The Progress Trap: Why you shouldn’t track your progress on your goals

by | Nov 4, 2013 | Focus

Takeaway: Tracking progress on your goals can actually make you less likely to achieve them. The fix? As you reach milestones toward achieving a goal, view your actions as evidence that you’re committed to a goal, and always remember yourself why you want to achieve it in the first place.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 3s.

Tracking your progress on your goals can surprisingly be counterproductive. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “[a]lthough it runs counter to everything we believe about achieving our goals, focusing on progress can hold us back from success”.1

Need a little proof? Take these two studies:2

  • Researchers at the University of Chicago ran a study where they reminded successful dieters of their progress, and then offered them a choice between an apple and a chocolate bar as a reward. When dieters were reminded of their progress, 85% of them chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared to just 58% with participants who weren’t reminded.
  • A second study reminded students of how much they studied for exams, and found that students who were reminded of their progress were much likelier to spend the night partying.

Why is this the case? According to McGonigal, “[w]hen you make progress toward your long-term goal, your brain – with its mental checklist of many goals – turns off the mental processes that were driving you to pursue your long-term goal”. Then, it becomes more focused on getting satisfaction from indulging, because your brain feels like it has met its goal, and “any temptation will become more tempting”.

Even your to-do list isn’t safe. When you write up a to-do list, you feel productive because you’re capturing all you need to do, but research has shown that you’re less likely to actually do it because capturing everything you need to do feels like you’re making progress.

What can you do to combat The Progress Trap?

McGonigal offers up a few suggestions:

  • “View your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal.”
  • Always remind yourself why you want to reach your goal, especially as you reach milestones along the way.
  • Look at your accomplishments to see that you really do care about your goal, “so much so that you want to do even more to reach it”.
  • After you make positive steps toward a goal, ask yourself: “how committed do you feel toward that goal?” Don’t ask yourself how much progress you’ve made toward it.

Tracking your progress toward your goals sounds like a great idea on the surface, but it can be detrimental to your productivity if you don’t do it right. When you view your actions as signs that you’re committed to your goal, and constantly question why you want to reach your goal in the first place, research has shown that you’ll be a lot more successful in reaching it.

  1. Source: The Willpower Instinct book. 

  2. Source: The Willpower Instinct book. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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