In the 16th century, one man produced a monumental composition. It changed our view of art.1
The Sistine Chapel ceiling was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, and it took four years for the great Michelangelo to paint. Due to its inaccessibility, he put an incredible amount of strain on his body to craft more than 300 individual figures and their environment.
During busier times, 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums per day.2 The Chapel is the primary attraction. It is a cultural, historical, and visual spectacle.
Interestingly enough, Michelangelo never really considered himself a painter. He had quite a low opinion of the art. He saw himself primarily as a sculptor, and he had already produced two of his most famous works, Pieta and David, before the age of 30.3
More than anything, however, what he did love – regardless of his choice of expression – was creating. He thought of himself as a man in the constant pursuit of learning, and he was far more concerned with the process of what he undertook in than the medium itself.
There’s an old myth of a friend watching Michelangelo labor over a small, obscure corner of the Sistine Chapel. The friend asked, “Who will ever know whether or not it’s perfect?”
Michelangelo had only two words for him, “I will.”4
In our pursuit of success, we direct a disproportionate amount of attention to the result. Ironically, by doing that, we often neglect the path that will get us there. To have a better chance at goal achievement, we need to learn to prioritize the process by:
• Deliberately designing a strategy into a system we love
• Focusing on marginal improvements to get moving
• Recording and measuring to drive our progress
Michelangelo was a Renaissance man, but his talent wasn’t in what he did, but how he did it.
Deliberately Design a Strategy into a System You Love
Achievement is built on three steps: goal definition, strategy creation, and implementation.
The goal is the easy part. It’s bright and shiny, and it’s what we daydream about when we should be directing our focus and energy elsewhere. In truth, it’s mostly just a distraction.
The strategy is the first productive step. It establishes commitment, and it sets us in motion. This is where we spend much of our time, and it’s what outlines the details of the journey.
The final part of the equation is implementation, and this is where things usually fall apart. We spend too little time actually thinking about it. We mistakenly presume that, beyond a strategy, it’s simply a matter of moving. That’s precisely why we give up once we realize how hard it is.
The most important part of accomplishing anything is deliberately translating a strategy into a system you love. Implementation requires purpose, and if you can’t learn to enjoy the quirks of the process leading you to a goal, sustained motivation will always be a problem.
It took Michelangelo four years to complete that ceiling, and he wasn’t even crazy about the art of painting. In spite of that, he consistently showed up and invested his time and even compromised his health to do the work. The goal of finishing his masterpiece was no doubt a driving factor, but if that were his sole motivator, he likely would’ve quit like many of us do.
For him, it was about more than that. It was about the process of creating, the quest for perfection, and the joy of improving and getting better. On a day to day basis, what he did was likely mundane and uninspiring, but it was a system that he had committed his life to.
He understood what great work required, and to that end, he knew what was necessary. He learned to fall in love with the process, and the result was a byproduct.
Almost all of our big goals take hard work. There’s no way around it. There might be ways to be more efficient, but no shortcuts eliminate the need for actually putting in the hours and going through the gestures. And these gestures aren’t always romantic.
They’re redundant, draining, and boring, and to succeed is to make them not so. There’s no big secret. You just have to deliberately question what about the system you love, and you have to learn to enjoy the work, day in and day out. It’s about making the unsexy sexy.
Focus on Marginal Improvements to Get Moving
The conventional wisdom says that big results require big leaps. That’s not entirely untrue. It’s just that those leaps rarely occur as sudden, big jumps, and it doesn’t make sense for them to.
If you want to run a local marathon by the end of the year, it’s probably not a good idea to try to do so during your first practice session. It’s just not happening, and it will likely lead to injury.
If we presume that to go big, we have to act big, the initial burden of effort is far too high, and it demotivates us into inaction. It makes more sense to focus on marginal improvements.
Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provide some interesting evidence for this in The Progress Principle, a book they published with the Harvard Business Review Press.
Their ideas are based on the analysis of 12,000 journal entries of over 200 knowledge workers, whose jobs required consistent creative productivity, at seven different companies.
