Incremental Progress

Hardly anything is as inspirational for us as progress. We get fired up by progress. When you notice that you have personally developed or have accomplished something it boosts your confidence and moves you into an upward spiral of positive expansion.

As human beings, we are motivated by progress. It’s something we can all benefit from when we work creatively.

When you start out on a new creative project, whether it’s photography or any in other art form, it can be overwhelming to try to see the final outcome and figure out the way to get there. The solution is simple—kind of at least. Instead of aiming for the end result, take incremental steps, steps you feel you can easily overcome. Figure out a direction and start moving even if you don’t know how to get to the end. And then celebrate in-between objectives on the way to the final goal.

Take writing a novel. If you think you need to figure out the whole plot and the story line before writing, you will never get started. Yes, you may have an idea or a sketch of the plot, but you will never have all the details figured out beforehand. You just need to start writing the first sentence. And then the next. And so on. If you look to the end of the travel you are about to take on, you will most likely become discouraged before you even get going.

The same with starting a photo project. If you try to figure out all angles and all the images you need for the project beforehand, you end up frustrated and discouraged because you feel you can’t get a grip on what and how it will be. Put down a baseline draft and then start taking the first photo. And then continue, one photo by one photo.

Every so often when you do a bigger project, it’s a good idea to look back and see for yourself that you have actually moved and achieved something since you started. Gather records of what you have done, and make sure you celebrate intermediate objectives. Make a “Done Wall” where you gather up records of whatever achievements you have reach in your creative project.

We all need to see incremental progress in order to feel confident in our creative journeys. Proof of this idea can be found in the analogy of waiting in line. If you find yourself in a long line of people waiting to get into a concert or a restaurant as in the photo above, you will notice that everyone keeps inching forward every few minutes as the line makes its slow advance. But if one person immediately in front of you fails to move with the rest of the line, you will get frustrated. Even if you know that the person ahead of you will move to catch up with the line later on, you still get frustrated as you see the gap of space ahead growing.

Standing still and feeling no progress is difficult. You want to keep moving with the line in order to feel productive. The incremental movements with the line don’t get you there any faster, but they feel great and keep you willing to wait.

Just think about waiting in a line of backed up cars on the freeway. Standing still is very frustrating because you have no idea if the line beyond where you see, is actually moving. Even very slow moving is significantly better than no movement at all. It the same sensation as the one you get pushing the “Door Close”-button in an elevator, even though doing so may, in fact, do nothing (many of these buttons are disabled). Still, it is satisfying to feel that you are making progress.

Feeling progress is an important part of the execution of a creative project. Too often, we tend to stop executing before we even get started. We may have plenty of creative ideas, but the hard part is putting them into life. If your natural tendency is to generate ideas rather than take action on existing ideas, then surrounding yourself with progress can help you focus. When you make incremental progress, celebrate it and feature it. Surround yourself with it.

An example is the latest eBook I have been working on for a while. Before starting out I only knew I wanted to write about how photographers can improve their ability to see so that they are better be able to find interesting and captivating subjects. I didn’t already have all the information or knowledge available. But I started with putting down a loose disposition of possible chapters. Then I started writing. And I kept reading books that could have relevance for my own book. I learned more and I added chapters to the disposition along the way. Then I wrote the chapters as they came to me. And I went back to already written chapters as I found more information that I needed to add. Now the text for the book is as good as done. Next is getting it proofread, and finally I have to figure out the layout, find relevant photos and put it all together. Slowly by slowly the project is moving forward, in incremental steps, in which each finished chapter has kept me going with whatever was left to do.

So if you are about to start on a bigger creative project—or would like to—don’t get discouraged by the long road ahead of you. Just start without thinking what lies ahead of you too much, but take one step at a time. And celebrate each mile you pass.

61 thoughts on “Incremental Progress

  1. Wisdom to live by! In recent times I’ve made a point to give myself encouragement for progress, even small gains, and I’ve found everything goes so much more easily as a result.

  2. Oh my gosh, Otto, you have hit the nail on the head for me! I have a couple of (larger) projects that I’ve been trying to tackle, and have started and postponed and re-started and got stuck with for so long that I feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Work commitments and the daily demands of LIFE take over and before I know it, another week has passed and I’ve done nothing further on what I want to do. One day I’ll be dead, and I won’t have achieved what I’m longing to achieve. It’s depressing sometimes!

    Your advice feels so relevant to to me at this time: seeing incremental progress is soo valuable and motivating. Breaking down a project into small chunks, and being able to tick things off a list is so helpful.

    Thank you, Otto!

    1. I know exactly what you are talking. Yes, life happens all the time, and before you know it, another year has gone without getting started on that project. One small step is all it takes, though. And you have started. I wish you all the best with your incremental steps. 🙂

  3. Couldn´t agree more in this post, we as humans are motivated by progress. There was an old man thousands of years of go, the cromagnoes? (I spelled that wrong for sure, but I can learn and progress) so this ancesters of us did mange to make fire since they were cold. You said it, execute. Start whatever is that a person has in mind, in my case is like you,writing. But it´s obviously applieable to all aspect of our life. You got to start and finish wich translates to execute. It can turn hopefully good, but also bad. It´s not important if it turns out bad (to a degree), you learn and keep on going. But a person must start, get your ass up and work whatever you intended to achieve.

  4. It is always interesting to see how a project develops. We so often begin with one idea in mind, but as we work through the steps required to complete, new ideas, approaches, and even mistakes can shape our final destination. It’s best to embrace those spontaneous little bursts of creativity or insight.

  5. Another post that has come to me at just the right time. For the first time since the online course I took with you, Otto, I have just begun thoughts on a wonderful new photo project that I am taking my first step toward. I am so excited about it, and nervous that it will work out. Baby steps!

    1. I am excited to hear more about it, Angeline. But don’t think too much about how it will work out. 🙂 That is of course the message in this post. Just start with the first photo. Exactly; baby steps.

  6. This is exactly how I feel about learning night photography. I’ve been trying for a few years, taken one seminar, and am currently reading more about it. I’ve been out several times in different places to try to implement what I’m learning. I figure each effort helps me learn a little more and eventually I’ll get it down.

  7. Very true, I think this is like having some supplies for your long journey. You can’t some time carry all the supplies needed. You need to get start and look for replenishment along the way as just like progress. Very encouraging post!

  8. ‘As human beings, we are motivated by progress. It’s something we can all benefit from when we work creatively.’ This is very true. The good teacher helps students recognise their achievements however small the gains might be. Conversely, I wonder whether the creative artist is ever totally satisfied with what they have produced? The urge to ‘do better’ seems to be a constant feature of the creative process.

  9. I agree, Otto. We need to ignore, or at least moderate, that negative voice that tells us our creations are bad, and focus on our accomplishments, however little they may be.

  10. There have been so many projects in my life that were overwhelming to me in the beginning, but when I broke them down into steps, progress was steady. I have enjoyed your first e-book and refer to it many times. I’m delighted that you will be publishing another, Otto.

  11. It’s like staring at that blank canvas or empty Word document with paint brush or keypad in deep thought. Those first strokes start the new adventure which will modify and even evolve into something else. Nice post, Otto.

  12. This is so very relevant to me right now Otto. In fact it’s spot on, what I needed to read. Thank you so much. And good luck with that ebook of yours.

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