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Struggling with consistency? Use momentum to fuel progress
It's bound to have happened to you at some point. After sticking with something for long enough, you unexpectedly hit a major milestone that leaves you with a deep sense of satisfaction and pride. One technique that really stands out toward arriving at moments like this is generating momentum, and you can harness it to keep yourself consistent for long enough to make hitting that next milestone a matter of when and not if.
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Back in July of 2022, I found myself unemployed and reeling from my fourth layoff in a row. The stress of losing my income and the hit to my self esteem of having to yet again look for a job, left me feeling pretty demoralized and in need of some kind of positive outcome I could control.
I needed a win and I needed it to count. Some small pick me up like a nice meal out or a bit of retail therapy wasn't going to cut it. What I needed was an injection of accomplishment that had to be earned. Something that could offset all the set backs I had just experienced with an even bigger feeling of accomplishment. It had to be hard, and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. It was under these conditions that I decided that I wanted to be become a runner. The problem is that I've been here before.
I've been running off and on since my early 20s. While I've had some success along the way in completing a couple of marathons, my running career looked like a graveyard of hopes and dreams.
I'd start out excited about achieving some kind of goal, like completing a race or hitting a certain time. I'd get a couple of weeks into training but inevitably I start to notice that I wasn't improving at the pace I expected. Either I wasn't getting faster, or I'd develop an injury that I wouldn't allow myself to adequately recover from.
My initial zeal would fade and before long one missed run would turn into two, then a week would go by, then a month, and at some point I'd have to confront my denial and admit to myself that I wasn't really trying to run anymore and that the dream was dead.
This long history of false starts and failures was a clear reminder that running was a risky thing to dive into from the low point I found myself in. I was emotionally fragile, and the thought of inviting another set back at this point in my life made me realize that if I was going to pursue running again, I'd have to do things differently this time.
A different approach
The first thing I did was to lean into the idea that Motivation is very hard to sustain without the feeling of progress. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes “... habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment.” I've lost track of how many times I had fallen victim to the Valley of Disappointment, so this time around, keeping motivation high was paramount.
Next, I changed my definition of progress and started tracking effort instead of results. I decided that good run was no longer one where I hit some kind of personal best. I used to be obsessed with making sure that every run had some kind of improvement to show. A faster time, a better pace, a longer distance covered. Instead, a good run now was a completed run. Rain or shine, hot or cold, if I got a run done, then it was a win.
The biggest wins were those that were hardest to do, like during travel, when I was tired, or when the weather was ugly.
I also decided to focus on how I tracked those wins. I set up a running log that was low friction and fun to engage. I loved nothing more than to post a new entry as soon as I came through the door, still sweaty and breathing hard. It was thrilling to watch my mileage go up day after day, then month and after month.
Seeing this relentless march of wins stack up kept my motivation high, and it only took a couple of weeks for that initial win streak to turn into a sense of momentum that made it easy to keep going.
Running became a part of my daily routine, and before I knew it, I had run over 500 miles. Now I hadn't set out to hit this mileage as an explicit goal. It was just a natural and inevitable outcome of setting in place a sustainable system that generated momentum through a relentless stream of wins.
James Clear sums up my experience nicely, “When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”
The sustainable running system I had set up rested on three key ideas:
Motivation relies on progress
Tracking effort and not results
Making tracking fun
By building and reliably executing on this system, hitting 500 miles became a matter of when and not if. That milestone renewed my confidence in my ability to achieve whatever I set my mind to, and the whole experience acted as a really positive force in an otherwise dreary time. I had accomplished something hard that had to be earned, and doing so had a profound impact on my self esteem.
While I applied these ideas to my desire to become a runner, they can just as easily be applied to any personal endeavor aimed at a big lofty goal.
Do you have a story to share about setting up a sustainable system that made a big milestone inevitable? If so, I'd love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below about what you were working towards, and how you set things up to get there.
Momentum is critical to consistency, but surprisingly, setting goals might end up doing more harm than good. Be sure to check out this post to see why.
In case you’d like to see a spoken version of this essay, be sure to check out this post on YouTube.