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  • 💥 Habitual Progress, Motivational Setbacks, and Goal Gradients

💥 Habitual Progress, Motivational Setbacks, and Goal Gradients

Welcome to the Action Digest, where we serve up freshly baked hacks and insights to nourish your creative spirit.

Coming up in this week’s action-packed edition:

  • ❄️ A mountaineering accident teaches us a psychological strategy for deep seated motivation and grit.

  • 🥇 The single most important factor for workplace happiness, motivation, productivity, and creativity, as revealed by a Harvard professor.

  • 📢 We learn a simple technique for energizing teams that has helped generate billions of dollars of revenue.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-15 here in case you missed them, including insights such as the playbook that Coco Chanel used to rewrite the world of fashion and go from orphan to multi-millionaire, how Steve Jobs cultivated great creative taste, and the motivational memos that turned around a failing soup company.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these earlier editions. ;-)

1. The momentum of progress can carry us extraordinary distances

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates became the first people to climb the west face of the Siula Grande mountain. But on their way back down, Joe fell over 70 feet into an icy crevasse. Alone, freezing, and wracked with pain from his shattered leg, he knew he was going to die. But, “if I was going to die,” Joe determined, “I wanted to do it in sunlight.” 

So Joe crawled up a steep, snow-laden, slope all through the night. “I stuck my head out of the crevasse at about one o’clock in the afternoon and sat there giggling manically.” Now that Joe had escaped the crevasse, he began to consider what it would take to get back to basecamp. Given the eight mile journey, the state of his body, and the level of food he had left, “my conclusion was, ‘you won’t make it.’” 

But then Joe decided to play a mind game. Rather than focusing on the impossible big picture, he shrank his focus to an immediately tangible milestone. “I went, ‘Right, I’m going to get to that crevasse in 20 minutes. Then I’m going to get to that red rock in 20 minutes.’ It created structure and discipline. Sometimes I’d beat the target and I was made up; other times I’d lose and I was p***** off. But it kept me from the big picture of ‘you’re completely f*****’.”

These little wins generated a sense of progress and propelled Joe further than he imagined possible. But after three and a half days of crawling, he finally collapsed from total exhaustion. In a last ditch effort, Joe began calling out for help. It turns out that Joe’s mind game had brought him within a 10 minute walking distance from the camp. His partner, Simon, heard his cries for help and Joe miraculously went on to make it back home safe. 

When we focus on tiny yet tangible milestones, one after another after another after another, the momentum of progress can carry us extraordinary distances.

2. Our greatest opportunity is to acknowledge those small steps that we are already taking

What is the number one factor that “makes people happy, motivated, productive, and creative at work?” Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer found themselves fascinated by that question in the late 2000s. After analyzing 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees in 7 companies, they had a resounding answer. 


“Of all the workday events that can boost a person’s emotions and intrinsic drive to do a great job, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” the pair concluded. “It’s the number one differentiator for your best versus worst days.” 

Take a participant by the name of Dave, for example.

Dave wrote the following entry on one of the days of the study: “Presented 1.5 hrs worth of data in the project review, the review was very well received, much assistance was given, and we passed, we were allowed to go onto the next stage.” On that day, “Dave’s motivation was almost one standard deviation above the average and his mood was one and a half standard deviations above average.”

Something that Teresa and Steven were not expecting is just how small progress can be to have a strong effect, “one of our most surprising findings is that even making small incremental steps forward can make people feel great.”

If even the smallest of steps can boost our performance, then our greatest opportunity isn’t in making bigger leaps, but in acknowledging the small steps we’re already taking.

The most effective way to harness the power of progress, then, is to habitualize its recognition…


3. Take stock of the daily good

Benjamin Franklin was more than just a Founding Father of the United States. He was an inventor, a statesman, a diplomat, a scientist, an author, and a businessman. His wide range of accomplishments has led many to describe him as a “polymath.”

But like any of us, Franklin’s accomplishments were built over the course of many small, daily, consistent actions. In fact, we know that progress played a vital role in driving Franklin’s success thanks to the journals he kept.

