The Challenge of Seeing Progress

Monica writes in (with a bit of editing and a link added so you can jump straight to the article she’s mentioning):

I’m in the “boring middle” that you wrote about the other day. Been trying to articulate what I’m struggling with and I think it’s that I don’t see any progress. It’s just a day in and day out grind toward my goal of retiring early. My life isn’t really getting better in any tangible way that I can point at, as having 5 years of living expenses socked away is much the same as having 10 years of it. It’s that endless repetition without visible change in my life that is wearing me down.

This is a challenge with almost every long term goal that people face. Once you start down the long journey of that goal, it can become very difficult to actually detect any sort of forward progress on that goal in your day to day life. You are making progress, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress, and that can go on and on and on.

While much of the advice for handling the “boring middle” works well in terms of developing a sustainable pattern of behavior so that you can keep on moving forward even when it’s boring, it doesn’t help much with this very real issue. The only suggestion that really touches on this at all is developing milestones along the way and celebrating those milestones in a non-disruptive way.

What exactly can you do when you’re a third of the way or halfway to your big goal, the day to day progress is dreadfully boring, and you don’t actually notice any significant change in your day-to-day life, even after months and years of effort?

Here are some things that work well for me.

Make Your Overall Progress Visual

Sarah and I have a target number at which we can withdraw 3% of that amount each year for the rest of our lives and live a lifestyle similar to what we do now, plus with some freedom to do some low-cost travel without worry (as part of our retirement plan is to see a great deal of America and do some traveling around the world). We’ve already adjusted that target number for inflation and it’s roughly what we’d need if we reach that goal in about 2030-2032. That number is in the $2.5 million range, so let’s use that as a round number.

I took a piece of graph paper and counted off an area of 80 squares by 125 squares and drew a big box of that size on the graph paper. This contains 10,000 individual tiny squares.

Since our goal is $2.5 million in retirement savings, each one of those squares represents $250 in retirement savings.

Each month or so, I calculate the total balance of our retirement accounts and compare it to our previous all-time high. For every $250 that our current number bests the previous all-time high, I fill in a single square on that grid.

This is actually a very enjoyable ritual. On a really good month, where we socked away money and the stock market did well, I might fill in a whole bunch of squares. There are months, however, where I don’t fill in any at all (generally those are months when the stock market took a significant dive).

Another benefit of this is that I can see our overall progress by just glancing at that picture, which I have hung unlabeled in a place where I see it frequently. Over time, I can’t help but see how that grid is getting filled in.

Over time, the grid as a whole becomes darker. You can fill it in one square at a time, line after line, or you can come up with your own pattern, or you can just fill it in at random based on how you feel at the moment. You can use a color you like or even multiple colors. No matter how you do it, you’ll see that grid darkening over time, creating a visual reminder of your progress.

Compare Your Current State to Your Starting State

Whenever I start on a big goal, I usually make some kind of opening statement, usually in the form of a rather difficult entry in my daily journal. I outline the state of my life as it is right now, focusing in particular on all of the elements of my life that I’m wanting to fix by adopting a big goal. I didn’t do this in particular with my own financial goal right when I started it, but I could definitely find elements of this in things I wrote right around the time of my lowest financial point. On the other hand, I have done this with many other goals since then.

When I find myself in the “boring middle” and getting disheartened, I pull out that “opening statement” and read it. I read about the state that my life was in before I made changes to it, and I compare that to the state my life is in right now.

That simple act makes me feel incredibly good about what I’ve achieved so far and often fills my sails with a great deal of desire to continue that forward progress. Mostly, this is due to a desire to not revert back to the way things were, but instead move forward to the way things should be.

For example, when I started this financial journey, Sarah and I had a negative net worth, we had a total amount of student loans in the high five figures, we have more than $10,000 in credit card debt, we had two car loans, and we lived in a tiny apartment. We were struggling mightily to keep the bills paid and we were both upset that many of our lifetime dreams were slipping away from us. We didn’t see a clear path to owning a home of our own and we were very worried about the future for our child (and future children).

Flash forward to right now, where we have no debt at all, own our home with the mortgage completely paid off, have substantial retirement savings and a very healthy emergency fund, three children with an abundance of college savings put away for each of them, and a pretty clear plan for the future.

