Counting Trees - How Small Successes Feed Larger Goals

Counting Trees

How Small Successes Feed Your Larger Goals

The human brain is a magnificent machine. After the first cup of coffee, of course. The complexity of an organ that is responsible for both creating a fun playlist and, you know, breathing just knocks me over. Which is why it’s so charming that it views progress through an extraordinarily simplistic lens.

In their book The Progress Principle, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, note that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions…the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” Meaningful work is personal for each of us and usually easy to identify. It’s the “feed your soul” activities at home and work that feel purposeful and full of value. Progress, on the other hand, can be a little tougher to spot. It’s happening all around us every single day, but we often miss it because it’s disguised as incremental steps in a larger process.

Those steps are vital though. They’re the key to sustaining motivation and avoiding burnout. For me, the proverbial wall usually appears about three quarters of the way through whatever I’m working on. It could be a writing assignment, a beloved community garden project, a workout, or a room that’s in the torn-apart-and-nowhere-near-put-back-together stage. Regardless, the wall always comes.

That’s when I start counting trees.

Quite literally in the case of a run that started out as a good idea, but somewhere along the line made me question most of my life choices. First let me say I am a bad runner who loves running. It clears my head and sets my heart right. I’ve just never been particularly good at it.

Nevertheless, there’s a stretch of trail on my usual run that is lined on both sides with beautiful sugar maples. On this particular day, the trees became a sort of lifeline. When it comes to physical endurance, it’s not at all uncommon for the brain to want to tap out long before the body has tuckered out. Understanding this, it can be helpful to shift the internal conversation when the brain starts yammering about being tired. In this case, change it from focusing on the sudden onset of “noodle legs” to counting trees.

There’s an access road that bisects the line of trees so I started counting. One by one, I counted twenty-eight trees to the road. Then, I started counting down from that to reach the end. Much to my horror it was not symmetrical, something I’ve yet to make peace with, but that’s not the point. The point is, the larger task became exponentially more manageable because it was broken apart into such tiny increments that my brain was focused on completing each bit rather than struggling with the enormity of the whole. It was too busy celebrating that we had reached the next tree. And the next tree and the next.

Celebrating Small Successes

As it turns out, it’s not the huge milestones that result in validation and satisfaction. Well, it is. But only because those are what we’ve been conditioned to celebrate. The key is to acknowledge progress, however small the steps. Our brains don’t differentiate by the size of the step, but rather the reward circuitry that is activated when we experience accomplishment. So, when we give ourselves an “atta girl” for getting to the next tree, literally or figuratively, we fire up a spark of intrinsic motivation that spurs us forward.

The smaller steps are vital. They’re what encourage us to shift our internal dialogue so that giving up or procrastinating morphs into:

  • I’ll organize one drawer today
  • I’ll fill one bag of donations this week
  • I’ll take one more class this year
  • I’ll swap pizza for salad once a day week month

Progress is in the eye of the beholder. It’s movement toward the goal that matters, not the size of the steps taken. And, when motivation is lagging, count the “trees.” Divide those smaller chunks into even tinier bits, but keep moving forward. In need of a little more inspiration? When renowned cancer research activist, Terry Fox, was asked how he managed to run the equivalent of a marathon a day during his 1980-81 Marathon of Hope, he answered “I just kept running to the next telephone pole and when I got there I would focus on the next telephone pole.”

Allowing yourself the grace to fortify your big picture goals with smaller, more manageable steps offers an opportunity for growth and achievement that may otherwise be lost. So, think small, celebrate big, and count on!