Want to be happier? Make sure you do something every day that moves you forward.
There’s a lot about life that makes you feel like you’re on a treadmill. That every day is on repeat. Wake up, shower, get ready, go to work. Come home, cook dinner, do this, do that.
Even when the precious weekend rolls around, chances are it will be spent doing any number of repetitive and soul-destroying tasks such as cleaning, washing and weeding: tasks that are never permanently crossed off the list but just keep coming and coming.
The sameness of the days makes them blur into one, and then they become weeks, months, and years. You start to wonder, is this what being an adult is all about? Is this my life?
My Happiness Hack No. 2 is to show you how to answer no to both of those questions. (You can check out last week’s hack, Know yourself, here). And the hack is startlingly simple.
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Do something every day that moves you forward
Or in other words, every day make progress in an activity that means something to you.
There are three strategies to help you enact this hack.
Firstly, let’s look at making small steps towards your dreams. Maybe you have visions of yourself saving a $1000 emergency fund, writing a novel, and living in a decluttered, minimalist home. But there’s never any money left after payday, you don’t have time to write, and virtually every cupboard you open tries to spew its contents out on to the floor.
So you start small. You set yourself a goal that is ridiculously easy, one you can achieve with minimal exertion. You stop your daily coffee and instead save $3 a day. You write one page of that novel a day. You remove one item from a cupboard a day. At the end of the year you have over $1000, you’ve written 365 pages (a book and then some), and you have clean cupboards.
You can also do this by going deeper into your current practice. Maybe you love to read, but you don’t do it as much as you would like to. You decide to read one page a day. That’s all. Or you’ve had a half-finished knitted baby blanket that you now commit to doing one row of a night.
Not that hard, is it?
The beauty of keeping it small is that often the effort of doing the one thing is minimal but it quickly and easily gains momentum. After all, once you have the book open and one page read, it’s not much more difficult to read five. And if you pull that off, yay you, but if you don’t that’s fine as well, because hey, you’ve still met the goal you set yourself.
Stephen Guise calls this strategy mini habits, and says what I was trying to in a much more sophisticated manner- that it “practically guarantees success every day thanks to a potent encouragement spiral and always-attainable targets.” He also notes that this method made him “feel unstoppable; prior to starting mini habits, I felt unstartable.” So rather than feeling like your dreams are too big to even begin, you can feel a sense of achievement and progress every day.
The second strategy is to look at something you’re already doing and amp it up, just like a snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger all the while. This strategy is ideal for when you want to get better at something you’re already doing. Weight training, running, things that can be measured in some way, all work well here, especially when there is a tangible end point such as a race. For example, I’m currently aiming to increase my running distance by 500 meters a week. If you don’t have a natural endpoint, it might be a good idea to set one, or next thing you’ll find yourself Forrest Gumping it across the country. Another example of the snowball is Estella Gong and her 100 days of pushups.
The jigsaw is a great strategy when you have a big picture of what you want to achieve, but there are a lot of things that need to be done to complete the puzzle. Every day you work to complete one of them. For example, getting started with blogging is a classic example of a jigsaw strategy. You can start by brainstorming domain names, then check their availability, then investigate hosting and so on. For the jigsaw to be successful you do need to have the ultimate goal in mind and also some basic ideas of what to do, but it’s not necessary to know everything (because hey, when you’re a beginner you actually don’t know everything there is to know!).
Reading through these, I hope you’ve thought to yourself at least once, hey I can do this! And of more than one strategy looks appealing, there’s nothing to stop you using a different one every day, focusing on a different goal. The only requirement is that you do something – something that moves you forward.
Why does this hack work?
Over time, I’ve come to believe that making progress has a significant impact on the happiness and satisfaction you feel with your life. A large part of my belief is based on personal experience. Weight loss is a classic example. When you’re exercising and eating healthily, and every time you get on the scales you see a decrease, then you feel good, and it’s also easier to keep on doing what you’re doing.
On the other hand, nothing is more depressing than discovering your six weeks of being good has yet to yield any results. I’ve also noticed this in the students that I’ve taught over the years. I still remember a student who was in a remedial class getting super excited by understanding what a sentence clause was. He wasn’t the kind of student you’d expect to be excited by grammar (are any?), but here he was, because he was making progress in his understanding.
Luckily for me, research supports my belief. Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer’s research on what they eventually termed the Progress Principle, showed that on days when workers made progress, they “reported more positive emotions. They not only were in a more upbeat mood in general but also expressed more joy, warmth, and pride.” And it didn’t have to be massive progress. Over a quarter of acts with “a minor impact on the project had a major impact on people’s feelings about it.” What was required was that the work needed to be meaningful. Without it, progress did not have the same effect.
To sum up
So if you want to increase your happiness, start today by doing one thing that can move your life forward. Whether you use small steps, the snowball, the jigsaw, or a combination of all three, pick a strategy and go for it. The key thing is that whatever you are doing must be tangible and meaningful to you.
And here’s a hint- when you’ve done it, record it in your win journal. My win journal is just the monthly overview at the start of every month in my planner. I like it because I can see at a glance all the things I’ve achieved. It’s inspirational on a bad day, and helps to remind myself that my life is more than numerous laundry loads and repetitive kitchen-counter cleanings.
Tried this happiness hack? What did you try and how did you find it?
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