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You Are Further Along Than You Think – Here’s Why
As you do your creative work, you’ve probably noticed the steady tug of an emotional undercurrent.
Murky to put into words, but it feels like being perpetually a little bit behind. There’s always more to implement, more to try, classes and books you haven’t studied, the sight of people on social media who appear to be forever ahead. Wasn’t self-employment supposed to feel, I dunno, more freeing than this?
This isn’t your fault.
Last week, we talked about habituation. It’s the thing where we wolf down lunch every day while scrolling through our phone, not really noticing the food.
But then one day you read a book about a famine, and suddenly you’re staring down at your plate of fragrant curry in raw, painful wonder. Nothing is different than yesterday, except that you realize – oh my goodness…I get to eat lunch every single day.
Habituation is where we get so used to what we currently have, we stop noticing it.
You fight back by re-drawing your attention to what’s in front of you, and appreciating what habituation hid from your awareness.
Why bring this up again? Because a form of habituation can seep into and hurt your work, too.
Here’s what it can look like:
You make an exciting leap – like learning to shoot in manual mode or booking one client per month. But then you habituate to that change.
Right after you just made a great step, suddenly it’s like it was always there. You might even catch your brain moving on, “Well it was about time. Now I need to learn off-camera lighting and book THREE clients per month!”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep up a good pace of progress. But quickly – so quickly, your attention snaps back to the undone. Already used to what you just did.
Habituation can create that undercurrent of always feeling behind. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman called this the “satisfaction treadmill” – we may progress miles forward, but remain no more or less satisfied than before.
This doesn’t just feel lousy – it actually slows us down. I’ll tell you why shortly, but let’s look at a few ways we can shake the haze of habituation off of our work.
Just like you can call your attention to how great it is to have lunch every single day (think of it!), you can also call your attention back to how far you have traveled. And that pause of appreciation, especially when done regularly, pulls back the curtain habituation dropped over some of your greatest treasures.
There’s a cool side effect to doing this, which I’ll get to in a moment.
But first, here are some ways I keep myself from getting too used to every step of progress:
How would it feel if you tried them out?
1) Log your work. Proudly include mistakes.
Back when I learned to shoot in manual, I kept a spreadsheet of every practice photoshoot. Each line had the date, model, location, and notes from the session – what succeeded and what flopped.
I laugh at some of the early notes – “cranked up ISO in a dark area and forgot to turn it back down. Rest of images from the shoot are grainy!” But quickly, the notes logged fewer technical errors and more thoughts about the light, and how I responded to it. Or little tricks I developed for working with adults versus toddlers. Years later, I would have all but forgotten this process – except I can look at the log and see it laid out. Even now, it’s a thrill to see how far I traveled in the first six months.
What are you working on right now that you could log?
2) Redo an identical project after a regular interval of time (this is fun).
Right now I’m studying pointed pen calligraphy. A common practice is to keep a notebook where you write the same phrase at the end of every week of practice, like “Happy birthday.”
The progress you make in a single practice session can be so incremental it seems discouragingly insignificant. But when you look at four weeks of “Happy birthday” you can see clearly – wow, the fourth is SO much better than the first.
What if you set up the same sunset session with your kid, spouse, dog, or friend every 3, 6, or 12 months, and kept the images in the same folder? (Apply to anything: Knit the same pattern annually, or look at your first vs. your latest marketing for Christmas sessions.) What would you see when you look side by side?
3) List what you did this year that you couldn’t have done last year.
The above methods show results over time. But you don’t have to wait. Look back and make a list right now!
It might seem normal now to shoot ten sessions, cold call a business, or send out an email to 500 subscribers – until you realize that you couldn’t have done any of that last November. Write it down! See it on paper. Marvel.
4) Celebrate good news (it’s lovely – but also smart).
Launched a website? Landed a client? Got a business to feature you? It’s embarrassing how quickly my mind can dismiss these: “Well what do you expect, this is your job, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” or “yeah, but why didn’t you finish this last week?”
Sometimes you can even see habituation in action – you’re already taking this good thing for granted that just happened.
Fight back, and CELEBRATE. No, I don’t mean merely by waving your hands in the air. What is your reward? Scale it to the accomplishment. (My range of rewards includes – An hour of solo library time. Movie night in while baking something amazing. A nice dinner out with my husband and a babysitter at home).
My friend Brooke Snow put me on to this fabulous idea: When you make your to-do list every week, make a rewards list too, which you also need to check off. I love doing this, and there’s good psychology behind it: We tend to most remember peaks of emotion (positive and negative) as well as beginnings and endings. Celebrate those peaks, beginnings, and endings, and you’re making them more memorable, easier to look back at and appreciate, and thus harder to habituate to. YES!
Now, here’s the cool side effect of fighting habituation:
Research shows that monitoring your progress makes for faster progress – especially if you physically document what you’ve done. (Like we just talked about.)
Habituation wrecks that progress, because if you get used to your own improvement and don’t bother to look back. You stop monitoring. Anything you would have monitored slowly fades from awareness.
A lack of tracking and appreciating where you’ve been slows your pace.
Discouragement can also set in when the results of your hard work become invisible, slowing you further. It makes it seem like you’ve done less than you really have, “so what was it all for”?
Not only does logging and reviewing accomplishments feel good – it has the practical effect of making you move forward faster, too.
Even the reluctant, grumpy skeptic in your head can’t argue with that. 😉
So give your progress some attention already! It’s a great way to make more of it. Which idea do you want to try?
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