The Right Way to Measure Success

February 3, 2020

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

-Edmund Burke


You need to be able to measure your progress on each project—whether you’re trying to reorganize your home or your office or your company so you don’t fall prey to any story that says, “Go big or go home.” 

That’s great when you’re competing on a sports field, but useless when confronting clutter or lackluster productivity.

Progress should be quantifiable, and not left up to your feelings to determine if you are moving forward.


Let’s look at reorganizing a drawer.

To begin the process, you have to remove everything from the drawer.

That may feel chaotic and you may be overwhelmed and surprised by the amount of crap you discover you had shoved in that drawer.

If you left it up to your feelings to inform your sense of progress, you may feel like you’re worse off than when you started.

Now, things are no longer hidden from view in the drawer AND they are covering what used to be a clean, clear surface.

It isn’t hard to imagine that your response would be to just shove everything back into the drawer and tell yourself you’ll get back to this later.

But if an empty drawer was one of your benchmarks for progress, suddenly you would be able to confirm that you had achieved the benchmark. The drawer IS empty.

The next benchmark may be a clean, empty drawer.

Once you get some cleaning solution and a rag and wipe out the drawer, you’d be able to confirm that THAT step was also achieved.

If the next step is to properly sort things into Like with Like piles and discard anything that is broken or clearly trash, when all the former contents of the drawer are now in their piles and things have been tossed into the bin, you have achieved another benchmark.

The next step would be to install any dividers or containers inside the drawer that will allow you to keep your Like with Like groups together and tidy.

That may involve measuring the drawer, measuring the quantity and size of the piles and either purchasing or repurposing drawer dividers.

So you can see how you can easily take a relatively small and concise project and create measurable, finite milestones that when you achieve them, indicate or demonstrate progress, regardless of HOW you feel at any given moment.

Writing this blog can also be used to illustrate this point.

I began with a premise.

Then I created some structure—six headings:


When the content for each section is complete, then I know that I am making progress towards the publishing of this blog post.

And I set the timer for 30 minutes so I would be able to work within a math-based quantity of time, rather than just saying I’m going to work until I’m finished.

I have no idea what finished looks like when I start OTHER than that I will have words for each heading section. How many words? I don’t know.

And I don’t want my feelings about this project to determine my progress, I want something I can see and hold onto to determine that since I know that I will lie to myself about my progress, either inflating it or deflating it to make myself feel better or worse, depending on my mindset.

So I’m better off with math-based goals than feelings-based goals.


I’ve started this bit above.

Progress is defined as:

  • Forward or onward movement, as toward a destination.
  • Development, advancement, or improvement, as toward a goal.

Not super helpful.

I’ve heard “progress rather than perfection,” which I appreciate since we can always move forward even if we don’t exactly know what the “perfect” result may be.

But other than rejecting perfection, how do you or I define if we’ve actually moved the needle forward?

Because unless someone else is (relatively) objectively evaluating my progress, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

And so we need to have clear vision so we don’t squint or fudge the edges as we’re evaluating our progress.

Anyone can take one more step.

That’s progress.

15 minutes of focused attention AND action can be considered progress.

15 minutes of focused attention and thinking can also be considered progress.

And only you will know if you actually stayed focused for the 15 minutes or you wandered away mentally after 7 minutes.

So, the lens you use to observe your own behavior will definitely influence how you see things and as a result, how you feel about things—but remember, your feelings are a by-product and NOT the goal or even the accurate evaluation of progress.

You may feel like crap AND still be making progress.

Conversely, you may feel great and have made absolutely ZERO progress.

Stop relying on your feelings to tell you whether you have progressed or not.

This is what brain science tells us about our behavior:

  1. We are triggered in some way.
  2. We have a thought.
  3. We take action.
  4. There are consequences as a result of the action(s).
  5. We have a feeling about the consequences.

And if your feelings trigger you, then you’re stuck on this gerbil wheel and chances are you will not make the kind of progress you want, you expect or you need.



It’s easy to say just put on a happy face but/and if you did just smile, you would, in fact, shift your energy and state.

It’s crazy how simple it is and how easy it is to scorn these kinds of adjustments.

But if you want to be happy and successful, you’ve got to take control of your mindset.

I used to wake up in the morning and read the newspaper.

I thought that was a good way to stay informed and keep up with current affairs.

But after a few minutes online, I’d be getting upset and agitated—not good for being productive.

So now I start my days listening to a meditation MP3.

I start my day focused on what and how I want the day to proceed—which is with focus, intention, and deliberately.

So if you’re looking for a way to feel crappy about how you’re NOT making progress, you’ll find it.


Is anything getting done?

That’s the basis for this point.

If you did something to move the needle forward—you took an action, whether that was focused thinking or an actual activity—you get credit for doing something.


“If you took an action, whether that was focused thinking or an actual activity—you get credit for doing something.”

NOTE: As a rule, these have been wordier as quotes then I’d like. I think they work in context but as a pull out, they can often be shortened. TY. 

You don’t get credit for worrying, gossiping or snacking.

Everything else IS considered progress.


You need some way to quantify progress so I suggest you use the clock and milestones.

The simplest way to track progress is by using time-based increments.

Set a timer for 30 minutes and when it goes off, you successfully accomplished your goal—which was to do something for a set period of time, in this case, 30 minutes.

The other way to quantify progress is to establish specific milestones.

When you achieve one, you have succeeded.

Returning to the example above, a milestone may be as simple as emptying out a drawer.

You get to determine the milestones for your projects.

It’s just important that you can clearly define what completing that milestone looks like.


Tracking progress is essential to keeping your momentum up and when we don’t see it or measure it accurately, it is also one of the ways we undermine our confidence. 

If you have a lot of historic accumulation, or clutter, it can seem overwhelming as you start to dig yourself out.

You may feel or tell yourself that only a big result will be worth the effort.

That’s a story.

Because every step forward is progress.

You may convince yourself that since you can’t do it ALL in one sitting that it’s not worth even starting. That you can’t make enough progress for any effort to matter.

You would be wrong.

More story.

I have struggled with this in my own business and practice.

I will tell myself the story that I just don’t have the time to make an impact with only 15 minutes so I’ll do it “later,” when I can make some serious progress.

And I really mean it when I say it to myself.

I think if I can’t make a big impact, I should just wait.

Truth is, a lot can be accomplished in 15 minutes.

I may not finish the entire project but I may be able to complete enough work to achieve the next milestone.

There are projects that you probably SHOULD do from start to finish—like baking a cake.

When it comes to clutter though, progress can be counted when one thing is picked up and put in its home.

Progress can be found when something as simple as assigning your keys a new home is complete.

It may feel small, but progress means one more thing ends up in the recycle bin and not on the kitchen counter.

You are guaranteed that nothing will change if you delay taking action.

You risk letting overwhelm win and staying paralyzed.

Don’t make the mistake of doing nothing because you could only do a little.

Set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes and do a little.

Any progress is better than no progress at all.Are you tired of the story of “too much to do and not enough time?” Would you love to get an extra hour or more back into your week without any gimmicks AND for free? Check out this cheatsheet I put together for you—it’s my gift and a great way to jump start your decluttering.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!