Your brain on progress

Your brain on progress

Strategies for nurturing that feel-good sense of accomplishment when doing largely invisible work.
Part of
Issue 16 February 2021


My favorite engineering role was working on web page performance at Etsy. My team and I made tweaks, found small opportunities for page load time improvement, and shipped incremental updates that made the site—often imperceptibly—faster.

But no matter how small the improvement we made to site speed, you could see it on our dashboards. The graphs, they were glorious. We celebrated changes in milliseconds! We even created an internal site to acknowledge “performance heroes” on other teams, complete with graphs that illustrated our coworkers’ site performance improvements and descriptions of their implemented solutions. We’d email every designer and developer at Etsy when we updated the dashboard with a new hero so everyone could chime in and high five the person who’d improved the site.

A few years later I leaned more into management work, and I found myself pondering an age-old question: “Where’d that feeling of achievement go?” Unlike in my role as an individual contributor, there’s no launch party for a reorg. There’s no graph of how successful you are at giving hard feedback. Management work often consists of building up your team’s resilience to organizational storms—and your own resilience, too.

That missing sense of accomplishment comes up not just for managers, but for everyone whose work hinges on the intangible. Reliability teams, customer service teams, and plenty of other workers find themselves craving any indication, however small, of how they’re progressing in their work or career. A networking engineer recently told me, “If we do our jobs well, no one really knows we’re doing them.”

Our brains need some way to mark forward movement in the things that matter to us. When our work is hard for others to observe, we can struggle—to stay motivated, to have clarity, to feel good about our work and ourselves. Our brains release dopamine, a feel-good, motivating chemical, from that sense of advancement—or even from the sheer anticipation of getting things done.

So, how can we feel that sense of progress when our work toward increasing resilience—both the technology kind and the human kind—is mostly invisible?

Break big goals into microtasks

Microtasks are bite-sized to-dos that take five to 20 minutes to complete. When we identify a lofty goal, it can feel paralyzing because it might take a long time, and a lot of work, to get there. Even if you make daily incremental progress toward achieving that large goal, you’re likely starving your brain of that dopamine hit it gets when you check things off a list.

I like to use 11:11 Supply’s Goal Trackers to break huge goals down into microtasks. This tool was created by another Etsy alum, Paloma Medina, who specializes in the neuroscience of human behavior at work. Begin by writing down your high-level goal and why it’s important to you, then list five small tasks that will help you move toward that goal. It’s important to include an achieve-by date for each microtask to keep it realistic and create a sense of urgency around checking it off the list.

This approach can be used for almost any type of goal, personal or professional. Here’s an example of a personal goal I’ve been working toward where microtasks helped me stop procrastinating and stay motivated:

Goal: Prevent hips from twisting during exercises (squats, deadlifts, bench press)


  1. Identify four really easy exercises that correct the hip twist (achieve by April 3).

  2. Google how often I’ll need to do those exercises to see a change (achieve by April 10).

  3. Confirm what I found in steps 1 and 2 with my friend who’s a personal trainer (achieve by April 15).

  4. Write up a schedule for those exercises (achieve by April 17).

  5. Set phone reminders to do those exercises on that schedule (achieve by April 17).

  6. Set a reminder at the end of the scheduled period to check in about what’s working and what’s not (achieve by April 17).

  7. Start (achieve by April 20).

Notice how each of those microtasks is teeny-tiny. I didn’t combine all of the scheduling tasks into one line—I separated them into their component pieces so they could each be done in fewer than five minutes.

Find a way to mark progress

The act of crossing out or checking off a task gives our brain what it craves: that motivating dopamine release. So we need a way to mark progress on those microtasks, rather than just keeping them in our head.

One option is to go digital: Make a ticket or card for each microtask, then make sure you have a way to mark it as completed, like ticking a box or archiving the card. But some find physical to-do lists—like writing microtasks on stickies and crumpling them up when they’re done—feel even better.