I have zero interest in going back to where we started from, or even moving in that direction at all. There’s almost nothing I can think of that I could add to my life that would make me want to move back in that direction.

That feeling adds a great deal of motivation to stay on my current path. It’s a powerful antidote to the mild negativity that can crop up along the “boring middle” of the path.

You can do essentially the same thing for any goal. Just look at where you were when you started, and you can make that easier by writing something of an “opening statement” when you launch a new long term goal, making it clear where you are right now and how you feel about it (probably not very good). It will be a powerful motivator for you going forward and a very powerful comparison point, as it makes it abundantly clear that your life has improved a ton, even if you don’t see it.

Sketch Out Your Destination in Detail – and Revisit It Regularly

While the previous strategy centered around looking back to the past, this one is all about looking forward to the future.

What exactly will your life be like when you achieve the goal you’re heading towards? What will improve with regards to your life, both on a daily scale and on a broader scale? What will a typical day be like for you once you’ve achieved that goal?

Think about things such as reduced stress levels, reduced worries about finances (or whatever your goal is about), and the elements of your life that will actually change if you achieve your goal.

For example, when Sarah and I achieve our overall goal, our professional stress will basically vanish, as will pretty much any remaining concerns we have about day-to-day finances. Both of our careers will shift drastically, with Sarah moving into a volunteer position and me transitioning into writing opportunities with a very low guarantee but a very high upside. Our day to day lives will be a lot more flexible, due to both the financial stability and our children growing up and moving out. We’ll have the ability to easily visit our children and any grandchildren and to be able to help when needed.

When I think about that picture, I find myself drawn to it in a very deep way. That’s the life I want, very strongly. It’s simply a substantially improved version, in many ways, of the life I have right now.

Revisiting this picture regularly reaffirms my commitment to a lot of the choices I’ve made that define my day to day life right now, as I realize that if I undo those changes, not only will I slip back toward that initial state that I was unhappy with, this vision for the future will slip away, too. Doing things like we’re doing them right now makes that future grow slowly bigger and that past shrink away slowly; changing what I’m doing will achieve the opposite, and I desperately don’t want that.

Reflect Deeply on All Spheres of Your Life

Often, when a person gets the sense that their life isn’t going anywhere, it’s because on some level they’re unhappy with some aspect of their life. Without digging in a little deeper, it is incredibly easy to misattribute that sense of unease to some other aspect of one’s life, particularly something that seems very front and center… like, perhaps, a big goal you’re working on.

The problem is that if you take an axe to that front and center aspect of your life, you’ll often find that things have become worse, not better. You’ve damaged something that was actually good while leaving something that wasn’t good untouched, compounding the difficulties in your life.

A much better approach, when you feel a sense of boredom or vague unhappiness with your life, is to spend some time really assessing your life in detail.

One thing I do every so often, perhaps every six months, is to go through each of the spheres of my life – physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, marital, parental, social, professional, financial, and leisure/avocational – and ask myself, within that sphere alone, what are five things I’m happy with and five things I’m not happy with.

After that’s done, I gather up all of the things I’m happy with and all of the things I’m unhappy with and spend some time with each list. My goal is to identify ten things I’m truly happy with in my life – the best of the good stuff – and ten things I’m most unhappy with in my life – the worst things.

When I have those lists, I usually ask myself why about each one of them. Why does this particular thing make me happy? Why is that answer so important? I dig down to five levels of why’s. I do the same with the negative ones. Why does this particular thing make me unhappy? Why do I feel that way about my answer to that? Again, I try to go five levels deep with the why’s.

What I find, every time, is that the good things in my life are the result of me living life in accordance with what I most value, whereas the bad things in my life are the result of me living life out of whack with what I most deeply value. Often, reviewing the good things in a deep way reveals those values, and then understanding those values makes it clear that many of the bad things are because I’m out of whack with those values.

The thing is, this kind of exploration will take you in unexpected directions, every time. Quite often, the things we try to do to improve our lives are attempts to address surface issues without digging down into what’s really going on.

Before you take action, make sure that your sense of feeling “worn down” by your goal is really being caused by your goal, and this is a practice that has almost always helped me find answers when I’m struggling.

