...as it relates to Motivation

Date: 05/31/2015

If you were hoping for a blog post discussing momentum as it applies to Newton's Laws of Dynamics, I recommend going to Richard Feynman's Lecture Notes and reading chapters 8-10. The Momentum I want to discuss in this case relates more so to Behavioral Science than it does to billiard balls colliding on a frictionless surface.

Over the past year I have been getting increasingly more interested in reading and exploring how habits are formed and, more importantly, how to go about changing them in both our personal lives as well as in the workplace. Today, I don't want to just focus on habit formation, but rather discuss one of the factors that is crucial when you are trying to change a habit or work on a new project: motivation and momentum.

Any time that I set a new goal (be it to change or develop a habit, learn something new, work on a new project, etc), one of the main challenges that I typically face is maintaining a level of motivation to get through the task. It seems that right when I set off to achieve the goal my energy is at an all-time high, but as time progresses it can become increasingly difficult to complete the task. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found himself in this type of situation.

For example,

- Lets say you want to learn a new programming language! You heard of this new amazing language that is supposed to solve so many of the limitations you face with the language you currently use, and everyone seems to be talking about it!

- Or lets say a new year has just started, you realize your body is out of shape, and so you decide to make a resolution that you are going to exercise three times a week.

- Perhaps you decide that you are going to start writing down, once a week, all of the things that you learned during the previous seven days.

All of these tasks/goals seem reasonable, yet they are all difficult to achieve without the right level of motivation. We've all been there... that New Year resolution we are so good at keeping up with for the first month, but then completely stop pursuing at the start of February.

Whereas motivation is the force that drives us to start something new, momentum is what sustains that drive. Below are steps that I've tried applying whenever I set out to do something new and have found critical for developing momentum.

Divide and Conquer:

Break the task at hand into smaller, achievable components. This is probably the most important step in this list. When you are starting something new, if at any point in time you feel overwhelmed then it probably means the task can be further divided into smaller sub-tasks. This is an approach that can be applied to a new project your boss might ask you to do, or a new habit you might be trying to adopt. For example if you are trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, begin by identifying everything you need to change in order to achieve that goal (do you need to exercise? do you need to change your diet? do you need to start cooking? etc). Then take those tasks and try breaking them down even further (for exercise: how many times a week do I need to exercise? what type of physical activity? etc). In doing this you are identifying all the pieces of the puzzle and creating a roadmap which allows you to track progress (and tracking progress is crucial for building momentum).

Start Easy:

Once you have broken down your goal into sub-goals, always start with something easy. The important thing here is to get started, and by picking the simplest task you are setting yourself up for being able to complete the task and officially committing to do it. For example, if you want to learn a new programming language, start by setting up an IDE and running the classic "Hello World" program. Then, on following days, instead of trying to dedicate 2 hours each day to doing programming exercises, start with a small value (say 20 mins), and work your way up from there. This approach tries to minimize the possibility of failing by trying to do more than you can handle at the moment.

A Single Goal:

Focus. Don't multitask! Our brains are terrible at keeping track of multiple things at once, and failing to accomplish one task can create a snowball effect where you become unable to complete any of them (even if they are unrelated). So pick a single goal, put all your energy and effort into completing it, and only once you have achieved your current goal should you move on to the next.

Commit to it:

Sometimes we need external forces to really move us to continue. These can come in the form of pressure, expectations from others, deadlines, etc, and help us feel like we've committed ourselves to something we can't back out of. So if you are trying to exercise more, sign up for a race (you won't have a choice but to exercise for it). If you are learning a new language, join a Meetup group (preferably one where you are only allowed to speak in said language). The idea here is that you want to stay accountable for completing the task. If you don't follow through, someone will notice.

Document it:

Throughout the process make sure you are documenting your progress. Write down what you accomplished, the steps you took to get there, what you learned along the way, etc. I've found that writing all of these things down is very important for when I face a period of low motivation and energy. During those times being able to look back and see what I've accomplished thus far really helps bring motivation levels back up (this is in part why I am building this website).


Whenever you complete a step that brings you closer to your goal, you should celebrate. My belief is that you should celebrate small victories often. Rewards/Celebration here don't mean "go out and party" every time you complete a small task, it means instead that you should pause, take a breather, give yourself a reward (proportional to the task accomplished), do something that brings gives your mind a break (reading, exercising, etc). Having these rewards in place give you something to look forward to when the task you are performing isn't easy.

By following some of the steps above, I have found it easier to get started on tasks that otherwise would seem daunting, I've been able to stay focused along the process to complete just one thing at a time, and I've been able to use the successful completion of past achievements to fuel my desire to start the next one. The goal here is to understand the importance that motivation plays on our ability to achieve goals, and that there are steps that can be taken to build up enough momentum to complete these goals.

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