This is a guest post by Dr. Peter J. Meyers (“Dr. Pete”). He is a cognitivist psychologist, marketer, recent dad, and accidental entrepreneur. He wrestles with procrastination and writes about his victories and bruises at 30GO30.
I’m a big believer in the power of momentum, but lately I’ve been struggling with something. It’s easy to appreciate momentum once you start to feel the impact and have had a few successes, but what do you do when you’re at rock bottom – whether it’s creatively, in your career, etc? I have some friends struggling to get started, and so I’m writing this post both for them and as a reminder to myself.
Get Something (Anything) Started.
It may sound simplistic, but the most important first step is to take a first step, even if it’s the wrong one. One of the very few things I’m absolutely sure of about life is this: you ultimately have two options:
(1) Do something.
(2) Do nothing.
If you do something, you might fail. If you do nothing, you will fail. Actually, worse yet, you’ll never even have the chance to benefit from the lessons of failure.
Try to Take a Rational View.
If you’re having trouble taking that leap of faith, then try to look at it rationally. Fifteen years ago, I was in a good chunk of debt. I was coming out of my PhD program with credit card debts and student loans, I owned basically nothing, and I took a fairly risky bet on a $30K/year job at a start-up (and by “start-up” I mean one guy and a bunch of cardboard boxes in an abandoned warehouse). Looking at my debt versus what I could scrape aside each month to pay it off, the situation seemed hopeless.
Eventually, though, I ran the numbers. Even at just $50/month, there was real hope, if I took along-term view. So, I got started with the credit cards. Eventually, I paid off one, so I rolled that payment into the next one. With each debt that got paid off, I built real momentum. Finally, when it came time to tackle the big student loan, I was paying more than double the required amount every month. Just a few years later, I was in the clear and putting money away. Not every path in life is a numbers game, but too often we let negative emotion win out. If you can divide your goal into steps and start to see the impact of reaching those steps, one by one, it’s a lot easier to get started.
Don’t Second-guess Yourself.
When you’re really feeling down, any tiny obstacle causes you to correct your course. The problem is that you often end up not giving good ideas a chance to work. The classic example for me is exercise. I love to come up with new exercise plans, but 2 weeks in, as soon as I have a bad morning or things get tough, I start adjusting. It MUST be the plan that’s wrong. Of course, that usually leads to a total abandonment of any plan and weeks of self-recrimination.So, once you’ve come up with a plan, give it a certain amount of time – at least 30 days. It can be scary, because every day you’ll think “What if this is the wrong plan?” The simple fact of the matter is that, if you give up too soon, you’ll never know. Better to commit and find out – if you really put the time in, and then realize it’s the wrong direction, you’ll probably have a much better sense of what new course would be better. If you give up at the slightest hint of trouble, you’ll just randomly end up on the next road that comes along.
Count The Small Victories.
There is no momentum without success, but success is often a trick of perception. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to momentum is only seeing the ultimate end-game and treating life as pass/fail. Unless you start looking at the steps in between and can recognize that you’ve made progress, momentum is impossible.
Unfortunately, when you’re down on yourself and the world, seeing anything you do as a “progress” (especially the little things) is challenging at best. Again, I think you have to remove the emotion – in this case, by deciding what counts as success in advance. Break your ultimate goal down into achievable pieces. If you’re job-hunting, maybe you stop and reward yourself for sending out 25 applications, then 50, then for your 1st interview, etc. You can’t control the final outcome, but you can control what you do, and you can recognize your success when you achieve those tasks. Once you start to see the victories, momentum has a real chance.
Plan on The Setbacks.
Finally, you have to face the unpleasant truth – setbacks will happen. Momentum isn’t a perpetual upward spiral. It’s an accumulation of just enough of the positive to keep you from sliding back to the bottom. So, recognize the potential setbacks and plan on them. It’s a little depressing at first, but if you avoid thinking about the obstacles, they’ll still be there waiting, and they’ll completely knock the wind out of you. If you look ahead a bit and see them coming, you might just stand a chance.
So, get out there, and get moving. If you put yourself in motion, momentum isn’t far behind.
Image by dustinj