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Making Fake Progress: How to Take Action and Break Free From the Illusion
I’ve always been one to suggest a fantastic self-help book to others. If you’ve ever tuned into my podcast, you’ve probably noticed the jam-packed bookshelf in the background of my videos – filled to the brim with books on personal development, productivity, and growth.
There’s something truly magical about these books; they give us a peek into the thought processes of the world’s most brilliant minds and provide us with access to time-tested methods for enhancing our lives.
But, of course, nothing is ever perfect.
In the realm of self-help content, there’s always a bit of a catch, and that often comes in the form of an illusion of progress. We can devour these fantastic books, absorb countless strategies, and yet somehow feel like we’re not making any real progress – even though our mental library is growing at an astounding pace.
So, what’s going on here? Could it be that self-help content might do more harm than good in some cases? Let’s take a closer look and dive deeper into this conundrum.
When Determination Becomes Delusion
“If there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.” – The Silence of Animals, John Gray
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that learning more is always better. But if we don’t take action on what we learn, those lessons simply become a mental delusion – and our determination to improve will soon turn into an illusion of progress.
We can easily relate this concept to physical fitness – we can read countless diet books and exercise manuals, but until we actually hit the gym and move our bodies around, all that knowledge isn’t going to do much for us. The same is true for self-help content; it needs to be transformed from knowledge into action if it’s going to have any real impact.
Why We Fall For Fake Progress
Have you ever delved into the ‘fake progress bar’ lore? While researching for this newsletter, I found a fascinating article in the Atlantic – followed by a bunch of other similar articles – that made me think more about this progress delusion concept.
Here’s how it works.
Progress bars are like powerlines; you don’t always acknowledge or notice their existence, but in many ways, you rely on them. A progress bar (the loading animation of a bar or other shape filling up, often accompanied by a percentage) is used by hundreds of thousands of websites to let us know there’s some invisible activity happening while we wait. We rely on the gradual filling of the bar to ease our patience.
But progress isn’t always being made. Is it? The author of this particular Atlantic article had investigated the loading bar on the TurboTax website and found that, surprise surprise, the animation was fixed for everyone. It was no reflection of how ‘loaded’ the page was. It just made the user feel like progress was tangibly taking place.
When you see it, you can’t unsee it. These fake progress bars are absolutely everywhere!
Digging a little deeper, I traced the inspiration for the Atlantic article back to a phenomenon called ‘benevolent deception‘ coined by Professor Eytan Adar in 2013. It’s a term given to the slight delusions we’re presented with when interacting with digital or physical products. We’re told what’s supposed to be happening, but it isn’t always the case.
For example, crosswalk buttons don’t actually control the passing of traffic. They simply give us an awareness of the crosswalk and a sense of control over the situation.
The fascinating part of Professor Adar’s paper is his use of the word ‘benevolent’. He explains that certain acts of deceit are actually beneficial for the consumer; they provide a sense of control and help to reduce stress, and therefore we can call them benevolent rather than malevolent.
Since I was researching to see why we play tricks on ourselves in personal progress, though, I took something else away from the paper. What happens if we construct our own personal ‘fake progress bar’? Can we still call it an act of benevolence?
No, Self-Delusion is Not Benevolent
The problem with giving ourselves a fake sense of accomplishment is pretty obvious: we don’t have powerful algorithms and codes running in the background, ensuring an eventual result. We can’t rely on the bar to fill up by itself. So in the act of making progress, we fall further and further behind.
Whether we realize it or not, many of us construct our own fake progress bars on a regular basis. I don’t want to make us all feel called out here – but I think it’s important to delve into a few specific examples. Let’s zoom in on this.
Downloading Fitness Apps
The act of downloading an app or paying for a subscription is incredibly tactile. There’s the haptic feedback from your phone when the confirmation happens; there’s the financial transaction of paying for a membership that makes the process feel active rather than passive.
The simple process of making an account and getting the confirmation email makes you think, “Wow, I’m really doing myself a favor here.” Maybe you spend the first few days playing around with the settings, locking in your health goals, and tracking your progress.
Then you reach a breaking point. For many of us, we’ve given ourselves enough evidence of hard work – downloading the app, committing to the payment plan, getting set up – that we give ourselves a pat on the back and forget all about it.
Listening to Self-Improvement Podcasts
I’m an enormous fan of podcasts. Hell – I’ve got my own! And I’ll never renounce the incredible power they have to change lives, influence minds, and help people become their best selves.
But even podcasts can be a trap. They can be a significant investment of your time, so you wind up feeling like a sort of ‘self-improvement scholar.’ You’re taking in all that beneficial information and advice, so you must be making progress mentally – right?
In this situation, it really depends on your level of attentiveness and your willingness to apply what you’ve learned. If you’re numbly listening to a podcast on the train ride to work, half-asleep and only vaguely listening, the only kick you’re really getting is gratification. “I’m using my time wisely! I’m learning!”
You’re only learning, though, if you get up the next day and act on what you heard.
Watching ‘That Girl’ or ‘That Guy’ YouTube Videos
If you haven’t seen the trend going around yet, there’s an onslaught of YouTube videos promoting a clean, freakishly perfect way of life. Think 5 a.m. gym sessions. Watching the sunrise and going to bed at 9 p.m. Using an avocado face mask and suddenly achieving perfect skin.