For my exercise schedule, I printed out a four-week calendar and used colorful dot stickers to mark each exercise I completed each day. The act of sticking the dots on the calendar felt delightfully rewarding, and I also felt those motivating brain chemicals when I picked out the right color for each exercise before I even got started.

This routine helped me complete the exercises each day, and even for a few weeks afterward, until I ran out of stickers. My hip twist disappeared, and now I know that this is a workflow I can use whenever I need to start a new habit.

Creating your own process for documenting tasks and checking them off is helpful not just for managers, but for anybody who’s doing intangible work (hello, reliability and security engineers!). But if you’ve reached this stage of completing microtasks and physically checking them off your list and you’re still not feeling motivated, it’s possible the progress you made didn’t feel meaningful.

Ask yourself: What’s driving you at work? Maybe you’re driven by quality or achieving a particular business metric. Maybe your primary motivator right now is to reach the next level in your career, or you’re optimizing for a healthier work-life balance. It could be anything related to the core needs humans have at work, a research-backed list by Medina that includes belonging, improvement, choice, equality, predictability, and significance. Really spend some time with this question; it might help you identify which work tasks—especially the tiny ones—can give you that meaningful sense of progress.

When I was doing performance work, I was driven to make Etsy accessible to folks all around the globe, including those without access to high-speed networks or modern infrastructure and devices. Any small change I made that improved site speed also moved me closer to that goal—it felt meaningful, even if I’d only made an infinitesimal change.

The tasks you want to check off, or the outcomes you want to work toward, don’t have to be significant to others. They just need to feel meaningful to you. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, psychology researchers described a monthslong study in which workers reported their daily emotions, levels of motivation, and what they had accomplished that day. Many participants reported “outsized positive reactions” from small steps forward in their work, like in this diary entry from a programmer: “I figured out why something was not working correctly. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me.”

Figure out what’s meaningful for you—no matter how small—to give yourself the glorious gift of dopamine as you tick those boxes.

Celebrate progress with others

It’s important to decide how you’re going to celebrate checking all of those microtasks off the list. As Medina explained in a 2017 blog post for 11:11 Supply, “By creating a pattern of finishing tasks and then celebrating, you’ll be training your brain to understand that you can totally keep up this level of achievement.” Sent that launch email? Unveiled that new deployment dashboard? Finally found the source of whatever has been paging your team? Celebrate! You can celebrate with anything—I celebrate my career achievements with donuts.

If you’re a manager, it can be really hard to find a safe way to share these wins because so much of management work—like having difficult performance conversations or needing to fire a teammate—is confidential. When she was at Etsy, Medina created a program called Dens; these were confidential, every-other-week meetings for eight to 10 managers across the organization to talk through challenges we were facing.

Being in a den was a game changer for me, and for many other people whose work can’t easily be shared with others. Imagine: a space where you can confidentially share what you’re struggling with or working on. This small group of peers will check in with you, see how you’re doing, and want to hear how it all turns out.

The other managers in my den and I would routinely pause our meetings to celebrate one another: “Oh, wow, congrats! The desk move happened and everything’s okay now? Wait a minute, don’t just move on to the next thing—this is important! You did that!”

How often do we just move on to the next thing? As I mentioned before, there’s no launch party for a reorg, no trophy for writing that really hard email, no blue ribbon for preventing the site from falling over.

After a full year of constant change and little certainty about what’s to come, many folks are struggling to feel like they’re making progress on the things that matter to them. I’ve talked to managers and engineers alike about how 2020 took a toll on their personal resilience. I hope this process of creating microtasks, checking them off, and celebrating helps you begin to feel a bit better day to day.

Portions of this article have been adapted from the author’s previous works, including the blog post “Socially Visible Progress.”

About the author

Lara Hogan is the founder of Wherewithall and a coach and trainer for managers and emerging leaders across the tech industry. Previously, she was engineering director at Etsy and VP of engineering at Kickstarter.


Artwork by

Sua Balac

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