Avoid a False Sense of Progress

John Kuhn
4 min readFeb 21, 2021

One of my first jobs in high school was as a JavaScript developer at a small consultancy shop. The owner was able to offer me a job with no prior coding experience, and to this day I’m not sure why he hired me. If I were hansom, I might have a guess but I’m without such a vain thought luxury.

Being new to coding, I was learning and working at the same time. This meant there were plenty of days where I’d come in to work and leave with little progress to show. Maybe I was researching and reading, or I just kept hitting dead ends while establishing my debugging skills. This was a hard thing for me to grapple, and I would often be envious of my friends who were mowing lawns and laying bricks. At the end of their shift they had very demonstrable proof of their hard work for their boss as well as themselves.

Even when I was a bit more of a seasoned developer and working at Salesforce as a software engineering intern, I still encountered this issue of demonstrating progress. At the end of the day, coding as well as many other fields and endeavors are creative in nature and won’t have a 1 to 1 linear mapping between effort and results.

Seeing progress is satisfying

I’m not a psychologist, but I would venture to guess there’s a pretty ubiquitous feeling of satisfaction experienced when looking back at a painted house. The fruits of your labor is apparent and immediately enjoyable. Even when things are unfinished there’s still a tremendous amount of relief one gets from being able to say you’ve written the first 3 pages of your term paper due next week.

Being such a satisfying feeling, we have all consciously or unconsciously used false proxies of progress to feel good or justify some success. For example, if you have a business idea you’re particularly compelled to pursue, it’s easy to go buy a cool domain name and some business cards and feel like you’ve done something. You could even build a website on Wordpress that takes orders and have a logo designed and shirts printed. All this might’ve taken many weeks to perform, but what has it really achieved for you? At the end of the day you still don’t have a business and because you don’t have any customers, you still haven’t tested to see if your idea is plausible. Instead you’ve simply spent a lot of money and falsely claimed a sense of progress.

How to know if actual progress has been made?

We should be training ourselves to only ever be satisfied when actual progress has been made. Of course that begs the question, how does one know if actual progress has been made?

It’s simpler than you might think and therefore easy to dismiss, but may be expressed as: write your goal at the beginning of the project in simple prose.

With the example of the prospecting business man or woman, their goal could’ve be written as, “to test a business hypothesis for which only paying customers may confirm”. With such a simple goal it becomes much harder to call buying t-shirts with your new logo progress.

Back to another coding example, I’ve been asked to write features or fix many bugs so far in my short career. The request will often be of the form, “we want to allow customers to search for products on the website”. Being a creative task there will be design decisions and learnings as I build, but at some point I will ship the feature and call it “done”. Even this is a trap however because even though there may now be some search feature present on the website, I may not deserve to feel accomplished.

Perhaps the search bar has a bug or two that renders it useless on a certain browser. I can’t call it done because I never thought to test it on another browser. Or maybe the search bar works perfectly but no user on the site uses it. I should hold my celebration in this instance as well. In both these examples follow up work is necessary to fix bugs or make the feature easier to notice and use before I can call it “done”.

Had I written the goal out in simple terms such as, “enable users to more quickly look up products they desire”, I wouldn’t have celebrated until I had some metrics around feature use, product views on the site, etc.

Dealing with delayed gratification

Acknowledging our tendency to short cut and call out progress while there exists none is half the battle. The remaining half is getting comfortable with delayed gratification. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who can put $50k into an investment and not see anything change for many years but hold the position believing in a later payoff.

We live in a world of instant gratification where ice cream is delivered to our doors in minutes via door dash or where satisfying hunger is a matter of walking to the fridge and throwing something in the microwave. This is why so many people struggle to lose weight, because it just takes time and instant progress almost never happens. We’re very lucky to have such a cushy life in a lot of ways, but we have to get comfortable delaying satisfaction in our creative and work endeavors.

Anything worth doing like getting healthier, improving relationships, or developing a career has non-obvious progress. Being okay with delaying celebration and getting comfortable with putting in effort without instant output is key in almost anything worth pursuing. Good luck!