I recently went on my first silent meditation retreat.
For ten days, I meditated with a group of women, and we were not allowed to use technology, talk or even make gestures at each other.
When your brain has nothing to do, it starts to find things to keep itself busy. One person built little rock towers that I kept seeing on my meditative walks. Another asked me after the ten days if I was a journalist because throughout the retreat she guessed what people did for work based on how they looked. In my case, I went to the courtyard over the breaks to watch the ants go about their days. It had become such a fascinating activity for me. There was a tiny pile of dirt right beside a little hole in the ground. Tunneling ants were carving the hole. Each hour I watched, the size of the anthill barely changed. But every day when I came back, the hill was larger, and the change was noticeable. The tunneling process was neither fast nor easy, but the ants kept at it with lots of effort and patience.
In our daily lives, from the Bitcoin rush to online shopping, the technological advancements and our instant access to information have contributed to us wanting things fast and easy. Our social media feeds are blasted with stories of entrepreneurs going from nothing to millionaires in an instant. Consequently, our thoughts and desires have become programmed to expect the same kind of results in our own lives. We have started to measure our progress on an oversized scale.
Real progress, however, is often the combination of slow, small, and steady steps repeated over and over again. It doesn’t look like much when it’s happening. It is more closely related to habitual behaviors than to achievement, and “as behaviors are repeated in consistent settings, they then begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought.”
Organizational theorist Karl Weik said, “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Martin Pistorius, the bestselling author of Ghost Boy, knows this best. Due to a brain infection, Pistorius spent 13 years of his life trapped inside a body that didn’t respond to his commands. Through small, slow, and steady progress, today he can move around in a wheelchair and use computers to communicate. He said in a BBC interview, “Success is strange in that it cultivates more success. Once I had achieved something, it encouraged me to try even harder. It expanded my perception of what was possible. If I could do this, then what else could I do?”
The problem is in our daily lives we’re often trying to measure our small, stepwise wins using a large scale, so we can’t detect the change. And when we don’t notice any changes, we quickly get discouraged, lose patience, think we must not be good enough, and give up.
I’ve noticed in my work as an educator that even students are often impatient to see results quickly, even when they haven’t put in the effort or the practice time required to achieve their big goals. And when they don’t see changes fast, they get discouraged thinking they’re not smart enough, or that math is just not for them.
Building habits is a slow and arduous process, and in the moment it may not feel like much is changing. Most successful entrepreneurs like Slava Rubin, co-founder, and CEO of Indiegogo, have had to master patience and persistent before they hit their big break. Indiegogo was rejected by more than 90 venture capitalists for funding before it became a leader in internet crowdfunding.
If you have ever accomplished anything that was significant, such as getting fit, getting out of debt, or quitting smoking, you know that it took months or even years of consistent work to reach your goals. And just like the tunneling ants at the silent meditation retreat, progress was slow as even though they worked day in and day out, the significant change in the size of the anthill was only apparent after the ten days.
So how can you adopt the right measuring scale for your progress? Learn the tools in my TEDx talk so that you can make your next goal setting a success.
Using smaller scales to measure our progress allows us to detect the small, stepwise wins. And just like the tunneling ants demonstrated at the meditation retreat, these small wins matter; because often it’s the small forward moving steps that combine to create transformative changes.