on what you want to do. But don’t stop with that picture. Turn from the binoculars to the microscope: focus on the smallest, next level in your progress. Then, in turn, focus on the smallest next step needed to reach that level.
Take that microscopic step every day (or on some other regular basis) to make continual progress.
Embrace Your Limitations
Instead of refusing to see our limitations, let’s embrace them. Creativity thrives in constraints. Every production of value, whether in art or science, technology or industry, came to us via limitations. There are limitations of decision: the artist decides to create a particular painting, choosing one option over all other available options.
There are limitations of need, resources, time, methodology, and more. Each limitation forces the person or group to focus on finding a specific solution. Often, it’s in these solutions that the creative breakthroughs come.
Your own limitations are not a set of chains to bind you; they are a set of markers to steer you. They are the map you follow to your own success. They provide a built-in set of decisions, a way to help you navigate the endless world of options. Set goals that make use of your strengths and abilities, without asking you to be something you are not.
Work for Your Values
Instead of trying to prove ourselves, let’s figure out what we value and work for those values. This approach makes all the difference. Working for what you value means you have goals that excite and energized you.
Working to prove yourself, on the other hand, means you start off in a position of stress and uncertainty. The stress only increases; if you achieve your goal, you still can‘t be sure that you’ve done enough. The need to prove yourself is never satisfied by achievement. It’s only quieted when you turn your attention to the value that’s already in you.
Figuring out what you value isn’t easy, but it’s worth your effort. Start by looking at what you do for fun, what you’ll do for free, and what you’ve done forever.
- For fun: when the process is as fulfilling as the end result, you’re on track.
- For free: when the value you get from the work itself means more than the money, you’re on track.
- Forever: when you can trace this particular thread (topic or medium, area of interest or mode of expression) far back in your life, you’re on track.
When you’re working for your values, you find that your energy and abilities increase.
Meaning creates motivation, in other words.
However, you still don’t have to achieve some superhuman level to make progress. Work at a sustainable level; for most of us, with many demands and connections in daily life, a sustainable level means a very small action. Make sure it’s a small action that doesn’t ask you to operate outside of your limitations.
Do that action consistently; as it become habitual at, you can increase what you’re doing. Often, however, you’ll find that the consistent small action adds up to a big amount of progress. And making progress, at any goal that matters, is the real goal, after all.
Header photo by Sushobhan Badhai on Unsplash.