They found that one of the most significant predictors of well-being at work is the idea of small wins. When people had smaller goals designed into their larger ones, and when they reached these milestones, they felt that they made more progress.
This worked as a catalyst that kept them going for more, and the researchers believe that this fact is one of the hidden forces that drive the overall performance of effective organizations.
Sudden, big jumps are often not only impractical but to get started, we need the drive brought on as a byproduct of marginal improvements. These improvements are easy to strive for, and they also reinforce our conviction to keep going.
Instead of running the marathon on the first or even the eighth practice day, if you focus on adding half a mile or a mile to your run with each new session, you find yourself a more manageable way to get to your eventual goal. It’s subtle and not overwhelming.
The beauty of it all is that these marginal gains add up through the compound effect. Each improvement builds on the one before it, and over time, the result is a massive multiplier.
Hypothetically, if you gained one percent daily for a year, you’d get 1.01³⁶⁵ = 37.78. In short, you’d be almost 38 times better than you were at the start.
Record and Measure to Drive Your Progress
Small wins keep us going, which makes intuitive sense, but another part of that equation – which significantly impacts the likelihood of progress – is recording and measuring.
By simply tracking and documenting where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we can visualize the chain of growth that’s been nurtured from the marginal steps taken over time.
Sometimes, with marginal gains, precisely because they make the larger goal more bearable, it can be difficult to see whether or not they’re getting us as far as we need to go. A one to five percent improvement per week or month doesn’t appear too mightily in the moment.
Recording and measuring, however, captures their compound effect, and that matters.
In late 2015, Benjamin Harkin and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 138 studies made up of almost 20,000 subjects to try and figure out whether monitoring goal progress promotes goal attainment. 5
They primarily studied health goals across categories like weight loss, blood pressure, and smoking. Not surprisingly, they did find the correlation they were looking for. More interestingly, however, they observed that the more frequent the monitoring, the better the shot at success. And something as simple as physically recording progress as opposed to just making a mental note made a significant difference, too.
We all have a tendency to direct our focus ahead as opposed to backward, especially in matters of goal attainment and accomplishment. It’s a tendency that gets in our way because it stops us from utilizing the same feedback tools that will get us to where our sights are set.
Marginal improvements add up over time, but if we don’t find ourselves looking for the accumulated effects of these increases, it can be easy to lose the drive to keep pushing.
Identify your metrics, designate a time to monitor them, and put your pen to paper.
All You Need to Know
We all want things. We want to be smarter, wealthier, and more successful. The list is long.
The exact priorities may be different for each of us, but a greater desire for something in the future is an impulse we all share. We spend a lot of thinking about it. In fact, so much so, that the disproportionate focus on our end goals detracts from our ability to achieve them.
What leads to a goal is a path, process, or a system. And for most of us, this part of the machine is the most difficult to maintain. It’s the one that takes the most time and effort.
That isn’t to say that goals aren’t important. Clear direction is almost always necessary. The point is simply that once a target has been set, goal achievement is about attending to the process. The research points to a three-part plan for doing this.
I. With a goal and an initial strategy in place, it starts with deliberately designing that strategy into a system that you love. The process of getting to the end is lined with hard work, redundancy, and boredom. On a day to day basis, it isn’t very sexy. The only way through all that is to learn to enjoy the system that will take you to your goals.
II. Focus on marginal improvements to get moving. Our goals are often bigger than we are when we first decide to strive for them. The way to them isn’t with sudden, big leaps. It’s through tiny step by step gains. Starting small lowers the motivation barrier, and the incremental improvements eventually compound into massive progress.
III. The last step is to record and measure marginal improvements to continuously drive the process until the end. It’ll help you visualize the effect of compounded gains, and it creates a chain of progress that paves the path towards further progress. It can be done by simply picking a time and a relevant metric and putting pen to paper.
Learning to think in terms of the process while partially neglecting the goal isn’t easy. The goal is straightforward and romantic, while the process is long and mundane. The pointers may not cover every base, but they offer a place to rethink how to approach the art of accomplishment.
The biggest hurdle between you and your goals is often your approach. Do something about it.
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