What Makes You Happy Without Making Progress?


Let me ask you a simple question: Would you rather spend your entire life feeling like you need to be better, or would you like to be able to enjoy each experience as it comes without worrying much about where it’s going?

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently as I’ve tried to figure out where I want to go with this blog. I started this blog for several reasons, chief among them the potential to help other new parents like myself navigate new and unfamiliar financial waters. As I’ve gained experience and learned from other bloggers, I’ve learned about potential ways to grow my audience, expand my reach and potentially even make a little money.

Those possibilities are exciting, but they’ve also turned my focus a little bit away from my original intent. I’ve started focusing more and more on stats that tell me how well my site is doing, which takes my energy away from the simple enjoyment of writing useful content. And while there’s certainly value in learning how to expand my reach, I’ve also found that it’s changed some of my expectations and some of my desired outcomes, and to some extent has decreased the happiness I’m actually getting from the experience.

Our culture has taught us that we have to focus on progress

I think this process is similar to what many of us go through in many different aspects of our lives.

  • When we meet a new romantic interest, learning about the person and building a relationship is fun and exciting. But can we form a relationship that we’re happy with once that newness wears off and the progress slows down?
  • When we first start making money, it’s exciting to be able to afford some new things and improve our lifestyle. But that can feed a desire to earn more and buy more, and can lead us down an unfulfilling and potentially dangerous financial path.

So much of what we work for in life requires progress for us to feel like it was worthwhile. When we’re saving for a future goal, we want to see our account balance hit a certain target. When we put time into our careers, we want to get that next promotion or a bigger payday. When we work out, we want to be able to run further, or faster, or lift more weight.

Goals are good, as is the push for progress. Goals help us strive for a better life and take concrete steps to get there. Progress is what allows us to become better parents, better spouses, better friends. These are the things that bring us closer to living our ideal lives.

But there are problems that arise when we focus too much on progress and not enough on the process, such as:

1. Overemphasizing the end result, and
2. Failing to enjoy the present moment

Overemphasizing the end result

One of my favorite sketches from Carl Richards, a financial planner who literally illustrates his points, is one depicting the Things That Matter vs. The Things You Can Control. The point being made is that within the universe of things that matter, there is a limited amount of them that you actually have any control over, and success is derived from focusing only on that limited overlap.

I can see a natural extension of this to overall happiness as well, and specifically to the problem of focusing on the end result of your actions. Because the fact of the matter is that no matter how hard we work at something, the exact end result is often out of our control. We can save as much money as possible and follow all of the best investment practices, but we can’t control our returns. We can pour our heart and souls into being the best parents possible, but we can’t dictate exactly who our children will become. We have a lot of control over our processes, but when it comes to the outcome we’re often at the whim of many factors beyond our control. If our only focus is on the outcome, we can quickly become frustrated and disappointed with what was otherwise an enjoyable process.

The other reality is that while we might start out with a vision in our heads about how we want things to turn out, that vision could very easily change during the process. It’s extremely possible to end up somewhere completely different than what we first intended, and that new place may be just as good or even better. But if we’re laser-focused on a specific outcome, we might fail to appreciate our newly-found landing spot for the good it has to offer.

Failing to enjoy the present moment

If we’re constantly looking to achieve the next thing, how do we ever learn to simply enjoy where we are? How can we ever feel satisfied with our lives if our focus is always on the next step?

This is such a simple concept but it’s one that so many of us, myself included, often fail to really think about. We get fixated on reaching the next step, on checking off the next item on our to-do list, and before we know it years have gone by and it’s hard to say whether we really enjoyed them. Sure we might have been productive, but to what end? What good is productivity if it’s not something you’re actually enjoying? What good is reaching the next milestone if it doesn’t help you enjoy the present state of your life?

Find the things that make you happy without making progress

To me, this all leads to a very simple concept. If we want to be happy, we need to balance our desire for improvement and progress with parts of our lives that we can be happy with regardless of the outcome. In other words, we need to find the things we enjoy simply for the process and try to make them more prevalent. This might be time alone with a significant other or simply playing in the backyard with our kids. It might be a pick-up basketball game where the score doesn’t matter as much as the enjoyment of playing.

But it extends beyond finding things where the outcome doesn’t matter. It involves taking the things where the outcome DOES matter and switching our focus from that outcome to simply enjoying the process.

  • Can we find work we enjoy whether or not it results in the next big sale, or positive attention from our boss, or whatever outcome it is we think we want?
  • When we invest, can we stop worrying about whether we beat the market or what our account balance is at this exact moment? Instead can we focus on the process of setting goals and saving regularly and find contentment in the fact that we’re doing things the right way?
  • For me specifically, can I enjoy the process of writing and expressing ideas without relying on visits and pageviews to tell me whether it was a worthwhile endeavor?

