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Our brains are hardwired to remember our mistakes more clearly than our successes. Without the benefit of an annual performance review from a supervisor, freelancers are at the mercy of their own memory to assess if they’re achieving their goals.
Stepping back to take a look at your career progress can feel overwhelming. Who has time to stop and assess? Or worse… what if you don’t like what you see?
Regularly reflecting on small successes actually helps propel our work forward. Recording our wins can have a transformational power, building confidence that our bigger goals are achievable. Here’s why:
Your memory isn’t your champion
Negative feedback naturally makes a bigger impact on our minds than positive praise. For this, we can blame our “lizard brain,” the primitive part of our brain that vigilantly scans for danger. Our brains evolved this way for a reason: those who were more attuned to bad events were more likely to survive threats.
This inherited trait has unpleasant consequences in a digital age. In an era where our mentors and peers broadcast their wins on social media, it’s easy to minimize your own success. We’ve grown accustomed to glossy “20 under 20” lists and roundups of industry trendsetters. Our accomplishments can feel puny by comparison.
How can we overcome our lizard brain and more clearly see our successes?
Forget perfect. Make progress.
Make time to track your progress on the projects that matter to you. This can take the form of a daily journal, or even a monthly review that asks a simple question: “What went well?” Making a note of successes, even small ones, can begin to train our brain to remember the progress we’ve made.
Sometimes identifying a win can be challenging. Instead of saying, “I’ve only written 3% of my book so far, I still have 97% left to go.” try a positive framework: “I spent at least 30 minutes writing every day for three weeks.” Think about new ways to frame your accomplishments.
The question isn’t whether we’ve accomplished an arbitrary benchmark. Our mindset shifts when we notice our steady progress towards our goals.
Even after a setback, it can be useful to look for wins and track your progress. On frustrating days when we don’t think we got anything done, there are often hidden wins. Challenge yourself to hunt for hidden wins. Did you encourage a colleague? Take care of yourself during a stressful moment? Improve your chances for success tomorrow?
Define your own success
If you use a paper planner, consider creating a space at the end of each week/month to record your wins. Big or small, write them down. When you need motivation to keep going, spend some time looking back over these notes. Notice and celebrate how the small wins lead to larger accomplishments over time.
You could also take an archival approach. Build a file (physical or digital) where you collect your wins. Include praise from clients, notes from a successful project, press clippings, awards, cards, or emails that make you feel good. Reflecting on positive messages can remind you of how far you’ve come.
Freelancers don’t have the benefit of a team of co-workers who will head to happy hour after work to celebrate a win. Be your own party-planning committee! Assemble your own group of peers that you can celebrate with, when those big wins come around.
Researchers have found that making progress on meaningful work leads to the biggest feelings of engagement and happiness in our work lives. What freelancer doesn’t want that? Taking note of small steps forward teaches you to recognize your growing competence in achieving your goals. The more you track your progress, the more you build excitement and momentum towards bigger wins.
Erin Dollar is a freelance writer in the art and design field, and specializes in building community for creative entrepreneurs. See her design portfolio at erindollar.com.