The Mindset Series: 3 mindsets for a healthier and a more effective approach to self-improvement.
Note: This post is about a switch in mindset from focusing on progress instead of results. It's part 3 in my mindset series. For part 1 - about how acceptance leads to improvement - click here. For part 2 - about how to switch from self to behavior - click here.
Eating an elephant one bite at a time.
Big projects are exciting. They can generate more or deeper results than many small ones. However, big projects can be too big. Or at the very least, appear too big. They’re daunting. Stifling. I mean, where to start? The amount of stuff that needs to happen is overwhelming! What that I can do today can possibly make a difference? Plus, I don’t know everything I need to know. I’m not able to do all the things that are needed to successfully finish the project.
What helps me in these situations is to make an exciting project boring. I need to take a moment to step back and look at this project for a second. I can ask questions about this project. Like, what is essential for the success of the project? What are the components of the project? Who could help me? Or, what are the million small things that need to happen to accomplish the overall goal?
This breaks up that mystical and too exciting project into real and concrete steps. And even though I can’t possibly fathom the exact steps I will need to take at the end of the project. I can get a good enough idea of the basis of the project. That allows me to formulate steps that I can start with. Steps that I think will help me in the long run.
And not doing those steps now, then simply is delaying when I get started. Not starting today is losing time. Time that goes to waste. And losing is not something that I like. So I can better get started.
Now everything I do might not immediately generate results. Building a house requires laying many bricks. And I can only live in it once it’s finished. But the brick I lay today is getting me one step closer to finishing the house. And thus is progress and counts.
It’s not just the last step - the brick that finishes the house - that creates the result. Every little step before has created it. So treat every small step of progress with the respect and celebration it deserves.
It’s like celebrating your life only on your birthday while every day your living. Oh wait. We do that? Whoops.
Foundational and Iterative Progress
Taking that one step further. When creating an overview of my projects, most steps I think of are productive ones. The to-do’s. Checking these off are clear indicators of progress. But what I usually don’t think of explicitly, is what is necessary for me to be able to take all these steps. The things that lay the foundation.
In order to be productive or come up with ideas, there is a lot of pre-work that I need to do. Read up on things to figure out an answer for some part of the problem. Get the others in the project aligned on the steps to take. And most shocking of all, I also need to rest enough to be able to do all of this. All of these “non-productive” things lay the foundation for me to be able to do the things that mattered for the project. They need to happen just as much. Without them, no project. Therefore, doing them is progress and they count just as much.
A house is build one brick at a time. Sure. But you also need to learn the bricklaying techniques and take many naps to recover from all that bricklaying. And working out to get fit is work too.
Next to foundational work there is also iterative work. In projects that are complex, we can’t think our way to the finish line. Most creative work and work involving people are like this. There are too many variables at play to keep track of. Meaning most projects require us to take steps that might not work. We can minimize the risks and prepare as best we can. But we can’t be certain of success.
And thus shit will go wrong. Mistakes will be made. But when we planned to the best of our abilities this is ok. We couldn’t have done it better and only now we can see it was the wrong way. See, in complex work, realizing you made a mistake is golden. That moment is success. Sure we planned wrong. But because we planned to the best of our abilities, it was the best we could do. And only by doing it did we find a better way. Thus, it was necessary progress. It was a success. You’re flowing your way to the end result, one mistake at a time.
So writing a book is done one word at a time. Sure. But you can’t simply think them up in the right order. So you have to write a million more words that turn out not making it. And building a business is done one business deal at a time. Sure. But you also need to have a shitload of meetings, correct mistakes and put out numerous fires.
This means that I’m not only successful when I do something productive or find the right words. Sure, those moments are fun. And sure-2, not all busywork is actual progress. But success is getting myself to do a small thing every day. Plus doing the things that enabled me to do that. It was not the results, it was the progress.
What I need to do right now
If there are a million things to do, what is it that I need to do right now? This question helps me to get clear what success is today. For the moment where I am now. I don’t need to finish that whole project now. I just need to take the first bite. Or 10 days in, I just need to take that 11th bite. To make today a successful day, I just need to make these adjustments to a model, write a few words and have that meeting. Well, I can do that!
So every time I feel overwhelmed like “holy crap, I need to do so much stuff this week.” I focus my attention back on what I need to be doing right now. Making it small and controllable.
Or when I feel I’m running behind schedule, I remember that it doesn’t matter what I wanted to have done by now. All I can influence is what I’m about to do right now. Success is the progress I make today.
