When my kids were babies, I remember getting to the end of the day and saying to my husband/friends/whoever would listen that I felt like I had been “busy,” but hadn’t gotten anything done. I’d look around before going to bed and see (most importantly) an amazing tiny human being….but also a pile of half-folded laundry, a stack of mail that had been opened but not dealt with, and a bunch of veggies that had been cleaned but not cut. I was trying my best to treasure the time with that amazing tiny human being and “relish the early days of motherhood” as everyone was telling me to do, but I had a nagging sense of frustration that I couldn’t ever put my finger on.
I recently came across a concept at work that helped this make sense. There’s an idea called “the progress principle,” which was popularized when a Harvard-based husband and wife team published a book called The Progress Principle: Creating Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. The core premise of the book is simple: making progress on meaningful work is one of the core things that motivate people day-to-day (similar to the “small wins” concept in goal setting). It’s not about the big “aha” or the massive breakthrough; it’s about the small steps that lead to forward progress (toward things we care about) every single day. It’s about watering the carrots so they can grow…knocking out a training run…writing a page of a book, not the whole thing…knitting the arm of the sweater…writing more of the code than you did yesterday…eating a few stalks of broccoli every day.
Wait, you might be wondering, isn’t taking care of a baby the ultimate example of moving forward day-to-day (after all, keeping them happy and fed and slept and alive IS definitely progress)? Of course it is, but in order to feel a sense of forward motion, you need to be focused on the daily changes, not the big milestones. Looking back, I was focused on the wrong things. I was looking for a sense of progress on tasks that didn’t matter (laundry + mail) and I was overlooking the amazing day-to-day growth of my child because I was focusing the wrong thing (the big and infrequent milestones).
I wish someone would have told me to reflect on what happened each day as a new mom. The messages I remember were about living in the present (which yes, is ideal, but very difficult to do all the time) and the big milestones. I feel like there wasn’t enough talk about the fuzzy space in between — the small, daily wins which actually help us keep going. This isn’t about a creating massive checklist or a building a super busy life…it’s simply about working hard to make progress on the things that matter to each of us, and celebrating that progress. A heightened awareness of this may help us understand why some days are happier/more energetic/more creative than others…and what we can do to make those great days happen more often.
Do you notice your mood changing on days when you make progress versus days you don’t? How do you think about the idea of progress co-existing with living in the moment?