Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

"The Ostrich Problem" and The Danger of Not Tracking Your Progress

Say you’re working on a new book. Or undertaking a new exercise routine. Perhaps you haven’t been keeping tabs on how many words you’ve written, or weight lost. You’ve got a vague sense of making progress, but you don’t really know whether you’re on schedule. Sound familiar?

Whether you’re in graphic design, teaching, studying, or choreography, tracking your professional progress in a structured way is paramount to success. If you’re not, then you’re likely suffering from “The Ostrich Problem”, a phenomenon described by psychologists in England as the widespread tendency for people to avoid information about progress towards their goals. After all, it feels good to keep moving, and who wants the frustration of discovering that they’ve actually been driving in the wrong direction?

Social psychologist Thomas Webb and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield point out that, unfortunately, it is often those of us who most need to keep checks on our progress who are the least likely to do so. For example, the writer who senses that she is slipping behind with her schedule, but avoids checking to see if this is really the case; the gym-goer who feels they aren’t really losing weight, but chooses to not find out for sure.

Who wants the frustration of discovering that they’ve actually been driving in the wrong direction?

That’s because the avoidance of progress feedback is often motivated by fear – fear that we will be confirming what we suspect: things aren’t going well. If you’re comfortable with your current modus operandi, it can be very tempting to delude yourself that there’s no need to change, and avoiding progress monitoring is one way to do that.

If you’ve been going to the gym twice a week, it’s rewarding to see yourself as a fit and active person. Regularly checking your weight or cardiovascular fitness might burst this bubble. Yet doing so could alert you to the ineffectiveness of your exercise regime; you could make some modifications and really start getting fit.

The Ostrich Problem is problematic because there’s so much research showing that realistic progress monitoring is beneficial to achieving our goals. Evidence comes from diverse sources including students who keep progress diaries succeeding better at math homework, and patients who monitor their progress being more likely to adopt beneficial exercise routines.

Disappointing feedback can be painful at first – research shows that failure and losses can hurt twice as much as the pleasure of equivalent gains. But if you discover you’re off course, reliable feedback shows you by how much, and you then have the opportunity to take remedial action and to plot a new training regime or writing schedule. The temporary pain of negative feedback is nothing compared with the crushing experience of project failure. Better to discover that you’re behind and need to start writing an hour earlier each day, than to have your book contract rescinded further down the line because you’ve failed to deliver.

The temporary pain of negative feedback is nothing compared with the crushing experience of project failure.

Fortunately, Thomas Webb and company’s analysis of the Ostrich Problem presents us with some clues as to how to overcome this harmful habit. For example, if you’re afraid of undermining your self-belief, remind yourself not to be a perfectionist. It’s okay to screw up. Struggles and set backs aren’t an abnormality, they are part of the process. Another tactic is to ask a colleague to provide you with feedback on your progress, or set up some kind of automatic feedback system – both approaches will stop you from needing the willpower to check how you’re doing. Webb’s group also highlighted research suggesting that people are more likely to monitor progress when they’re in a good mood. Also, aim to attend to progress information about yourself in a non-judgmental, non-evaluative way.

Learn to forgive yourself for not checking your progress. The longer you stick your head in the sand, the harder it can be to pull it out. Sometimes it takes self-forgiveness to break free from past bad habits.

How about you?

How do you make sure to keep track of your goals?

More insights on: Motivation

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
load comments (14)
  • mcatlett

    Thanks, Christian! Just when I thought I got my ducks in a row, I read this and realized… I just assumed my ducks are in a row. I’m gonna check my fowl. :)

  • Muzzling

    I suffer from this problem greatly. How does one go about setting up realistic and timed progress checks effectively to make sure you’re on track? I think that combined with the fear element, people don’t really know what to measure or what “progress elements” they should be looking at in order to get good, solid feedback.

  • Lisa Martin

    Thanks! I needed this reminder both for my freelance work AND my exercise regime!! Is there such a thing as time-tracking software that knows when you’re daydreaming and deducts this from time spent actually working!? :-)

    • Carolina

      I started using Toggl a few days ago. It’s a great tool to see how much time you are REALLY working.

      • Lisa Martin

        Thanks for the tip – I will check it out!

  • Kasica

    Thanks! I’m such an ostrich… Got to do something quick!

  • Seth McAllister

    I use an app called Everest to track progress on my top level goals and work.

  • Laura G. Jones

    Although I do think progress should be tracked to some extent, I actually disagree with you on how bad the ostrich effect is. Sometimes progress doesn’t come linearly, it comes in spurts. The practice of continuously measuring progress and setting small-scale goals creates expectations of linear growth, which causes disappointment when that naturally doesn’t happen.

