How To Avoid The Illusion Of Progress

I bet that, right now, you’re not growing.

You might think you are, but you are not.

In fact, I bet that your abilities in the things you care most about are deteriorating.

I bet that for many skills, once you’ve learned them, you no longer to get better at them.

As performance researcher Anders Ericsson puts it in Peak:

“We only learn until we feel like we’ve hit a “good enough” point. As soon as we feel like we’re good enough (subconsciously or consciously) we stop improving.

The observation that, after this point, our performance plateaus quickly is counterintuitive.

“I’m spending time on it, so I must be getting better, no?”

This is the illusion of progress.

Let me tell you how it works and what you can do about it.

No more learning benefit

We treat vital areas of our life not all that different from, say, breathing or riding a bike.

Conversation? “Got that down since high school.” So tell me, when was the last time you consciously engineered soul-connecting tête-à-tête?

Love? “Dude, I’ve been married for over a decade now.” Sure, but when was the last time you caused her eyes to sparkle?

Presenting? “Yes, I know how Powerpoint works.” Right, and I’m sure your colleagues can’t wait for you to deliver your most-engaging talks.

“But,” you say, “I do what I know how to, and it works. Just this February I was employee of the month.”

“Why look for another option if the current one is working?”

Because you’re not growing.

Even though we make little conscious effort to improve once we’ve hit the “good enough” point, most of us don’t have to look far to see signs that there’s plenty of room for improvement in many areas.

People resist learning new things — be it a graduate student mastering theoretical physics or an online marketer struggling with a new digital analytics tool — because learning is hard.

Most learning just happens to be a way of minimizing effort. We would go mad if we had to rethink our method every time we’re asked to do a presentation, for example. So everyone develops their own set of rules to design and implement their own behavior.

We have a pre-packaged set of beliefs about how everything gets done, and following these rules seems to be consistent with us surviving and getting paid and making some sales or writing some good articles, and we don’t want to be in uncertainty, so we stick to it.

We all know someone who’s been at the office for 30 years and claims to have 30 years of experience, but actually has one year repeated 30 times.

In John Grey’s words,

“If there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.”

When we repeat a process, it becomes a habit. Each repetition requires less and less effort. We stop questioning it, especially if it does the job (or appears to).

The reason many of us don’t improve much despite the fact that we spend hours loving, communicating — breathing, riding a bike — is that we spend almost all of this time concentrating on what we have already know and aim to minimize mistakes. We focus all our efforts on executing, performing, which turns out not to be a great way to level up.

We get better with repetition. It’s how we initially improve. However, once automated, repetition provides zero additional learning benefit.

Losing your edge

So here is the situation. While habits are essential in many areas of our lives, this doesn’t serve us well if we want to keep improving, and in fact many successful executions of a mastered sequence of actions might trick is unto wrongly thinking the high success rate means we’re getting better.

And it gets worse. If we’re not experiencing some discomfort, we lose our edge and our happiness.

First, we lose our edge, because if you stop improving, you get relatively worse with time.

The world is dynamic and always changing. If you’re standing still, then you won’t adapt. Forget moving ahead; you have to get better to stay in the same relative spot, and not getting better means you’re falling behind.

You probably need to devote at least five hours a week to learning just to keep up with your current field — ideally more if you want to get ahead. Sadly, what you learn from those hours starts decaying as soon as you’ve put in the time. Scientists call this “the half-life of knowledge,” a metric that’s decreasing fast. — Niklas Göke

Cruelly, then, working hard executing and performing doesn’t prevent stagnation.

I don’t care how good you are — if you spend all your time doing and doing and not enough exploring, asking, listening, experimenting, reflecting, you’re making a mistake.

Losing your happiness

And, secondly, we lose our happiness: if you find yourself cruising along every workday, then it’s not doing much for your development, and you’ll become that mildly depressed, slightly overweight “part of the furniture” Joe — forever stuck in a rut.

Stasis is the enemy of excitement. You need to constantly scale up the resistance to (re-)create that magic. You need to push yourself in meaningful ways that keep you engaged to keep entering that flow state.

If your life has no exiting challenge in it and you don’t feel like you’re growing, it’s all too easy to slip into lethargy. In terms of long-term happiness, playing it ‘safe’ is not safe. It’s actually the riskiest option.

Why? Because your enemy isn’t failure, but boredom:

“The worst that [can] happen [isn’t] crashing and burning, it [is] accepting terminal boredom as a tolerable status quo.” — Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

While momentary boredom is only a temporary lack of stimulation, when you don’t act on these signals accordingly and leave your comfort zone, this transient state will mutate into the chronic condition of existential boredom and now depression is just around the corner.

To avoid this, you must keep increasing the difficulty.

Reflection hours

Let’s say you’re convinced by this, and want to re-start cultivating an attitude geared towards improvement, even though your current method ‘works’ and college was ages ago. How should you proceed?

Implementing a learning habit, first of all, requires explicitly blocking out time for it.

Learning takes time and failure, and most of us are — unfortunately — busy people.

Many of us are so focused on solving problems as they arise that we don’t take the time to reflect on them after we’ve dealt with them. Of course, we want to stop and think, but we also have more pressing problems to solve.

“Reflection is an example of an approach I call first-order negative, second-order positive. It’s got very visible short-term costs — it takes time and honest self-assessment about our shortcomings — but pays off in spades in the future. The problem is that the future is not visible today, so slowing down today to go faster at some future point seems like a bad idea to many. Plus with the payoff being so far in the future, it’s hard to connect to the reflection today.” — Farnam Street

Prioritizing execution over reflection like this, however, dramatically limits our ability to learn from experience(s).

So first of all: schedule time to evaluate. While this may not sound urgent, it’s, extremely important.

Deliberate practice

And second: plan learning hours in which you push yourself and do what Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

The big mistake that drives the illusion of progress is to assume that merely spending time on an activity increases how good we are at it. By contrast, without deliberate practice, you’re not growing, no matter how often you do something.

To engage in deliberate practice, you should break what you’re doing down into sub-skills and then rehearse each of those techniques. This has three parts to it.

First, be clear about what component you’re working to improve, like talking slower when you’re speeching.

Then, give full concentration to a level of challenge outside our comfort zone, slightly beyond what you can currently do.

Finally, design feedback loops. Make so you know how you did, adjust, try once more, and get feedback again. Videotape yourself when practicing a talk and then watch the playback afterwards (if you dare).

For example, take Demosthenes, a political leader and the greatest orator and lawyer in ancient Greece. To become great, he didn’t spend all his time being an orator or a lawyer, which would foster the illusion of progress. Instead, he undertook activities designed for improvement.

To get rid of an odd habit he had of involuntarily lifting his shoulder, he practiced his speeches in front of a mirror and suspended a sword from the ceiling so that if he raised his shoulder, it would hurt.

To speak more clearly despite a lisp, he went through his speeches with stones in his mouth. He built an underground room where he could practice without interruptions and not disturb other people. And since courts at the time were rather noisy, he also practiced by the ocean, projecting his voice above the roar of the waves.

What you should notice that his activities in his learning hours — the things he did during deliberate practice — were very different from his activities in court, during his performance hours.

It is this type of practice which leads to improvement, not time spent executing a sequence of actions you already master.


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