Happiness is a tricky thing, one that I certainly haven’t mastered. But I think if we really want to find happiness in our lives, we have to view it as a process rather than an outcome. The reality is that there is no single thing we can achieve that will make us happy. Instead, we have to focus more on enjoying the steps along the way without concern as to where exactly they’re taking us.

We have to find the things that make us happy without making progress.

Photo courtesy of Rigor Mortisque

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37 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Brian @ Luke1428 September 20, 2013

    I can relate Matt about losing focus on the blog. I felt that way for awhile and had to reevaluate. I don’t see your question as an either or scenario. Why not strive for both? Can we desire to become better people and at the same time enjoy the precious moments of the journey when they come? I think so…at least that is what I’m striving for. Good stuff!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      Oh I definitely don’t think it’s an either-or scenario. Didn’t mean for it to come off that way, though based on people’s comments I guess it did. I just think that, even if you want progress, it’s important to be able to enjoy what you’re doing just for itself as well. If we focus too much on the progress we fall into a dangerous cycle where we’re too often disappointed because things didn’t turn out exactly as we had dreamed.

  • carrielee September 20, 2013

    I love this! You’re so right that in our culture we like neat and tidy endings, rather than just unquestionably enjoying the process. We would be a lot happier if we could enjoy the the struggle and the journey instead of only focusing on the end goal.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup September 20, 2013

    I am going to agree with Brian. Why can’t we strive for both? Is there not a way to get progress and enjoy the process? I don’t like either or scenarios because I like to get the best of both worlds. Great post Matt!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      Like I said to Brian, I didn’t mean for it to sound like an either-or proposition. I think having a balance of the two is good, though I think focusing on things we inherently enjoy, even if we want them to progress, is healthier than focusing on things where we can only be satisfied if we hit certain marks.

  • Alexa Mason September 20, 2013

    When I first started blogging I checked my stats daily….it was awful. Now, I really don’t even care. Sure I like making money from my blog and I like people reading it but I have put the fun back in it for me. I don’t check my stats more than twice a month and I feel so much better doing so!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I’m working on cutting back on checking that stuff as well. It can be pretty addicting though.

  • Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies September 20, 2013

    With blogging, we’re more focused on enjoying the journey than having any specific destination in mind.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I like that mindset. I think it shows in the creativity and personality of your writing.

  • Michelle September 20, 2013

    Great post. I agree with Brian. I want both!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I definitely think you can have a balance of the two. That’s probably the healthiest approach.

  • Andrew September 20, 2013

    Great post. It is true that our culture always looks at the bottom line, at the end result. We’re always chasing after a goal and then after achieving that we find another to chase. Sometimes we need to enjoy the journey as well…sometimes that is more important than the destination.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      Right, I think that chasing goals is good, but it has to be balanced with a feeling of satisfaction in the moment as well. If we’re always focused on the next thing, we miss a lot of the good things around us now.

  • Done by Forty September 20, 2013

    While others are claiming a way to have both, and I can see why (who doesn’t want to have it all?), I wonder if there are times when the dichotomy makes us choose. Can we serve two masters? Can you really focus on content & page results simultaneously, and will the approach to achieve both be the same?

    One needs to be primary. Go for what makes you happy.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I think you can have both, either by having some things where progress is the goal and others where it’s simply for enjoyment. But I also think you can have both in a subtler way, where even the things you want to progress are done with an inherent enjoyment in the process. My real point is that we should be designing out lives around those things, not that we should want progress as well.

  • My FI Journey September 20, 2013

    I’d have to say that I generally disagree. I don’t find that much joy in just doing something. I do however find a lot of joy in getting better at something or accomplishing major goals.

    If I’m not making progress, what are the other options? Going backwards or treading water.

    I’ve been at my current job for over a year now. I’ve learned a lot, made a lot of progress as an employee, and am continually challenged with new tasks. Hopefully, if I keep performing well, this progress will translate to raises and promotions.

    Long ago, I worked at a job where progress was essentially impossible. I did the same banal tasks every week. Despite the great pay (the job today pulls in a six figure salary – maybe a bit better than I currently make), it was pointless. Lots of effort expended in order to tread water. No matter how hard I worked I wasn’t going to grow as an employee, nor was I going to move up the organization. Just a complete mind numbing waste of 40 hours of my week. I never regretted leaving that career track – even when I was a grad student living on a sub 20K stipend.

    I enjoy cooking as a hobby. But I also take great satisfaction in my growth as a cook. I can make better and more complex dishes now than I could a few years ago. If I was cooking the same mediocre pasta dishes I started with way back then, I doubt I would be very motivated to keep at it.

