Micro-Progress and the Magic of Just Getting Started
I’ve never been great with deadlines.
It’s a flaw I’m keenly aware of, and one I actively try to counter. But despite my best efforts, it’s forever lingering in the background, an insatiable little gremlin that devours my productivity. It is definitely one of my things.
Yet of the countless articles, books and so-called life-hacks about productivity I’ve read, the only “trick” that has ever truly and consistently worked is both the simplest and the most difficult to master: just getting started.
Pardon the gimmicky phrase, but the idea goes like this: For any task you have to complete, break it down into the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time.
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.)
And it’s not just gimmicky phrases and so-called life-hacking: Studies have shown that you can trick your brain into increasing dopamine levels by setting and achieving, you guessed it, micro-goals.
Going even further, success begets success. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, researchers reported finding that “ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday.” That means that once you start that PowerPoint you’re dreading, even if all you’ve done is give it a name, that micro-progress can continue to build on itself until you’ve finally finished that last slide.
But all of that success has to begin somewhere. So close this story right now and go get started.
This article was written by Tim Herrera, the founding editor of Smarter Living, where he edits and reports stories about living a better, more fulfilling life. Before coming to The Times, he was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, where he wrote about digital culture, and in a previous life he was a metro reporter for amNewYork and Newsday.
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