Each day, he would ask himself two simple questions:

  1. The Morning Question: What good shall I do this day?

  1. The Evening Question: What good have I done today?

That second question—the act of bringing awareness to all of the “good” that was accomplished each day—is a surefire strategy for tapping into the power of Tesera and Steven’s progress principle. 

Too many of us fall into the trap of reflecting on the half of our to-do list that we failed to complete. But this does not set the stage for tomorrow’s success. More power lies in bringing awareness to what we did achieve. Taking stock of your wins is a simple way to keep the engine of momentum running and marshal the psychological benefits of progress. 

And this principle extends to the organizational level…. 

4. Take time out of your day to tell them

When Frank Slootman stepped down as the CEO of Snowflake, the company lost $20 billion dollars of market cap overnight. The market has come to appreciate that Frank is a seasoned pro at increasing shareholder value, guiding no fewer than three companies through their IPOs.

Frank M.O. is to amp up the intensity and energy of any organization he joins. But how does he do that, specifically? 

One key ingredient is “recognition and celebration,” Frank explains. “We all get on it, you know, to send notes, have conversations, references in other conversations. All of a sudden, everybody knows in the whole company, like, wow, this guy, this team, did this. And they're bathing in glory, you know what I mean? Salespeople live for that. I mean, yes, they live for money, but they also live for recognition because that is just very, very rewarding—in a very deep psychological way.” 

A culture that highlights and celebrates progress is a culture that fosters momentum and top performance. “Especially when it comes from me as a CEO,” Franks adds, “and they're like, my God, you taking time out of your day to tell me this? I'm like, yes. We are.” 

Great leaders must cultivate and embody a culture of progress to unleash their teams' full potential. 

And there is one instance where recognizing and celebrating progress becomes more vital than ever…

5. Learn to see the progress within your setbacks

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered that progress works both ways. On people’s worst days, they were highly likely to report experiencing a setback

In fact, a step backward was experienced as three times more negative than a step forward was experienced as positive. 

Creatives who work at Pixar are more familiar with setbacks than most. If you choose to work at Pixar, you are signing up to relentless critique from your colleagues as each movie goes through an endless cycle of drafts. But rather than allowing setbacks to crush their motivation like in Teresa and Steven’s study, Pixar’s team has learned how to flip this equation on its head.

One notable example is VP, Andrew Stanton, as described in Creativity Inc: “Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases ‘fail early and fail fast’ and ‘be wrong as fast as you can’.” 

Andrew has learned to see the inevitable criticism as a step forward, rather than as a step backward. Scrapping a draft of a scene would not be considered a setback in Andrew’s eyes. After all, that draft made sense at the time. Now that its flaws have been revealed, he is one step closer to the polished draft. That’s progress. 

“This doesn’t mean that Andrew enjoys it when he puts his work up for others to judge, and it is found wanting. But he deals with the possibility of failure by addressing it head on, searching for mechanisms that turn pain into progress. To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning. Andrew does this without hesitation.”

Each setback you experience brings you one step closer to finding the winning approach. Each setback is a learning opportunity. If we can learn to see the progress within our setbacks, they lose their ability to demolish our motivation levels. After a day of setbacks, people with a “setbacks-are-progress” mindset head into the following day invigorated rather than deflated, enabling them to continue performing at their best.

6. A tangible record of your completed actions

Progress follows action.

Action follows clarity. 

When you know exactly what to do, you take more action and make more progress.

By encouraging you to transform your ideas into clear, actionable steps, the Action Method journal ensures you always know your next move. 

And all that extra progress you’re making? 

By tracking it in your journal, you’re creating a tangible record of your completed actions, allowing you to see your progress evolve and increase over time.

There are few things more satisfying and motivating than flicking through a completed journal and seeing all of the action items you’ve ticked off over the previous weeks and months.

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

7. Navigating the goal gradient effect

Countless studies from behavioral psychology have discovered something known as the “goal gradient effect.” 

The goal gradient effect observes that we experience our highest levels of motivation…

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We’ll leave you with this…

“The middle is a constant cycle of successes followed by failures, setbacks followed by breakthroughs. Making it through that cycle depends on two things: enduring the lows and optimizing the highs. When things are terrible, you have to find ways to convince your team and yourself that you’re making progress, even if that progress is tiny.” 

Scott Belsky

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