On making progress
Say you want to start a new task: learn something for school, work, fun; develop a new habit, workout, whatever… You set a goal, maybe buy a book about it: “Learn X in 30 days!” Easy, right?
Day 1: easy
Day 2: still got it! This will be great…
Day 3: woot! 3 days in a row baby!
Day 4: yikes… almost didn’t do it today! that was close
Day 5: this is getting boring…
Day 6: do I need to keep doing this? Why did I sign up for this in the first place?
Day 7+: (put the book on the shelf and move on with your life)
Motivation is an elusive thing. If long-term habits are what ultimately produce most of the big changes that we desire how do we sustain it?
The initial thrill of novelty can drive small changes but sustaining change over longer time periods is really hard. A few weeks can feel insurmountable let alone months, or years. Decades? Usually impossible.
To take a specific example from my life, let me talk about yoga. I’ve done the occasional yoga class off-and-on for decades. I’ve gotten a book here and there. Sometimes in various yoga classes someone would mention their “yoga practice.” “That sounds great,” I’d think to myself, “I really should get one of those…” I’d do yoga for a few days in a row to build my “practice” and then I’d stop. I never progressed. Each time I’d get a little more flexible and in tune with my body and then a few weeks later I’d get distracted and unmotivated.
At the beginning of the pandemic I started doing yoga every day. I forced myself to keep going with the main difference from prior attempts being my focus on repetition. This lasted for months and then something odd happened - around day 100 I started to see big changes: Yoga poses that were impossible at the outset - they were so hard for me I’d literally laugh out loud trying to do them - suddenly became easy. My internal monologue turned from “I’m too old to do lotus pose” into “I wonder if I can grab my feet behind my back in this lotus pose.” It turns out, the small changes add up when done consistently. I’d heard this forever but it was amazing when you actually experience it… I’m not more than a year and a half in and I have kept up doing yoga every other day. I haven’t been this flexible since I was a toddler.
One of my cognitive fallacies was that at some level my mind thinks progress happens linearly when in reality it’s more of a rollercoaster. I know this at a conceptual level - the hero overcomes adversity to achieve the goal - success is not straightforward. But the hero journey stories rarely call out boredom and frustration explicitly, two of the more insidious barriers to achieving any goal.
Progress often looks like the chart below: we think it’s linear but it’s actually cyclical with many ups and downs. Progress is non-linear.
The main insight here is that on the path to improvements you often feel like you aren’t making progress. If you have a short-term perspective, the curve goes in the wrong direction - when you zoom in it looks like you’re getting worse!
To take my yoga example, some days I wouldn’t be able to do things I’d been able to do a week or two before. My body would be more sore or tense and my leg just wouldn’t be able to bend a certain way. Some days I was hurt from something else I did or pushing too hard in some way, and I might have a week where I couldn’t do a series of poses and I regressed. It’s hard to keep going, especially if I was making a decision locally. If every day I judged whether or not to continue I probably wound’t. But I didn’t give myself this choice and then I went to a higher maxima.
How do we overcome boredom and frustration?
The first tactic is to make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Motivation is tricky - if your goal is too hard it leads to frustration; if it’s too easy it leads to boredom. Make your uber-goal consistency. Once you’ve mastered consistency it’s then easier to modify the task difficulty as needed to ensure it’s in the motivation sweet spot. (I wrote about something similar in “Keeping track of your days.”)
The second tactic is to limit your choices.
Faith, courage, hope - these are terms we use to describe mindsets of moving beyond the local changes - it’s the belief that things will be better despite the fact that things look like they are getting worse. Grit, determination, growth mindset are secularized versions of the same concepts. When deciding whether or not to achieve a goal it’s your past-self deciding for your future-self. By “choosing when to choose” and then sticking to it, you can start to build habits to not let your future-self torpedo your plans. Make concrete dates on which to choose and only on those dates reevaluate your decisions: “I will do this for [5/10/100/X] days and then I will decide if I continue.” At all other times don’t question your choices. If you need to, curse your prior self’s decisions but don’t waver. Limit your options and “just do it.”
In this vein I recently decided to add a new goal for myself: I will not drink for 1,000 days. That’s about 3 years. This is likely the longest time horizon habit goal I’ve ever set. The longest I’ve never had alcohol as an adult is probably on the order of 100 days so this is ten times longer… At the end of the 1,000 days I’ll reevaluate and see if I want to change it. Let’s see how it goes :)