Recognition is not what primarily motivates us.

It matters.  But what works significantly better is “the power of progress.” Contradicting unanimous opinions of managers, employees universally identified two key motivators:  “making headway” or “help overcoming obstacles” so they could make progress. That’s according to authors Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, who debunk the myth that recognition is the top motivator. Based on their multi-year study, “making progress in one’s work — even incremental progress — is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation.” The results are highlighted in the Harvard Business Review: Breakthrough Ideas for 2010.

Keeping your eye on the goal isn’t enough. I find it’s hard to feel progress when I focus only on the very end.  Wrestling with day-to-day problems — mistakes, conflicting opinions, missed deadlines, yet another revision — and the goal seems too impossible to reach.  It’s even worse for me when there isn’t a firm deadline.  Projects drift into never-never land.  It seems like a complete waste of time — a real motivation killer.

Smell the roses; celebrate your progress. (Photo K. Parkhill)

Pay attention to milestones, small victories, or bits of progress along the way. It may seem trite, but it’s really not — we need to smell the roses along the way.  All too often we finish a project only to instantly switch our focus to seemingly endless list of projects. 

Maybe your manager or team isn’t great at tracking progress. It doesn’t matter.  You can take the initiative for yourself — maybe for your team, too.  Who knows, you might infect your colleagues, maybe even your boss, with a renewed sense of accomplishment.

Without any staff or budget, marketing guru and author/blogger Seth Godin did just that. He worked a little harder.  In his book Tribes, Godin talks about launching a newsletter just to chronicle the progress of every person that worked on his project.  At first, hardly anyone noticed, but eventually everyone in the department cared.  He was sharing what he called “the quest” — the tangible progress. Godin is a strong proponent of personal leadership, regardless of your formal job title. He encourages us all to be rabble-rousers, to dare to change the status quo.   Why? Because it “is not only profitable, but fun too.”

As if you needed any other reason — do it for yourself. No, it won’t change everything; but it might change something. You might be surprised.  You might start to feel a little less stressed, even more motivated, if you track your progress.

What can you do to feel progress?

  1. Create a milestone calendar. Plot the course, not every little bit of progress, but enough of the milestones along the way. It can ultra simple, just an entry on your personal google calender.  Or it can be public…post it on your blog or newsletter.  The key is to make sure you actually use it.
  2. Tackle a small project. Complete it.  Get it checked off the list!
  3. Recognize mini-milestones. Celebrate — by yourself or with your team.  Find a way to make it meaningful — but not too complex.  Sometimes it’s enough to take a break, bring people together to remind yourself how far you’ve come.  Other times you’ll want to do something special.  Who doesn’t like going out for lunch? Make a point to compliment the progress of others too.  Maybe you’ll start a trend!
  4. Mark the completed project with something memorable. Whenever I finish a major project, I do something to mark the occasion.  As an art lover, I usually end up buying artwork.
  5. Help someone on your team make progress. Sometimes a little support goes a long way.  Brainstorm solutions. Take something off of their plate. Or work alongside them to finish a project.

If you’re serious about tracking your progress, you might find these helpful:

Google Calendar as a To-Do List & Task Management App

WikiHow: How to Effectively Track and Accomplish Your Goals

Dumb Little Man: 7 Great Ways To Track Your Progress Towards Your Goals

Can’t we all use more ways to feel like we’re making real progress? Having a mentor to talk to can help too.  Not only can they provide objective insights, they help us feel supported when things aren’t working the best and celebrate when they are.

What do you do to set milestones and feel you’re making real progress?

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