You want to change the world.

You want to make a difference, big or small.

You’re not alone.

It’s a grand endeavour, and often a frustrating one. Such desire often bares a longing for immediacy: we see something we want to change, and we want to change it now!

Those who fail in their quest tend to do so because they let this attitude get the better of them. No matter how much time, passion, and effort they put in, they never seem any closer to their goal.

That’s because they’re too focused on ‘The Big Picture’.

“Keep your eye on the big picture.” That’s how the idiom goes. But it’s not the way the mind works.

Hyperbolic discounting is the psychological phenomenon that defines our perception of value. In what even those explicitly guilty of succumbing to it would consider an extreme departure from sense and logic, hyperbolic discounting drives our instinct to preference smaller rewards obtained sooner than larger rewards in the future. It’s why some people rack up huge credit card bills, or eat unhealthy but tasty food in excess.

It’s also why many give up on their vision for change. They focus on the big picture, but it takes time to manifest. In the meantime, something else comes along that can offer immediate results, so that’s where they turn their attention. And so the vision fades.

This may sound selfish, but don’t blame them. It’s simple psychology that gets to even the best of us sometimes. Fortunately, understanding hyperbolic discounting is all the means you need to manipulating it to your benefit.

Back in 2011, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer wrote a book about what they called the progress principle“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform”.

Think of it like a marathon. Run with your eyes constantly on the finish line, and of course progress will feel slow! Focus on each step, however, knowing that each one is taking you closer to your goal and, steadily, you will find yourself there.

Such an attitude is not just valuable to leaders or entrepreneurs either. Promoted across an entire organisation, it breeds the creativity, innovation, and happiness needed to make progress possible.

Amabile and Kramer asked team members to respond to a daily survey during the duration of their research project, resulting in a dataset of around 12,000 entries. The survey asked them to describe their emotions, sense of motivation, and any key events of their day.

76% of respondents said their happiest days were ones where they made notable progress, regardless of whether they were congratulated for doing so. In stark contrast, 0% of happiest days saw workers being discouraged or undermined.

It seems obvious, and yet so many leaders continue to instil pressure and fear as motivators rather than setting incremental goals, and ensuring team members have a sense of purpose and importance in their work.

By fostering this feeling of value, leaders are able to create a progress loop in which small wins fuel further wins. This is true leadership. And in a landscape of almost infinite potential, this is how real change is made.

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