We always want to feel like we are making progress. We strive to become ‘the strongest version of ourselves’. We want to feel that we are going in the right direction.
As part of this, we often spend time comparing our present selves to our past selves: Do I procrastinate less than I used to? Am I producing better work? Am I more socially confident?
Yet these continual informal comparisons can be counterproductive. They are unreliable and the false conclusions can produce undesired responses.
The recall problem
Psychological research, as explained by Daniel Gilbert in ‘Stumbling On Happiness’, highlights that our mechanisms for recalling the past can be inaccurate. We can’t recall long time periods of weeks, months of years so instead we recall a few snippets of past experiences and use them to create an overall impression.
The problem with comparing ourselves with our past selves is that the snippets we recall are rarely an accurate representation of a larger time scale, and thus our comparison is heavily influenced by the snippets that we just so happen to recall.
To demonstrate why this can be problematic, let’s consider productivity levels (although the principles are true for anything, from social confidence to money spending habits).
Our productivity levels (and other outputs) constantly fluctuate from hour to hour and day to day. Plotted on a graph it would look something like this:
Progression over time is an incremental process. We can’t be more productive than our past self ALL the time but we can maintain an upward trend. On a graph this may look something like this:
However, if we continually try to assess our improvement in this informal way, we are vulnerable to grossly incorrect judgement.
If I’m currently having a productivity peak and the reference memories that I recall are of a productivity trough, I will give myself a false impression of massive progress. This may have negative effects by inducing a false sense of security and an inclination to slack off.
Conversely, if I’m in a trough and my reference memories are from peaks, I will be disappointed. I may start to question whether I am taking the right approach and start feeling despondent, which again is counterproductive.
What is the solution?
There are three questions that we must therefore consider:
1. Should we be trying to improve?
2. Is it beneficial to quantify this improvement?
3. What are useful ways to do so?