Three Simple Strategies to Improve Progress, Decisions and Goals

1. Record Small Wins

It’s easy to focus on what’s not working while simultaneously forgetting how far we’ve come. We are wired to feel this way, thanks to negativity bias, a concept that highlights how negative things such as thoughts, emotions or social interactions have a larger impact on one’s psychological state than positive ones. Knowing this, we can place some importance on writing down and recording our wins each day.

Big wins are easy to spot. You got a promotion or the project you’ve been working on for months launched and was well received.

Big wins are few and far between. It’s the small successes that have a more significant impact on our day-to-day. If our day-to-day work lives are positive, we tend to have a net positive outlook on work. Maybe you made a lot of progress during the day, got a compliment from a co-worker or had a breakthrough on a problem you’re trying to solve. These are the types of wins we should celebrate as often as we can.

The Progress Principle

Recording small wins has a related and impactful implication, which is making us feel like we’ve made progress and progress on meaningful work is one of the pillars of happiness in the workplace and a factor to feeling positive about your inner work life.

Teresa Amabile calls this “The Progress Principle,and she explores it in her book, “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.”

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how [people] feel and perform.”
— Teresa Amabile

Teresa collected this insight from doing a study with 238 knowledge workers over the course of 4 months while receiving over 12,000 diary entries. The study found that people are more creative and productive when:

  • Their inner work lives are positive
  • They feel happy and are intrinsically motivated by the work they are doing
  • Have positive perceptions of their colleagues and the organization

Go Bigger: Keep a Job Journal

Recording small wins increases the feeling of progress thereby enabling motivation, and positivity at work. If you want to take it a step further, consider keeping a job journal where you not only record your small wins but journal about your job.

Journaling, in general, has heaps of benefits. It can reduce stress, enhance immune function and create clarity. A job journal can help you process work-related thoughts, ideas, experiences, and challenges. It’s a great way to self-evaluate and can be a handy professional development tool. This article by Harvard Business Review cites four reasons to keep a job journal: focus, patience, planning, and personal growth.

Another benefit of keeping a job journal is that you have an artifact to look at and reflect on. When looking at situations in hindsight, it’s easy to see how you could have done things better or differently. Being able to reflect on a weekly or monthly basis, might allow you to have this type of insight in a shorter amount of time as well as identify potential missteps before they happen. If you’re working on your leadership skills, it’s interesting to note that “structured reflection of one’s performance has a positive impact on leadership development.

I structure my job journal as so:

  • General summary of the day
  • Small Wins
  • Challenges
  • Observations
  • Compliments
  • Ideas

Aside from the general summary, I write bullet points for all of the above items. It takes me about five to 10 minutes to complete.

If you’re looking for a digital diary app, check out this post.

2. Understand Your Decisions

I’ve been reading Ray Dalio’s book, Principles. It’s a fantastic read so far, and one of the most exciting insights is hearing about how Ray takes the time to reflect on why he made a decision.

“Experience taught me how invaluable it is to reflect on and write down my decision-making criteria whenever I made a decision, so I got in the habit of doing that. With time, my collection of principles became like a collection of recipes for decision making.”
— Ray Dalio

Ray goes on to discuss how the principles evolved over time and eventually led to a systemized decision-making process.

Reflecting on decisions is a simple technique, one that is easy for anyone to do. Taking time to write down why you’re making a particular decision can not only help you understand the decision but might even help you make a better choice in the moment.

Biases in Decision-Making

Outside of the context of his book, there are more benefits to understanding why and how you make the decisions you do. One of them is that we are continually folding our biases into choices we make. As humans, it is not possible for us to make unbiased decisions. We are hard-wired for bias, and our biases are a result of everything we’ve seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. It turns out that research associates self-reflection with a reduction in common biases.

“Self-reflection in this step forces decision makers to differentiate the effects of their actions from the autonomous development of a system. It can also clarify how the effects of implemented decisions propagate through a system over time.”
2015 Study

Emotions & Logic in Decision-Making

Making a completely non-emotional decision is impossible. The part of our brain that deals with emotions, also helps us make decisions.

In 2011, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people with damage to the part of the brain that generates emotions. These people couldn’t feel emotions, but otherwise, everything else was intact. They all, however, couldn’t make decisions.

“When emotion was impaired, so was decision-making.”

In a perfect world, we’d apply the right balance of emotion and logic in decision-making, but how do we ever know if we’re doing that? We don’t.

