Imagine you want to increase sales by 70 percent this quarter. Big jump, sure, but you think you can do it. Instead, you finish the quarter up 67 percent.
How do you feel? According to research recently published in Psychological Science, you definitely feel disappointed.
Worse, you're a lot less likely to work to match -- much less increase -- those results next quarter.
Even though a 67 percent increase was a huge gain in sales and revenue.
The reason? We tend to think of progress that doesn't reach our expectations -- no matter how significant that progress may have been -- as total failure. Psychologists call that the negative lumping effect, which dismisses achievement when it falls short of categorical reform -- despite distinctions in improvement.
Say you can never seem to save any money, and this month you set a big goal: You want to save $1,000. Oddly enough, whether you wind up saving $900, or $600, or "only" $300, it all feels the same: Like you failed. Even though $300 is good, $600 better, and $900 pretty great -- especially considering you've never been able to tuck away any money before. The difference in where you started and what you accomplished is huge.
But it doesn't feel huge, because you didn't hit your $1,000 target.
And that means you're less likely to save any money next month: As the researchers write,
"When attempts to eradicate a problem fail, people might dismiss smaller but critical steps that were and can still be made."
That's why people who decide to lose 10 pounds in 30 days (which can be done) yet "only" manage to lose eight feel like failures -- and are much less likely to keep eating healthier and exercising more.
The same is true on a more global scale. Ask someone whose mission is to ensure everyone in the world can read and write if they're happy with progress made, and they're likely to say no.
Even though In 1820 only one out of 10 people were able to read, and today nearly nine out of 10 are able to read. (And among today's young population, the chances are much higher since many of today's illiterate population are relatively old.)
That's huge progress.
Yet, when your goal is 100 percent literacy, it certainly doesn't feel like it.
A Tale of Two Charts
So how can you combat the effect of negative lumping? How can you keep failing to meet a goal -- especially a huge goal -- from feeling like total failure?
The key is to look forward and backward. Measuring yourself against a goal is obviously valuable. Striving to reach a goal, evaluating your progress toward that goal to modify your approach, your strategies, your daily activities--goals are valuable in that they inform the process you create to reach that goal.
You can't decide how to get there if you don't know where you're going.
So definitely measure yourself against your goal.
But also make sure to look back and see how far you've come.
If your goal was to increase sales by 70 percent and you "only" hit 67 percent, still: You've grown your business by an impressive amount. If you hoped to lose 10 pounds but "only" lost eight, still: You lost a significant amount of weight. If your goal is total literacy, and you "only" boosted the rate by 1 percent, still: That's a major increase in literacy.
Looking forward, your "failure" is relative.
Looking back, your success is absolute: You dramatically grew your business. You got a lot slimmer. You helped 79 million learn to read and write.
Use your goals to inform your processes. Use your goals to track your progress and make smart course correction. Measure yourself against your goals.
But don't forget to look back and measure yourself against the progress you made, especially if your efforts fall short of your goals. Failing to hit a target is just failing to hit an arbitrary -- and possibly always unreachable -- target.
Progress is actual. Progress is tangible. Progress, no matter how small, is an achievement to take pride in -- and use as motivation to keep making progress.
Because milestones are fun, but where you end up is all that really matters.