The True Measure of Progress

The real measure of progress is how far you have come, not how far you have left to go

How we measure our personal progress will have immediate impacts on our productivity, mental well-being, and our overall drive to be successful. If we measure progress in the wrong way(s), we can quickly become discouraged and disheartened about the areas in which we are trying to succeed. However, when we measure progress correctly we are able to build our self-confidence along the way and not just when we “arrive” to our intended destination.

Understanding progress in a mentally healthy way will allow us to achieve our goals more quickly and more frequently without burning out along the way.

Progress When Measured Against the Future

In a counseling session several years ago, I was speaking with a client who had been working on anxiety issues that had eventually manifested into eating issues. As we got to the subject of how much progress she had made, she spoke with a deep sense of discouragement as she talked about all the areas of life in which she still needed to do work. She talked about her relationships that still needed repair, her emotional reactivity to certain situations, and other concerns about graduation, seeking out employment, and applying to various colleges.

As she talked about progress, she only spoke of what was left to come and what was still left to be done. All that she could focus on when it came to understanding progress was what the future might hold. Overall, the atmosphere of the room shifted to one that was bleaker than I had thought it would. Because I was operating from a different understanding of what progress was and what progress looked like for her, I had a much different view of her situation.

Like this client, we often times measure progress by looking to the future — by looking at what we have left to do. Sometimes, we measure progress by looking at others and what they have or what they are doing. When we do this we very quickly encounter the notion that “comparison is the thief of joy.” When we compare ourselves to others or even compare ourselves to some future, idealized version of our self, we rob ourselves of the joy and significance of the present.

Photo by VisionPic .net from Pexels

Measuring progress by how much we have left to do or how much we have left to accomplish can leave us feeling drained because we are existing only in the future. When we only look at how much we have left to do, we overlook all of what we have already done and have already accomplished. Proverbially, this is akin to chasing a carrot on a stick. If we continue to frame up our understanding of progress in terms of how much further we have to go, we will never actually achieve any sense of accomplishment.

Progress When Measured Against The Past

Whenever I am hiking, I tend to look at my feet a lot because I don’t want to trip and fall off a hillside. Truthfully, I have bad knees and a misstep could really ruin my day. So, when I am trudging along trying to make my way to the top of the hill and to the end of the hike where I can take in the breathtaking (literally) view, I really cannot track how far I have come. It is not until I stop for a second, look up, and see how much progress I have made on the trail.

I like to use this as a metaphor in counseling because it illustrates how we can become so focused on the task at hand that we forget to look up and see how far we have come. As we work on and work through our various issues, we need to be mindful to take a step back sometimes to take in the big picture and then take note that, while it may not be a finished work, we had already accomplished so much.

Thinking back on the client story that I began this article with, our perspective on progress was so different because they were only focused on what they had to do next — there was no consideration of where they had come from and where they were now. Once I began listing out all of the things that she had already accomplished and all of the insight they had been able to have, it began to completely shift the tone of the session.

As we both began listing off positive changes she had made, she was able to see more clearly all of the progress that had truly taken place in her life. Se felt more confident about what they have done and, because of this, felt more confident about what they could do next. One of the biggest, and in some ways counterintuitive, signs of their progress were that she was actually able to think about what was next to work on and accomplish. Prior to coming into counseling, she felt aimless about what to do in life and, truthfully, if life was actually worth living.

Celebrating the past is the best way forward. Even though we cannot dwell on or live in the past, we need to visit it in order to reflect on what we have accomplished. For this client, she was not able to build up the confidence to face new issues because, along the way, she had forgotten where she had come from — where they started from but not where they would end.

Practical Progress

In practical terms, this can look different for everyone depending on your own personality and the goals towards which you are striving. As such, I cannot outline every possibility but I will list out some bullet-point ideas as a place to start.

  • Journal, write in a diary, keep a thought log, or whatever the trendy name for it is these days. Write. Keep track of what you are doing in relation to what you are working on because, when you look back, you will see a written history of where you have been, where you are now, and where you still hope to go.
  • Get people on your team and in your corner that are going to fight alongside you. Find the people in your life that you trust and that understand you as well as others can and have them point out where they think you have made progress. We can often be our own worst critics and will not acknowledge our successes so have other people there to help with this. Also, you better do the same for them.
  • Break down your goals into smaller, more readily achievable, parts to that you have more moments of success. Whenever I make a list of things I need to do in order to complete my day’s tasks, I write down “make as list” as the first thing and then scratch it off when I am done. This kick-starts my sense of productivity. This may seem silly, but don’t knock it until you try it.


Measuring progress against how far we have come — and doing so often — gives us the opportunity to reflect on the successes we have already had. Doing so allows us to capitalize on these successes by highlighting them, celebrating them, and allowing them to motivate us further. Progress, as measured against the past, becomes fuel for us whereas progress, as measured against the future, can quickly open the door for discouragement and comparison to others.

We need to celebrate where we have come from even if it was just a few steps ago or a few followers ago. Celebrate each day if you need to. The more you do so the more you will capitalize on your successes and make more progress than you would if you were only focused on what was next to come. In the end, this is all about balance, we need to be hopeful and mindful about our future goals but we have to do so in a way that allows us to celebrate the progress we have already made and that we are not where we started.

Reading and writing about our common human experiences. Look how great my dog looks dressed in flannel.

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