    Maybe it’s a personality thing. I’ve got plenty of friends who seem to be happy going nowhere with their lives. But that way of thinking just doesn’t resonate with me.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I think maybe I wasn’t clear in what I was trying to communicate. By no means am I outright advocating a life without progress. Nor am I advocating that you should stick with a job you hate or a hobby you don’t enjoy. In fact, your “long ago” job is a perfect example of something you DIDN’T enjoy without progress, and therefore is something that you absolutely should want to get out of your life.

      My point here is really not that progress is bad or should be avoided. What I really think is that we should be designing our lives around things that we inherently enjoy, regardless of the progress they’re making. I think that if you had really loved that old job, the fact that you weren’t working your way up the ladder maybe wouldn’t have mattered so much. And wouldn’t that be kind of nice? To have your life filled with things you just love doing regardless of the outcome? You might even find that you actually make more progress than ever simply because you don’t have any false ideals of what you’re working towards and you can be so engrossed in the activity that progress just happens naturally.

  • Kayla @ I've worked too hard t September 20, 2013

    Another way to think of it is that in fact, making more time for yourself to just be content, and to just live presently is a goal and progress in itself. It’s more of a way about thinking that all progress isn’t monetary, social, or power. It’s the ability to meditate for 10 minutes each day, or to appreciate the little things, and to only create progress in yourself.

    I completely agree with the fact that we need to take in more of what really matters, and to stop worrying so much about what doesn’t, or about what we can’t control. That’s truly just a waste of energy, and if we do want to progress and progress the world around us, we need to focus our energy on worrying less about the unimportant.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      Thanks for the input Kayla. I like your point about focusing on progress in different ways. I think that’s a good way to lead a more well-rounded life.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money September 20, 2013

    Wow this is definitely a good (and timely) word. I am definitely focused on progress; it’s on my mind constantly. I want to grow my blog, I want to start another site, I want to increase my income by x amount, I want to develop skills and over-deliver at work, I want to get out of debt, I want x amount in the bank, etc. There’s always something MORE that we can do to progress, and it’s true that we can easily lose sight of the here and now – I know I’m guilty of this. Thanks for sharing this, definitely what I needed to hear.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      Thanks DC. I think all of those goals you mentioned can be really beneficial. The main thing I really wanted to communicate here is to make sure that you do things you can enjoy along the way, even if you’re also hoping for a certain kind of progress from them. If you can enjoy working towards all of those things, and still be happy with the process even if they aren’t hitting the exact targets you set, then I think you’ve set yourself up well.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules September 20, 2013

    I think you’re spot on Matt. While I do think it’s possible to have both (and really is what I want), as others have said, I find that often times we get so caught up with the end result we forget about what’s going on in the midst of it. I am so guilty of checking my stats, which likely speaks to me being a bit OCD 😉 and I have noticed that the goal I had in mind for my blog is a bit different that when I started. That said, I want to be able to enjoy the writing, the meeting others virtually and helping those that need help in certain areas. I know we all focus on that end result or goal and it’s needed to a certain level, but doing that to a fault, I find, can make life monotonous and draining if taken to an extreme. It may be the parent in me, but my desire is to soak up what I can as I go a long as opposed to getting caught in the weeds of always focusing on the outcome.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 20, 2013

      I think you probably said it all better than I did John. It’s interesting how things change as we go along, and that can actually be a really good thing. As long as we keep sight of what’s actually important and, as you say, don’t get bogged down by always looking for a specific outcome.

  • Student Debt Survivor September 20, 2013

    I’m definitely guilty of not living in the moment. Sometimes I get ahead of myself and I’m not truly enjoying myself, but instead thinking about what’s next. I have to take more time to enjoy the small victories.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      Even more than enjoying the victories along the way (which is a great strategy), what I’m really trying to get at here is simply enjoying the process, regardless of the victories. Not always an easy thing to do, but I think a worthwhile endeavor.

  • E.M. September 20, 2013

    I like your reflection here, Matt. As I’ve said, I can be horrible with enjoying the present, or taking the time to enjoy the actual progress I’ve made. We always want to be on the fast track to somewhere. I once had a college professor who was not from around here (fast-paced society), and he observed that people never drive here to enjoy the scenery. They just want to get from point A to point B with no thought between. It has since stuck with me. I think we would all be happier if we took a little time out of our day to just enjoy what we’ve accomplished so far, and to reflect on our goals. I am guilty of being an over-achiever, and I always want to do better, but the downside is I’m very critical of myself and never give myself the chance to enjoy the success. It’s always, “Okay that’s nice, what’s next?” Constantly challenging yourself can be motivating, but it can also get cumbersome, leading to discontent. I also think it causes us to lose vision of what’s really important.