Eating microgreens on a bed of kale for breakfast. Working for ten hours straight without ever breaking focus.
(Can you tell I’m skeptical?)
These videos have incredible production value, and they’re designed to make you feel like you’ve got something to strive for. But here’s the thing: most of us don’t have the time or energy to stick to our own version of ‘that girl’ or ‘that guy.’ Most of us shouldn’t waste time on it, either, because you don’t need glowing skin or a 5am wake-up to be successful.
Many people fall into a rut of consuming these videos by the hundreds, as though they’ll absorb the habits via osmosis or something. And I sympathize – because they really are seductive, these videos. But they only contribute to the fake progress bar doomed to never load.
Reading Self-Help Books
Along the same lines as podcasts, reading self-help books gives you the illusion of progress because you’re sinking time into a beneficial activity. Again, I’m not here to argue against self-help books – but you know what I’m talking about. The vast majority of these books just repackage the same old advice and make you feel like you’ve learned something new.
If you’re going to be a self-help consumer, you need an action plan. I love authors like Mark Manson who accompany their popular books with an actual practical guide or journal. They know exactly what I’m talking about.
Otherwise, it’s incredibly easy to tell yourself that progress is being made – then a few months (or years) down the track, you rifle through your pile of books and wonder why none of their messages ever stuck.
Creating Notion Documents, Schedules, and Routines
Notion has quite literally changed the game for productivity and record-keeping. You’ve got the ability to set up all sorts of schedules and routines; I know of many businesses that rely solely on Notion to stay organized.
You can spend hours putting your entire life into tables and neatly formatted pages. Hours… and hours… and hours. And by the end of it, whether you use the documents or not, you feel accomplished.
That’s where the progress stops. Your brain has received the signal of accomplishment and you’re content to move on.
Making Real, Actual Progress
Okay – I’ll stop calling us all out now. Whether you identify with the examples I gave or not, we could all benefit from knowing how to make real progress and take action.
I’m going to walk through each of the examples we just looked at and offer some tips for converting them from time-wasting activities to valuable investments of your energy.
Here’s the trick I’ve learned after many free app trials and failed attempts at sticking to their advice. Ditch the apps altogether. Take notes on what could work for you – even write down some of the routines – but don’t rely on the app itself to keep you on track.
There’s something so powerful about taking ownership of your fitness. If you rely on push notifications to tell you when to drop down for 20 push-ups, that sense of ownership ceases to exist (along with your willpower).
It’s perfectly fine to use apps as a starting-off point, and perhaps they work well for you – but if you’re a serial app-ditcher, take things into your own hands. Manually set your own alarms. Write out your own workout routines based on what does and doesn’t work for you.
There will never be an app that covers all bases for you, so don’t fall prey to the illusion of fake progress these apps bring.
This one’s pretty simple. If you’re serious about learning from the podcasts you listen to, you need to be taking some form of notes or applying what you hear.
(Note that this doesn’t relate to people listening to podcasts purely for entertainment. I mean the people who are genuinely trying to absorb knowledge and excel.)
It might seem counter-productive to do this at first, but trust me: listen to important podcasts more than once. Listen as many times as it takes for the information to soak in. Take note of things that interest you, then go away and research more deeply on your own.
Same as with podcasts – you need to be taking notes and applying the advice you learn. Don’t just skim through and move on; take the time to dive deep into each message that resonates with you, then find a way to apply it in your day-to-day life.
This might mean creating an action plan or getting creative with how you can integrate the book’s teachings into your routine without forcing yourself too hard (which defeats its purpose).
Most of us are in the habit of finishing a book, taking a day or two, and then diving into the next one. That’s how it’s always been. I encourage you to break out of this pattern and give yourself some time to sit with the knowledge you’ve gained, though; a couple of days isn’t enough to properly soak in the lessons you’ve learned.
Idyllic YouTube Videos
Quite frankly, I’d skip these altogether. They’re unrealistic. They are addictive. After a few hours down the drain, you’re left feeling inadequate and unmotivated.
If you’re looking for motivation or inspiration, find it elsewhere. There are plenty of positive YouTube channels that provide real advice, tips, and stories – not just a glossy-looking veneer of what life could be like if only you had the time, money, and otherworldly genetics to get there.
When it comes to Notion – and any other form of life management – the issue arises when people are too obsessed with the aesthetics of it all.
Yes, Notion does look beautiful and clean. But if you’re spending more time creating a color-coded document than actually using it, something’s wrong.
The same goes for any other organizational tool you use. Before taking on yet another system or app, ask yourself: will this help me achieve my goals? What value am I getting out of this? How can I make sure that I’m not just wasting time here?
It could also help to restrict yourself to one new implementation per week. If you draw up a budget in Notion this week, you have to commit to using it and updating it for an entire week (or however long you decide) before taking on something else.
Is Progress the Be-All and End-All?
I don’t want to give the impression that progress is everything. It’s not. Taking your time is important; enjoying things is important; resting is important. If you listen to a self-help podcast as a way to relax, all the power to you!
The point I’m trying to make is that if you’re looking for real progress, be mindful of how you spend your time. Ask yourself whether there’s actual value in what you’re doing and whether this activity will eventually lead to the results you want.
If it won’t, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘fake progress’ is enough; take action and break free from the illusion. The bar isn’t going to load by itself, no matter how long you wait.
Thanks for reading!
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