3 Steps to Sustained Progress: How Just One Thing Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

Todd Hall
January 18, 2015

Frustrated and Conflicted About Work
Recently, I met with an executive, Richard (a pseudonym) who works for a large health care company.  He was feeling very frustrated with his job.  There had been a major change in the strategic priority and he was in a meeting where a new initiative related to this was announced.  He hadn’t heard anything about this initiative even though it should have come from his area.  He was angry and bitter.  He went on to tell me that he felt guilty about feeling this way, because there were so many good things about his job. He talked about the flexibility he has and the some of the people he really enjoys working with.

Guilty and Bitter
“Why,” he asked me, “do I feel so guilty and bitter?”

“I think,” I replied, “that you don’t feel a sense of progress on meaningful goals.  When there are constant changes and very little communication or coordination, it’s hard to make sustained progress.”  A simple idea, but it was like a light bulb went off for him. He realized how crucial a sense of progress is and that his chaotic work environment was a barrier to this.

Barriers to Progress
I think many of us can relate to this feeling.  We so often struggle to make sustained progress on important goals and to feel a sense of meaningful accomplishment that comes from this.

Some of the barriers are external and some are internal.

A few of the external barriers include:
- A chaotic work environment
- The rapid pace of change
- Lack of clarity and/or coordination on strategic priorities

The internal barriers may include:
- Lack of clarity on the one thing you should be focusing on
- Letting the pressure of others’ demands control your priorities
- Switching focus too much and too frequently

The Progress Principle
It turns out that sustained progress on a daily basis is one of the key drivers of success.

Research corroborates the power of progress.  In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer reported on extensive research they conducted on the topic.  They found that a sense of progress on small but important goals at a particular time predicted productivity and creativity at a later time.  In fact, progress was one of the most powerful predictors of performance that they found; hence the title of their book.  It’s important to note that they tracked participants over time, which provides stronger evidence that progress is a causal contributor to performance.

So then, how can you create sustained progress on important goals?  Here are three practices to help:

1. Figure Out Your One Thing.
One of the strategies that has most helped me is to figure out my one thing. In their book, The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan articulate this key principle: figure out the one thing that most drives your success, and then make this your first priority every day, week, month and year.

The idea is based partly on the Pareto Principle, applied to achievement:  20% of your effort is responsible for 80% of your results.  In other words, all your efforts are not equal when it comes to results.

Your one thing should be the key driver of results for you, and it should be at the center of your core motivations, strengths and passions.  If it’s not, it won’t drive results over the long haul.

There may be several things you think could be your one thing, but there can only be one "one thing.”  Think about which one brings the biggest impact. Keller and Papson's key question will help you sort through this: “What is the one thing such that if I do that, everything else will be easier?”

For example, I realized that while I do a lot of things, my one thing is writing.  I have numerous interrelated roles (research, teaching, consulting, psychotherapist), but writing is the biggest driver of impact for me. So I need to write, or be doing things directly related to writing every day.  

2.  Structure Your Day Around Your One Thing.  
Once you've figured out your one thing, it’s time to get specific and structured.  Starting with your one thing for the year, drill all the way down to your one thing this week, and today.  While I have broad writing goals, I’ve identified exactly what I’m supposed to be writing (or doing directly related to writing such as reading) every day. Set aside a chunk of time, preferably first thing in the morning, to work on your one thing every day.  The amount of time  you devote to your one thing may have to vary from day to day during a week. The important thing is that your one thing comes first every day.  Everything else goes in the “everything else category.”  If you know you’re going to get back to your one thing the next day, then once you’re done working on it for the day, you’ll feel more free to focus on everything else for the rest of the day.  Once this becomes a habit, a true structure in your life, you’ll start making sustained progress on the important things.

3.  When You Get Off Track, Identify the Feelings Driving Your Choices.  There will inevitably be times when you get off track.  Sometimes you don’t have much of a choice.  Deadlines hit, and you have push through them. But when you find yourself not sticking to the structure you set consistently, take a step back and tune into the feelings driving your choices.  There are always points when you choose, but the choice to get off track is often subtle and driven by negative emotions.  It could be anxiety about starting something important. What if it fails?  It’s just easier not to start.  It could be anxiety about demands being placed on you by others.  It’s easier to let others dictate the direction your contributions than to manage yourself.  Whatever the feelings are, once you identify them, you’re in a better position to move beyond them. Talk them through with a close friend or mentor and then set yourself up to stick to your structure the next day.

I hope this helps you to create sustained progress in the your most important goals!

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