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 WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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