You’ve started a new project. You’re out to lose pounds, or train for a half marathon, or learn to speak French. You were revved to get started, but what’s the trick to keep going? How do you keep the motivation flowing through a long-haul plan toward a meaningful goal?
The middle of the path toward completing a tough goal can be fraught with a kind of quicksand that sinks the effort. Life can get in the way: job stress, family obligations, school work, relationships, boredom.
For one reason or another, you lose contact with the goal and it fades into oblivion.
One Motivational Tool Above Them All
There’s no shortage of motivational tools and hacks. Some you may have heard of:
- Pump yourself up with music.
- Repeat a motivational mantra over and over. “I can do it!”
- Get inspired. Read a biography of someone who has done what you’re setting out to do.
- Have a training partner phone you and guilt-trip you into action.
- Sign up on an online fear-motivation platform. If you fail to meet your goal, you have to eat a can of dog food or money you put up front is donated to a politician you hate.
- Listen to a motivational speaker. A Tony Robbins CD, for example.
That’s a lengthy list, and some of these can work just fine. But research suggests there’s one tool that’s supercharged in a way others are not. A tool that research has shown works. This tool can be described in one word. Progress.
Monitoring Progress is Motivational Magic
Making progress taps sources of energy you didn’t know were there.
Let’s say you’re starting a new 12-week training programme. You’re coming off a exercise break, or maybe have never even been in real shape before. One thing you’re sure of is the first workout is going to suck.
But you want the goal the programme leads to- you are driven towards this goal because you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.
You decide to go for it and commit to a start date. In the days or hours leading up to workout number one it’s dangerously easy to psych yourself out. You start worrying about how uncomfortable the first workouts will feel. Or the gravity of changing your lazy ways for 12 weeks of training just seems to drain the life and energy out of you before the first push-up or lap around a track.
The good news is that you can counter these energy-draining feelings of dread by the simple act of marking progress.
When your brain makes a connection between the work or sacrifice you put in toward the goal and a tangible gain (you lost a pound or can jog a city blog without having to walk), that’s when the sparks fly.
It’s as if you’ve served up that part of your brain hosting all of your self-doubts with a dose of hard evidence. The connection is made: Hey, this exercise stuff works. What else can we do? When’s the next workout?
The Results from Logging Progress is “Robust” Scientists Say
A University of Sheffield review of 138 studies published in the Psychological Bulletin analysed the power of tracking progress.
They concluded, “Progress monitoring has a robust effect on goal attainment and constitutes a key component of effective self regulation.”
The research review not only underscored the effectiveness of tracking progress to produce consistent motivation, it pointed out how you can make the most of this skill.
How to Get the Most Bang Out of Logging Your Progress
The studies followed nearly 20,000 subjects out to tackle health-related goals. Here are some keys to putting the strategy to use yourself.
1. Check your progress frequently
Researchers found that when it comes to harnessing progress to sustain drive and energy to complete a goal, more is more. The more often research participants checked their progress, the more likely they were to see a goal through to success.
Log the details in a workout notebook or an app or post it on your favourite social media platform- whatever is most convenient for you. The key is to check your progress frequently and write it down or log it into your phone or computer.
2. Make it public
Benjamin Harkin, PhD, who led the analysis, said that one sure way to boost the power of progress monitoring was to make it public.
“Specifically, we would recommend that people be encouraged to record, report or make public what they find out as they assess their progress.”
This can be as intimate as sharing results with a training buddy or a partner, to posting your results on social media. Another ideas, you could also hire a coach or join some sort of team effort?
The idea is to put a little pressure on yourself and get some encouragement while you’re at it.
3. Focus on the focus
An interesting point that researchers uncovered was the importance of zeroing in on specifically what you want to achieve.
“The implication of this finding is if you want to change your diet, then monitor what you are eating, but if you want to lose weight, then focus on monitoring your weight,” said Harkin.
Track the weight loss rather than track log your meals, in other words.
4. Harness the power of small wins
It’s called the “Progress Principle.” The Harvard Business School defines the value of smalls like this:
The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.
Harvard is talking about getting more done on the job, but you can apply the idea to tracking progress toward your personal goal.
The magic is in sensing progress. Even if the increment seems small, the feedback showing you (and whoever else you share it with) are climbing the ladder toward a new and better version of you is a fuel source.
Let’s say your goal is an endurance event. You start out low on confidence but with a plentiful supply of flab.
Monitoring the progress of your workouts – jotting down the incremental gains as your endurance, speed, and strength improve – gives you a sense of progress that leads to believing you can actually do what you set out to do on race day.
It seemed improbable at first. But small win by small win, you begin to believe. On day one the idea that you can run 26.2 miles and cross the finish line of a marathon seemed unworldly, if not down right ludicrous.
But halfway through a good marathon training program, as you record your daily and weekly progress step-by-step, the disbelief melts away.
It’s then the goal transitions from being something you hope to achieve, to becoming inevitable.
Set yourself the goal of a Tough Mudder this year.