While it’s impossible to make every decision a perfect one, we can write down why we made the decision we did and use strategies like self-reflection to help make the best decision we possibly can.

Keep a Decisions Log

Keeping a record of your decisions and why you made them can help you improve your decision-making process going forward as you have something tangible to reference each time you make new decisions. You can use this technique to understand past choices and what didn’t work, to improve your process. Whether making strategical, tactical or operational decisions, knowing how and why you made the decision is as important as the decision itself. There are many decision log formats and templates; here’s a suggestion on a model you can use from Fast Company.

  1. What the decision is about
  2. The choice you made
  3. Any other alternatives you considered
  4. The key reasons for your decision, including impacts on specific business goals
  5. People involved in the decision

While it’s unrealistic to keep track of every decision, there are certain decisions that guide and carve out a path in business, projects and life. Be mindful and track the ones that matter.

Make Some Decisions Transparent

Making decisions transparent and opening them up for debate can make people feel part of the process, naturally creating buy-in. I once witnessed someone in a leadership position change the entire org structure and reporting lines of a product team without speaking to a single employee. It angered employees, caused significant disruption, increased distrust and damaged the internal reputation of the company. It’s not only smart to involve people in the process, but it’s respectful in specific contexts.

If that’s not enough, consider how much decision transparency can improve the decisions you make. Dharmesh Shah at HubSpot talks about how the VP of Product Operations created transparency around redesigning the pricing model.

“He put all the information he was using to make the decision out on the wiki, along with the new proposed pricing model. People from all over the company contributed useful information that he would not have been able to find on his own, things like pricing pages from other companies, for instance”.
— Hubspot

He goes on to talk about how the pricing model improved through this process and employees had an easier time backing it as they could see how much thought and deliberation went into it.

3. Articulate Your Goals

It turns out that optimism alone will not help you reach your goals. Research shows that by merely writing down and or writing about your goals on a regular basis, increases your chances of achieving them. By some pretty big margins, about 50%! Research also shows that the more specific and challenging a goal, the harder people will work to achieve it.

Clarity, Motivation + Momentum

Goal setting allows you to have an end state to work backward from, which can better help you understand the steps you need to take in between to achieve the goal. Having clarity on the steps can increase motivation, which powers momentum. The clarity, motivation, momentum cycle is a powerful one. If you can get it working, the next step is maintaining it, and if you can do that, getting results is almost guaranteed.

I recently went through the process of setting some goals for the year. Some factors that were helpful for me were, picking five. Having a finite and small number of goals made me select the ones that were most meaningful to me.

Goals Lead to Systems

Systems are a necessary and natural extension of goals. If your goal is to get stronger, your system is to strength train, with a strength training program four days a week. If my goal is to write more, my system is to carve out a specific amount of time each week to write — often at the same time each week. To quote James Clear, “goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

Implementation Intention

Making plans for your goal such as understanding how you will reach your goal and carving out time to work towards your goal, is a self-regulatory strategy called “Implementation Intention” and it’s powerful.

“Findings from 94 independent tests showed that implementation intentions had a positive effect of medium‐to‐large magnitude on goal attainment. Implementation intentions were effective in promoting the initiation of goal striving, the shielding of ongoing goal pursuit from unwanted influences, disengagement from failing courses of action, and conservation of capability for future goal striving.”
Science Direct

An implementation intention is such a simple and effective technique! Creating your system or “plan” for the goal will significantly increase your chances of success. Another significant predictor of goal attainment is self-concordance. Self-concordance is described as “the extent to which people pursue personal goals with feelings of intrinsic interest and identity congruence.”

“Self-concordant goals are goals that are aligned with who we are, our authentic self, and with what we really want to do in our lives.” — NCDA

The bottom line: having personal alignment with your goal(s) and pairing them with implementation intention will help to set you up for success.

Ray Dalio’s 5-Step Goal Process

It’s worth bringing up Ray Dalio again as he’s done a great job of articulating a 5-step goal process.

  1. Have clear goals
  2. Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of achieving your goals
  3. Accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes
  4. Design plans that will get you around those problems
  5. Do what’s necessary to push those plans to completion

Goals used to be an abstract thing to me. I joined a year-long momentum program this year and the first step involved goal-setting. It’s hard to describe the paradigm shift that takes place once you do this. I can tell you from personal experience, just by writing them down and putting some thought into the goal process, the goals went from abstract to very real and concrete overnight.

If you’re interested in goals and need help or want to discuss, get in touch with me on Twitter: twitter.com/jesseddy