Full disclosure: I’ve definitely rolled my eyes at bullet journals. I’ve scoffed at moodboards and I’ve sneered at #goals. And yet, for the last month, I’ve found myself worshipping at a Post-it-covered wall and rhapsodising over my newfound clarity of purpose.
My conversion to visualisation came after I clicked on this link in a Women Who newsletter (the community for creative women founded by entrepreneur Otegha Uwagba). It’s an article about completion bias – the dopamine rush we feel when we recognise a task as completed. As someone who feels the thrill of a thousand completed bingo cards just when I successfully tick “chopped tomatoes” off my shopping list, this was speaking to me.
Broadly speaking, being susceptible to completion bias is an OK thing – you just get extra satisfaction from completing a task. But sometimes the craving for a hit of that sweet tick-off-the-to-do-list action overshadows the bigger picture and we can prioritise fairly minor achievements just to feel good about ourselves. And however well-practised you are in self-denial, it’s hard to convincingly pretend that “email Linda back about Friday” carries the same weight as “negotiate a pay rise”.
And the dopamine rush of those smaller successes becomes less potent every time you rewrite a to-do list full of the same objectives you’ve been putting off. But as Jocelyn K Glei, who wrote the article that won me over, suggests, the sweet spot between craving completion and actually making headway is using visualisation techniques that break the big career stuff down into tangible tasks that you can still get a kick out of ticking off.
Glei notes that, for one project, she has both a Google spreadsheet and a huge handwritten plan because “having a digital document gives [her] zero feeling of progress”. She recommends using a Post-it-note grid, tracking metrics on a calendar or keeping a work diary. For stationery lovers, there is no contest – within an hour and a half, the wall above my desk was covered in notes.
And it’s only gone and bloody worked. Or, rather, it’s worked in so far as I suddenly have a much clearer idea of what I’m actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Whereas I flinched at the idea of answering a question about where I see myself in a few years (which sends the cold shivers of careers-guidance interviews down my spine), I suddenly had concrete things I wanted to achieve. And by laying them out in front of me, not in a list or numbered, there was space to group them in different ways, see how my different ideas might link to each other and, most importantly, have no priority on any one thing.
I’m not sure I’d ever forced myself to admit what I wanted in such a regimented way. I had to really scrape the recesses of ambition that I’d kept safely blocked up for fear of failing
Adding “be a better public speaker” to a list of objectives might be overwhelming. Instead, consider a collection of miniature intentions that will all add up, like “attend one event a month hosted by my peers” or “request to chair meetings so I get used to speaking in front of people I already know”. If your goal is to be better known in your industry, then the day-to-day things you can track might be to subscribe to trade publications, up your social-media game or pitch blog posts to your company. Anything that offers a different perspective on your career is ripe for a visual breakdown.
On my Wall, each section has its own colour of Post-it; each goal has its own note. If I can tick something off, I mark it with a sticker. And, yes, it does look like the work of a serial killer, albeit one with a very carefully curated aesthetic.
In the past, I’ve tried Trello and downloaded the apps. I’ve got endless Google Docs of bullet points and notebooks full of scribbles, but I’m not sure I’d ever forced myself to admit what I wanted in such a regimented way. I had to really scrape the recesses of ambition that I’d kept safely blocked up for fear of failing. Because the Wall only works if it’s heavily populated. Otherwise it looks a bit pathetic.
Like any to-do list, I have a few things up there that I’ve basically already done, just to get things going. It’s not supposed to be unattainable or make me feel lacking (I have plenty of interior monologues doing that already). It’s supposed to help me gain a sense of progress – and it is. I can track how I’m doing and, when I’m dawdling over decision-making or stuck for ideas, I can glance up and reassess my motives (or at the very least admire my colour-coding work).
The Wall might have started as a way to convince myself that I had had a productive Friday afternoon, but it’s stayed put. It’s even survived being moved to a different wall (although the stickiness of the Post-its has been tested).
Romy and Michele would be so proud.