Do you see both achieved progress and further needed progress?

To which degree and how we focus our attention on progress has important consequences for how feel and behave. There are several types of mistakes we can make in how pay attention to progress. Below I describe three mostly ineffective ways of looking at progress and one effective way. For this purpose I use a 2x2 model which is structured around two questions. The first question is: do you have a clear view on achieved progress? The second question is: do you have a view on what further progress needs to be made? These two questions are equally important. Perceiving achieved progress makes us more optimistic and helps us understand what has worked so far. Perceiving which further progress needs to be made gives us a perspective and something which we can usefully focus our energy on. The 2x2 model shows four quadrants each of which represents a way of focusing on progress.

The four quadrants

In quadrant 1 the situation is that we neither see the progress which we have already achieved nor the progress we further need to achieve. This is the most problematic quadrant of the four. Most people do have an awareness of problems (see the negativity bias). But in quadrant 1 we have no awareness of achieved progress due to which we probably lack optimism and have little insight into how progress is made. Also we lack a goal orientation due to which we do not know what to focus our energy on. In this quadrant we lack motivation and hope and if we spend a lot of time in it we may fall prey to apathy, cynicism, or nihilism.

In quadrant 2 we do have a sense of what should replace the problems which we currently face. In other words, we have goals. But we do not see the progress which is already there which may make us excessively pessimistic about our situation. As a consequence of this we may think in too drastic terms about what is needed to make progress. We may get the feeling that nothing is right and everything should be different.

In quadrant 3 we do see the progress which has already been achieved but we lack a clear view on what further should improve. In this situation we may become inactive and complacent. Everything seems to be going the right direction, isn't it? What we fail to see in quadrant 3 is that progress does not happen by itself. Progress is the result of prolonged dedicated effort. What we need is an awareness of what need to work on next.

Quadrant 4 is the way of focusing on progress which is usually the most balanced and effective. That we see that some progress has already been made gives us hope and insight. That we know what we further need to work on gives us a reason to keep putting in effort. Of course, we do not have to think about progress all the time. Sometimes we will be in quadrant 1 and we gently float along for a while. But if we stay there too long we will start to lack a sense of meaning and we may get cynical or apathetic.

From time to time it can be useful to stay a bit longer in either quadrant 2 or 3. Do you feel like there are only problems i your life and that you you don't accomplish anything? Then it may be wise to focus a bit more on the progress your already making so that you get a clearer view on it. This may give you more motivation to keep doing your best in what you are trying to achieve. If you do feel like you have made progress but have no clear sense of how to proceed it may be wise to spend more time in quadrant 2. While there, ask yourself questions like: which further problems need to be solved? Which solutions need to be found for future problems? Why is this important?

It is probably wisest to keep both types of focus - quadrant 2 and 3 - as close to each other as possible. The more closely you keep them together, the better. Quadrant 4 keeps you going in a meaningful and motivated way.


Nowadays there are many people justly pointing out that there is more progress in the world than most people realize. Hans Rosling, who passed away recently, was one of them. Other examples are Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Andrew Mack, Zack Beauchamp, Max Roser, Michael Shermer, and Johan Norberg. Correcting the common overly pessimistic view on the world is important. However, I worry sometimes that these messages may move us from quadrant 2 to 3 but fail to move us from quadrant 3 to 4 which is where we really should be.