And to be honest, when I say every time, I mean any time that I can actually remember to do it.
Then there are the times I start comparing myself to others. That I’m not at a certain level yet. I always highly overestimate how fast others got to where they are. Overnight success doesn’t exist!
More importantly, I need to remember that others don’t matter. That it doesn’t matter what others have accomplished. I should judge my success based on myself. So I need to be honest with myself, look through the bullshit of all the expectations I laid on myself and figure out what it is that I need to do now. What does success look like for me?
All I can do is be in a game with myself. I’m the only player in this game. And whether I win or not is by being better than the person I was yesterday. Or not, if I don’t want to play and just want to be.
It’s a sort of mindfulness for projects.
It’s about the journey
Now it’s good to remember that by doing all this, you don’t actually change what needs to happen to finish something. Taking a step back might reveal more than you originally knew about the project. And including all that necessary foundational and iterative progress reveals even more. Making the necessary daily grind visible. That in itself might make it even more overwhelming. But that’s good. Maybe you shouldn’t start then. Because if you do, better like what you’re going to be doing then.
Never do work that is only 1% fun, when the 99% is something you hate doing. So, either find a way to make doing it fun. Find a different way to reach that goal. Or, maybe, choose a different project.
Remember that you’re living your life while working on these things. It’s your time that you’re spending. Time you can only spend once. So make sure it’s either time you spend doing something you love doing. Or time spend helping you to create things you want to see in the world. Or both. So, whether today is a success or not is based on the progress I made today and the fun I had.
And this has a scary component to it. Because it puts you on the hook to make your life worthwhile now. That it’s up to you to be happy now. Not when you have achieved things. You don’t get to wait to start playing when you think you’ve got enough chips. The game has already started!
So an elephant is finished at some point. I mean, there is a clear border at which the elephant begins and stops. Some projects are like that. They have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.
But some important ones don't. Think of things like running a business, being in a relationship or your health. You’re never done with these. Without that end there is no clear ending to measure success against.
In these cases, it becomes even more important to clearly mark you successes. To define for yourself what success looks like. And if that is success, what is progress?
Because there is no end, the question is not so much how can I come closer to finishing. The question really becomes: how can I today improve upon yesterday?
Every day, you have the option to increase your knowledge about a subject. Every day, you can improve your skills by doing more work. Every day, you can improve your relationships. Every day, you can improve your social capital by helping a friend do something meaningful. And by doing that, you daily become better and better. So every day, you can take a small step that increases the value you can offer. And thus, every day you can get a bit closer to your defined milestones of success.
Now it can often be unclear how far you are exactly from reaching that milestone. How much work is required (laid bricks, or hours of practice)? How many more events before your work really takes off? Am I doing it right and am I even doing the right things?
Reaching a milestone is largely outside of your control. Even when you’ve done everything you can do to increase your realm of control. That makes it risky to put too much stock in seeing result from your practice. What is within your control is to continue with your daily improvements.
And whenever you’re feeling discouraged that you’re still not at a certain level, you can do two things. It might be time to re-evaluate what you’re doing. Sure. Sometimes it’s time to call it or find a different way. But watch out for doing that too soon.
Rather, zoom out for a second. How far have you already come? Are you only halfway there? Or have you improved tenfold? Have you only finished half of an outline for your book? Or have you also improved your writing? If so, go back to growing 1% each day!
To sum up
- Start projects by breaking them up into pieces. Every tiny step counts.
- Don’t forget about the foundational and iterative progress.
- Tomorrow and other people don’t matter. You need to focus on what you need to do now.
- Comparing yourself with your former self instead of with others.
- Success is being able to do what you want to be doing now. And doing what truly feels good doing.
- It’s about improving 1% every day.
- So what do you think? I hope this helps you look at your projects and life differently. Good luck. And let me know how it goes!
And if you like this blog. I would be honored if you share it with a friend who would benefit from it. Or even on your preferred social media channel!
Jon Westerberg - 10 Hard Truths About Making Things
Ernst-Jan Pfauth - Je dromen waarmaken? Denk er dan vooral niet aan
Waitbutwhy - How to Beat Procrastination
Amber Rae - Perfection is a serial killer
Carol Dweck (Tedx) - The power of believing that you can improve
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Derek Sivers - Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset
Reboot Podcast - Life beyond compare with Brad Feld