Work is not fancy. It’s day-in-day-out kind of stuff. It’s emails and meetings. It’s jotting notes. Rejiggering slides. Figuring out technology. Fixing mistakes. Creating lists. Googling. And so on. It’s little pedestrian details. Day in. And day out.
And all these details take time. Much more time than I ever expect. And then there is the formless work – the fluid mulling, the thinking, the internal sculpting part of the process – the part that takes up time and space, yet doesn’t give the immediate reward of a tangible task to tick off the to-do list.
Work isn’t simply mechanical steps. It is a dance of steps – a choreography of time, tools, energy, input, and intellect that combine into accomplishment. But drill down into the moment-to-moment work of each day and nothing special is going on there. In fact, it often looks like nothing is going on at all. A random step here. A side movement there. A lingering pause. A moment of confusion. A little of this and that.
It isn’t until we step back and take in the bigger performance made up of those minute, unremarkable steps that we experience the accomplishment they built.
How I learned to Count Accomplishments
Right now, I am working to expand part of my business. There is a lot to learn and do. And most of the time, it feels like it is going super slow. It perpetually feels like I’m not getting enough done, quickly enough. Recently, I discovered that I am wrong about that. There is fallacy in my perception. Let me explain.
At the start of the project, I decided to send monthly updates to a friend to let them know what I had accomplished and what I next planned to do. Simple. I knew my friend was genuinely interested and I thought the update would be a motivating accountability for me.
However, when it came time to write the first update, I dreaded it. I was embarrassed because there was nothing tangible to report. I hadn’t achieved what I had hoped. It seemed like I had wasted time. And now, my friend will know.
I plowed through the dread and began the update with simple bullet points under the bald heading “Accomplishments.” Bullet one, okay good. Bullet two, oh right I did do that…. Bullet three…. One page of bullets became two and three. As I scanned the last few weeks, I found accomplishment after accomplishment hidden in plain sight. From the first bullet point to the last, I went from being discouraged to being encouraged.
By the time I wrote my name at the end of the update, I was genuinely surprised by how much I had accomplished without even realizing it. The update may have been interesting for my friend. But it was essential for me.
I went through this update exercise several more times in the months that followed – starting with trepidation and regret and ending with satisfaction and confidence – before it finally dawned on me that there is something important about counting accomplishments.
Counting your accomplishments
Counting your accomplishments changes the way you see. You connect the dots of your daily effort to the bigger accomplishment or milestone. You see that those unfancy actions have an impact. You have an impact. When you see that the steps you have made have combined to produce something, you access the golden fuel of motivation.
This is the proverbial "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Do your accomplishments make a difference if you don’t see them?
Journalist Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter Faster Better, crystalizes the research about motivation this way:
“…those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values. We start to recognize how small chores can have outsized emotional rewards, because they prove to ourselves that we are making meaningful choices, that we are genuinely in control of our own lives. That’s when self-motivation flourishes: when we realize that replying to an email or helping a coworker, on its own, might be relatively unimportant. But it is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do. Self-motivation, in other words, is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs immediate doing.”
If I had not noted my accomplishments, I would have missed them completely, and missed out on the motivating, productive force - the fuel they provide to keep at it, to keep going, day in and day out.
If I had not noted my accomplishments, is it possible that I would eventually lose motivation to keep going, that the project would begin to fade or fail in the face of the daily unfancy work that feels like it is going nowhere?
If you don’t count your accomplishments, you discount them. You sever the connection of action to outcome, action to impact, action to progress. Your perspective becomes skewed and stuck in the false, debilitating mindset that you are not doing enough, you are not making progress or a difference.
Day to day, there are no choirs singing as you take a note, no symphonies playing the hallelujah chorus as you google something you don’t understand, no fans cheering as you send an email, no exhilaration as your figure out how to fix your printer. Day to day, it is the discipline, the attention, the detail, the stick-to-itiveness, the craft. It’s not fancy. It’s work.
But if you train yourself to connect the dots, to see the bigger composition, you will fuel your daily efforts with extra energy and clarity. You will propel yourself to accomplishment; you will stay the course and have the impact you desire.
If you count your accomplishments, you will make your accomplishments count. You will see that even days that seem stuck or less-than-stellar are part of the dance of progress.
Make it part of your routine to count your accomplishments. Monthly or every other month is a good frequency. It gives enough time to build tangible accomplishments, while fueling a steady stream of motivation and sense of efficacy.
On a daily basis, you can build your "accounting" muscle by closing the day by dashing out a quick list of what you did. The things that stand out. Or even one thing you did that day. Don't judge it. Just let it be. There will be days here and there that will shine for their obvious productivity. There will be a lot more days that will pale in comparison. You will later see that those days, too, brought something to the dance.
I use the journal app OneDay for this. I jot down a few things I did that day and add a photo if I'm inspired.
Your accomplishments in 2016
And now, as we ride toward the summit of 2016, it is a perfect time to count your accomplishments of the year. I promise you will be happily surprised. A surge of confidence and resolve will carry you into 2017.
Get out a piece of paper, open a Word doc and start writing those bullet points.
Here are some questions to jumpstart your list for each of your projects, goals, or aspirations - professional and personal:
What elements or pieces or components have I created?
What milestones have I reached?
What exists now that didn’t exist in 2015?
What have I created that I didn’t expect?
What have I learned that I didn’t know before?
What am I proud of?
Count everything. Each aspect of your projects or goals or efforts is an asset. It is part of the larger performance, part of the dance of 2016.
Count your accomplishments and carry these riches with you into 2017.
Count your accomplishments and make them count.