Change Significant Aspects of Your Life That Won’t Derail the Big Goal

As I noted above, a person’s life is made up of a bunch of different spheres – physical, mental, spiritual, intellectual, marital, parental, social, professional, financial, and leisure/avocational, and perhaps even more. Quite often, a big goal is really only relevant to one or two of those spheres. For example, a huge financial goal is usually only causing significant changes in the financial sphere of your life, with only minor effects in other areas.

Thus, when you’re looking around your life for the big changes you want to see and your eyes pass over the physical and mental and social and marital and professional and avocational spheres, you probably don’t see much change at all. That’s because that big goal, as life-changing as it might be, really isn’t affecting those other spheres much at all. It’s changing one axis of your life and leaving all of the other axes alone.

What can you do about that? Find ways to make changes in the other spheres.

This is something I suggested in the earlier “boring middle” article when I suggested coming up with other major goals. Inherently, those other goals would begin to alter other spheres in your life, creating more of a constant sense of change throughout your life. You might not sense much is changing if only one sphere is shifting, but if five are?

However, you might not necessarily have big goals in other spheres. You might just have a sense that things are old and stale.

The solution, then, is to simply try new things in lots of different spheres in your life without derailing the progress you’ve made in the financial sphere.

With your physical sphere, try new exercise routines. Check out what your local parks and rec department has to offer and get involved in some of that stuff. Try a completely new sport or a completely new kind of physical fitness. Start doing yoga at home, for example. Reboot your dining habits and try eating a bunch of new kinds of foods. Try to do a grocery trip based on meals that are new to you with lots of ingredients that are new to you.

With your mental/spiritual sphere, try reading books about different spiritual traditions and explore some of the practices of those different traditions. Dig into things like mindfulness meditation and journaling.

With your intellectual sphere, dig deep into a new subject or a new skill that you know little about and make an effort to learn about it. Check out a book on World War I from the library, or teach yourself how to knit using some yarn, a few needles, and Youtube.

With your marital sphere, try spicing up your life with your partner. Change up the routines of your relationship. Hold your partner more often and tell your partner that you love them. Plan a surprise “staycation” and do some things together that you don’t regularly get to do together.

With your parental sphere, just try doing whatever it is that your kids are into at the moment, with your full attention and heart. Put aside 30 minutes or an hour each day and just engage with them directly. Find some windows for one on one time and don’t push conversation, but see if it happens.

With your social sphere, intentionally go to social events that you might have otherwise skipped. Plan a big dinner party at your house and invite some people over. Make a daily habit of getting ahold of an old friend for a meaningful conversation.

With your professional sphere, try taking on a new kind of project at work that’s different than what you were normally working on. If you find your workplace stale, polish up your resume and do some job searching.

With your avocational/leisure sphere, try spending a full day this weekend devoted to a hobby that you really care about, turning off as many distractions as you can. Make this a regular habit once every few weeks, just giving a day over to going fishing or reading a book or whatever you deeply enjoy.

There are lots of ways to change up the tired patterns of your life without adopting a huge new goal. Often, those little change-ups can breathe a lot of new life into a life that seems to have become “boring” and repetitive.

The interesting part is that, if you start diving into those other spheres like this, you often see the shadow of your progress in the main sphere of your life. You find that things that used to cause you stress no longer cause it. You find that you’re no longer distracted by things in your life. You’ll often find that the life concern that drove you to this big goal had a really negative impact on other spheres in your life, and that negative impact is receding and opening up paths that you thought were closed. Look for that, and you might be shocked at what you find.

Final Thoughts

The “boring middle” is a part of almost every major change and major goal we set in our lives. Even if we have tools with which to help us keep up with our goal through that “boring middle,” it can be really hard to see that progress as we’re going along.

That doesn’t mean the progress isn’t there, we just don’t know where to look. Find places to look. Make a visual indicator that shows your overall progress. Compare your life now to your life as it was when you started, and to your life as you want it to be in the end, and note how your life is moving away from that starting point and also toward that closing point. Dig into the other areas of your life to see if there’s something wrong. While you’re at it, try out lots of new things in each other sphere in your life, both to freshen things up and to see how much impact your change really has made.

Seeing progress can be really difficult when your life is in a fixed routine, but if you know where to look, you can see real change.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.