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How to: progress

Published —
01.24.22
Writer —

Failing to live up to these things is also completely demoralising – at least, it was for me. And so, a couple of years ago I stopped making New Year’s Resolution lists altogether, which also felt reasonably demoralising. I assumed I was bad at setting goals and that was that. But it felt slightly better than kidding myself I was going to start going to the gym every morning before snoozing through my alarm, or waking up mildly hungover on the Saturday after the first week back and thinking I was a complete failure.

After a year of not doing any end of year list, I decided to do something different. Instead of writing a list of things I’d like to do in the next year, a day before the year was due to kick off, I decided to look back at the year I’d just had and list the things that I’d achieved that I was proud of. It was a decent list, and I did feel proud – and it may have largely resembled the kind of list I’d have set at the start of the year, had I made one. It made me think about the things I’d done in order to get these things actually done – the small first step, the hard-won yards, the difficult last few days. All of these things had happened as a result of a series of small steps – things I’d habitually done, repeatedly, in order to end up doing the things I’d done.

 What was wrong wasn’t the goals I’d been setting, just how I’d been measuring them.

I’ve since treated goal setting much differently, even returning to my annual ‘what I’d like to do with the year ahead’ list – even though there are still things that I don’t achieve on it. But it’s not a list of goals any more, it’s a list of intentions – which is probably closer to ‘resolution’ and the way I should have seen it before I turned it into a list of things I had no chance of realistically achieving.

 I actually forgot about the first list I made – and only on reviewing it six months later did I realise that I’d done most of the stuff I’d intended to do. And that’s because next to each of the items on it, I set the next step – something I could do the next day to set me on the course to do it. Even after forgetting the list I’d done something important. I’d made a step forward.

The key, I’ve learned, is to break down anything I’d like to do or things I’m aiming to do into a series of realistic and small steps – things that I can measure by doing them. For me, these need to be things that I can do every day – make them part of my routine. Make them a habit. Even if I forget why I’m doing them, the thing still gets done, that way. This is important for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, by imagining something as part of my daily routine, I’ll instantly know if the goal I’ve set is realistically something I’d like to achieve. If I can’t stick to the small things that I’ll need to do repeatedly, in order for those small actions to make a thing, then I definitely don’t want it enough. Actions express priorities and if I repeatedly fail to make the time for something, then I assess the goal to see if it needs to be altered, filed for later or put in the bin altogether. These small actions are the only way for me to get the momentum I’ll need to do something.

Breaking a goal down into small acts is also important for me because it means that it’s something I get to do regularly. I used to think the phrase, ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ was largely bullshit, but it couldn’t be truer. In order to do the things that I’ve done, I’ve had to do some small things every day. Now, I try and apply this logic to everything that I’m aiming to do – it’s about the journey, after all.

And this also means that things form as a habit as time goes on and become things that I do, or make time for, without thinking too much about them. That’s not to say that the acts aren’t intentional – and for the first month or so (it takes 28 days for a habit to form), it can feel as if I’m fighting to make sure that the things get done every day. But, after that, they can easily slip into my morning coffee habit – I can have finished the coffee and yet not even remembered making it. But the habits also form in other people, too – which can be important in terms of giving you the space you need to do something important.

The other reason that setting smaller goals in service of the larger target is important is that it means I can remain flexible. Contrary perhaps to my previous paragraphs, there are some days when the writing doesn’t come or I don’t journal of a morning, because I’m up 15 minutes later than I’d intended. No bother, that’s life. And a single day off doesn’t mean that I’m too far off track – I haven’t failed, I can pick it back up tomorrow. But this flexibility also allows me to change course reasonably quickly – if my life changes and the thing I want to do moves slightly to the left; I decide I want something to work slightly differently, then I can adjust what I do accordingly – which is much easier if all I’m changing is a series of small acts.

The To do list

The most often-used tool for getting shit done (that’s a technical term) is the trusty ‘to do’ list. ‘To do’ lists come in many forms and there are a plethora of ways to manage them – on your phone, or maybe on whatever scrap of paper is around when you need to write it. And they work – the act of ticking things off a ‘to do’ list gives you a series of little lifts through the day. An actual chemical called dopamine is released in your brain which is both pleasurable and addictive and therefore fuels the motivation to get another tick on the list.

But, in my experience, ‘to do’ lists also need a system – especially if you use several of them to manage different areas of your life, or projects. At the stage when I end up with a ‘to do’ list of ‘to do’ lists, the system begins working against me and anxiety sets in. I’m no longer fully in control of the system – what should be simple is now incredibly complex. The key then is a system which allows you to easily prioritise and stay on top, and the best system I know for that is the Bullet Journal.

The Bullet Journal

The Bullet Journal method was designed by digital product designer, Ryder Carroll, as a way to help him organise all of the things in his life. It’s a paper and pen-based system that logs everything from task lists, events to notes. The method itself is incredibly simple but one of the key elements of it, which works best for me, is that it allows me to migrate tasks which aren’t important into future months, dates, or store them in separate lists. Which is useful for clearing things out of the way, meaning you can make sure the main things remain the main things. You create, monthly lists and then daily task lists, allowing you to easily index. It’s a powerful method and only needs a pen and notepad – or, if you’re a stationary nerd like me, they even have an official Bullet Journal notepad with a handy introduction and the index page already set up. It also has three ribbon markers which are both incredibly useful, and kind of cool – I’d never had a bit of stationary or book before with more than one ribbon-marker.

But writing lists and logging things as they happen also means that you’re creating a record of things that have already been done. By doing this you’re literally logging the progress you’ve made, identifying the steps you’ve taken to get to wherever it is you’re headed. And, most importantly, wherever you are now.

To be able to look back at the things you’ve done is the single most important step, for me, in helping me get a handle on the progress I’m making in whatever it is I’ve set out to do. The list in my bullet journal for the past week shows that, in addition to doing the things that I actually did with my days, I also journaled every day and wrote most days. I know the days when I’ve done things and days when I haven’t – but I can see the progress that I’ve made – it’s right there in my notepad. But it also shows me the series of days when I’ve not done the things that I need to prioritise – and I can therefore adjust future days accordingly. No more beating myself up about failure – just slightly adjusting the days ahead of me.

What’s the one thing that you can do today and repeat tomorrow that will take you closer to your goal?