Micro-progress: What’s the Deal and Are We Getting Anywhere?

Valentine’s Day marks the annual date most of us have given up on our New Year’s Resolutions. (If you are still going strong, more power to you and congratulations for making it this far.) This is probably why so many of us are seeing so many blog posts about jumpstarting things (again). A recent article in the New York Times Smarter Living newsletter advocates for Micro-Progress. Having made only negligible progress with MYFitnessPal, micro-progress sounds better to me than backsliding. But what is it and why is it something we should celebrate?

It turns out we can trick our minds into believing things possibly even before they are true. We can create momentum and thus forward progress when we approach things incrementally. Tim Herrera writes in Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started:

Let’s say you’re an editor with a weekly newsletter to write. Rather than approach that task as “Write Monday’s newsletter,” break down the very first steps you have to take and keep slicing them up into tiny, easily achievable micro-goals, then celebrate each achievement. Step 1: Open a Google Doc. Step 2: Name that Google Doc. Step 3: Write a single sentence. And so on.

This is an idea that has been given many names — the 5-minute rule, the 2-minute rule and the 1-minute rule, to name a few — but these techniques only get you going on a task. My favorite expansion of this concept is in this post by James Clear.

In it, he uses Newton’s laws of motion as analogies for productivity. To wit, rule No. 1: “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Find a way to get started in less than two minutes.”

What’s so striking about applying this law of motion to productivity is that once you shift your thinking into this frame — I’ve started being productive, so I’m going to keep being productive — you achieve those micro-goals at what feels like an exponentially increasing rate without even realizing it. (And before you know it, you’ve finished that newsletter.)

This approach is totally dope! Dopamine, that is. When we experience even micro-amounts of success such as checking small line items off the list, the brain has a party and releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This approach takes productivity a step beyond “SMART” goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound). Instead of getting hung up on definitions of measuring, we simply get moving. And we know about objects in motion. Thank you, Newton.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write in The Power of Small Wins in Harvard Business Review:

“In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Progress, even micro-progress, makes us happy and is part of what it means to be human. So it makes sense that when we do not experience progress in our newly resolved activity (be it weight loss, a fitness regimen, financial responsibility), we consider giving up. Micro-Progress advocates that we change our perceptions of progress. And try again.

It’s all about baby steps. I think I can do that…