When you start working on an ambitious goal like writing a book, starting a blog, or building a company, or even picking up a new hobby, staying motivated can feel like a real struggle.
For the entirety of my 20’s, I picked up a brief interest in something and quit, over and over. My old roommate Ahmad used to make fun of me every time I started some new hobby. He saw me quit Muay Thai, electric bass, and more. I flirted with dozens of hobbies, but didn’t commit to any of them.
At the beginning of learning any new skill or hobby, there’s a gap between your ambitions and your abilities. When I started surfing, my ambition was to ride bigger, but my ability was limited to riding the whitewater. In my book Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best, I shared the story of a simple piece of advice that an older surfer gave me.
He said, “Go 50 times. By then, you’ll be too invested to quit.” Unlike most people who take a surf lesson, I didn’t stand up in my first lesson. The instructor thought I was so bad, he said I would have hurt myself without a lesson. It wasn’t until the 15th surf session that I finally stood up on my surfboard.
Instead of focusing on the outcome of standing up, I focused on the process of going 50 times. With each day that I paddled out, I was one less session away from getting to 50. But after catching that first wave on the fifteenth session, I was so hooked that 50 quickly became 500, which became 10 years.
I’ve used this same principle to write every day and bring some of my most ambitious ideas to life.
The Progress Principle
Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at Harvard conducted a study in which they asked working professionals to keep a journal and write about their work-life satisfaction. The study showed that people’s motivation was highest when they were making progress on something they cared about.
Visible progress is one of our strongest sources of motivation. But, progress is often invisible to us because of the way we measure it. We set outcome-based goals which are not only a recipe for failure, but decrease our motivation. If you measure your progress based solely on outcomes, you won’t believe you’re making any until you achieve your goal.
For the progress principle to work, you want to use the 3 criteria for process-based goals.
- Measurable (ie write for 1 hour, go to the gym 3 times)
- Controllable (ie practice guitar for 30 mins)
- Sustainable — not some extreme change
But all of it is for nothing if you can’t get yourself to take action. By leveraging the progress principle, you’re able to accumulate small wins, which eventually lead to big victories.
Leverage the Power of Identity-Based Habit Formation
People struggle to change because they make extreme unsustainable changes. They take a crash diet approach to habit-formation. By using what James Clear calls “identity-based habit formation”, you can develop good habits and break bad ones.
Say that you want to develop a writing habit. You have to ask yourself, “What is the behavior of the kind of person who writes every day?” A person who writes every day opens a notebook and puts pen to paper.
Break the writing habit into all its parts:
- Get out a pen.
- Get out a notebook.
- Sit down at a desk.
- Start typing or put pen to paper.
So instead of trying to develop the habit of writing 1000 words a day, develop the habit of getting out a pen and a notebook. When you’ve done that, then develop the habit of sitting down. Eventually, the inertia will carry you into the habit of writing every day. By taking minimum viable actions, you’re able to develop new habits through the path of least resistance.
Use Visual Reminders
Without a visual reminder, you won’t be aware of how much progress you’re making. There’s a reason fitness apps and meditation apps like Calm show you your streaks. When you get on a streak, you’re more motivated to maintain it.
One of the easiest and most effective visual reminders is not to break the chain on a calendar. When a young comedian asked Jerry Seinfeld how to get better, he told him to buy a wall calendar, write jokes every day until there was a chain, and set the goal not to break the chain. Seinfeld was teaching the young comedian the progress principle.
With visual reminders, we’re able to feel a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment on the path to accomplishing our goals.
When you measure progress based entirely on outcomes, you feel like a failure until you accomplish the goal. If you believe you’re making progress on something, you’re much more likely to stick with it. Track your progress in a way that’s measurable, controllable and sustainable, and it will be the end of your struggle to stay motivated.