    As far as blogging goes, I rarely ever check my stats. I still think I’m too new for it to matter much. I am always thrilled when someone leaves a comment, and when new readers stop by, but it’s not my goal to amass thousands of readers right now. I’m still trying to find my voice and figure out what topics I like to write about. I know I am nowhere near those that have had their blogs for a year or more, so I don’t bother to compare. I am thankful for what readership I have! In any case, I am sure you will continue to be successful, but I hope you find a good balance.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      I think you’re approach to blogging is a good one. Simply enjoy the process and let whatever happens happens. It’s really an enjoyable experience regardless of the stats or the income or however else you want to measure yourself. That’s definitely something I want to make sure I keep in mind.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer September 21, 2013

    Love this, Matt. I really have to work hard to not pay attention to blog stat numbers and to remember that I started my blog to help others and for us to have accountability. I think it’s a normal progression for most people, but you’re right when you say “We have to find the things that make us happy without making progress”. We just have to remember our “whys” and focus on them, instead of on our “progress”. Progress, although good, is part of the reason why (I believe) America is so off track these days. We’re too busy trying to gain, gain, gain, and not spending enough time just “being”.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      “We’re too busy trying to gain, gain, gain, and not spending enough time just “being”.” That’s really the heart of what I was trying to say here. Thanks for putting it so clearly! It’s interesting, because we can really only help people if we figure out how to reach them, but if we start focusing too much on reaching them we may start to slip on the actual helping. The balance isn’t always easy to find.

  • femmefrugality September 21, 2013

    I totally know what you mean. And I love how you brought our cultural influences into it. Bear with me here because this is going to seem random for a second. But I was reading Hamlet and noticed something I never had before: how negatively Shakespeare uses the word ambition. In our society we view ambition as such a positive thing as we conceive it to equate to hard work and the desire to progress is such a positive thing in a land where we established the right to pursue happiness. But the desire to progress was and is viewed negatively in so many other cultures. And my attitude towards it has started to change as I’m realizing this. Just because you don’t want to be a multimillionaire doesn’t mean you don’t work hard. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or are incapable of enjoying your life to the fullest. In fact, it can mean that you’ve truly found happiness and not had to sacrifice things like time with family or other relationships along the way.
    Back to blogging. I agree with you. A hybrid can be a good thing. Not allowing ourselves to be stretched too far or too thin in an effort to make thousands upon thousands of dollars a month. (Kudos to those who do.) But I know of some (not all) blogs that have gone this route and I just can’t stand reading the thinly veiled affiliate links that take over. One thing for me is time with my kids. Is my hobby that I’d like to make a little money at costing me time or presence with my family? When the answer is yes, I back off a little. And I never regret it.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      Your point on time with your kids is incredibly relevant to me. I find myself being physically with my son but mentally absent as I let my mind wander to other things, which over the past few months has often been my blog. That’s a really dangerous tendency that I want to fight hard.

      And wow, way to class this place up with the Shakespeare reference! I definitely think there’s a role for ambition, and often a very important one. But I think the takeaway is that ambition isn’t inherently good. Ideally I think there’s ambition with some goal in mind, and hopefully a point at which you can simply start enjoying things. Always trying to reach the next thing without ever taking the opportunity to simply enjoy what you’re doing is not, to me, an incredibly healthy existence.

  • Tonya September 23, 2013

    Great post! One of my favorite things to try and do is “detach from the outcome.” We can only try and do our best work and then whatever happens, happens. It’s out of our hands. That makes me feel relieved when I think about everything that “should” happen. I could should all over myself, but sometimes things don’t go as planned and the outcome is sometimes worse or better, but if you just enjoy the ride as much as possible…

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      Exactly. We really just end up hurting ourselves when we put so much emphasis on a single pre-determined outcome. Like you say, it may or may not happen and that may be good or bad. There are many possible outcomes we could never predict going in, and being open to those by simply focusing on the process can lead up to happy results we never could have predicted.

  • MyMoneyDesign September 23, 2013

    Well put, Matt. I know I’ve been guilty on many occasions with getting caught up in doing everything I can to achieve a certain goal. When I stop and realize that the goal was only part of what I was after. Without having the right mixture of experiences and love from my family, then basically my accomplishment is empty. Sometimes we forget the real prize was all in how we got there rather than just simply getting there.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 23, 2013

      “Sometimes we forget the real prize was all in how we got there rather than just simply getting there.” Well said.

  • Charles March 7, 2020

    Thanks Matt. That was a wonderful article and really a perfect answer to my question/issue. It also helped me understand what I had been learning about process orientated actions. Take care my friend.

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