    It’s much more logical to simply look at the reasons we choose those goals in the first place, and what they mean to us, and to allow for a less rigid growth pattern. For instance, building that habit of going to the gym twice a week is an achievement in itself, even though you maybe haven’t been getting the results you want. Perhaps you can adjust what machines you use or how you schedule your time at the gym, but simply having built that habit is no small feat given that your ultimate goal is fitness for the sake of health and well-being.

    Being too focused on losing weight or bulking up creates those expectations I was talking about, which only creates more stress in the long-run, damaging that health and well-being that is actually our ultimate goal. So there’s more to the picture than just “reach your goals in the shortest/most efficient way possible”

    • Christian Jarrett

      hi Laura, thanks for your sensible thoughts on this. I agree that too much focus on goals is a bad thing – something we’ve covered here on 99U before: How Goals and Good Intentions Can Hold Us Back. You’re also right that just getting on track is a worthy feat of its own, such as starting a new regular gym regime. We do need to be careful not to undermine fragile confidence and motivation when starting new projects. However, I think that ultimately the importance of progress feedback still stands. To go with the gym example: yes building that initial habit is a worthy achievement, and yes progress is not necessarily linear. But if you stick your head in the sand and just assume that you’re exercising in the right way, then you run the risk of failing to achieve the outcomes that you deserve given your investments of time and effort. It is only by confronting the reality of your progress that you can make the tweaks necessary to optimise your exercise regime. Of course many people just exercise (or write or paint etc) for the fun of it, but if someone does have more specific goals, there’s no question that progress feedback can help them on stay on track for success. The irony is that it’s people’s fear of not reaching their goals that can tempt them to put their head in the sand.

      Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finish line. But, now and a then, don’t forget to check that you’re running in the right direction.

    • Christian Jarrett

      PS hi Laura – I just remembered this study and thought you’d like it – kind of fits what you were saying. It found that gym-goers enjoyed improvements to their body image, even if they didn’t lose any weight or change their body shape.

  • Sebastian Martinez Hujarshi-Pe

    More and more studies keep coming up favoring those who constantly track and journal their work. Best example are professional athletes, they track every progress and setbacks. Surveys with people interested in loosing weight show that those who monitor their weight daily and keep a journal of their weight have higher rate of success than those who don’t.

    I have to confess that I looked into tracking out of desperation for getting unstuck, and after reading two exceedingly boring books; Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney; and The Power of Habit: Why We do What We do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg; and having to write a paper for each book. I succumbed to the idea of keeping track of my life, which I began since the latter part of last year. Even thought it hasn’t been that long, I can attest to tracking as a viable discipline. I mean, it’s really working for me. I initially started tracking my body weight first and more recently every aspect of my life. Coincidentally, I was wondering the other day; why would weighting myself daily works? What’s the secret within this exercise? It dawn on me that is the “daily awareness” the scale produces. If I see the scale tipped towards the right, guess what? All of the sudden I’m more conscience to what I eat that day.

    As I noticed the positive change with my weight, I then began to jot down (almost daily) the things that I need to do the next day and during the week. And, seeing the completion of the small daily achievements during my weekly assessment, it has giving me a modest sense of satisfaction. I said modest, because, I have to admit that sometimes it’s discouraging to see the things I was not able to complete. The other negative side I found with tracking is that the days and weeks seem to get shorter. Again, it’s the awareness it creates. Regardless, I will continue to plan and keep track. I don’t want to sound ironic or confrontational to the concerns raised by some of the readers, but for those with an urgent and desperate need to measure their progress and taking control of their time, the benefits of tracking are far greater than any adverse psychological reaction it may produce.

    • petra

      I believe we have to distuingish monitoring of progress towards goals and doing something for enjoyment.
      When I like work out I don’t mind whether I lose or not. If I need to learn foreign language within 6 months, or I have to leave, there is different impulse – motivation vs. stimulation.
      When being internally motivated, the goal is appearing less difficult and draining, and more probably we will be somehow successful because we needn’t set up any target (in terms of time or level) and so, our fears are minimal.
      When we have an external stimulus (lean or go), we might not be internally accepting our goal and we fail because our fear /stress level is higher.

  • Sasha Nazaruk

    That’s exactly the article I needed to read ;)

  • Janet Arnold

    Quite timely! I am still amazed at how that get exactly what you need when you need it. But it matters when you use what you now know!!! Off to tracking I go!! I heard a girl from an insurance agency say to someone yesterday, “…I am tracking geek…”. She was clearly dropping bread crumbs along the path to this article this morning. I am on a new adventure that will be successful with the tracking element embraced to the power of ten! I get it!!

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