Rock stars of the middle

Persistent execution of small tasks is the key to doing big things.

“Practice makes perfect,” said Tom, a gym teacher, to his fourth grade class.

Jacob, one of the students, raised his hand and asked, “But what if I practice a few times, and then I don’t feel like practicing anymore?”

Tom said, “Well, you have to make yourself practice even when you don’t feel like it.  And you gotta keep doing it, over, and over, and over.”

We’ve all heard this advice.  To get in shape, to learn a new subject, to improve our career-related skills, to run a marathon, and to play an instrument better: we have to practice, no matter how we feel at the moment.

Most of us know “rock stars:” people who seem really hard working, really committed, really gritty, really persistent and tough.  They inspire us and motivate us.  Watching them may invigorate our motivation to try harder.  I call them “rock stars of the middle” because they keep going during the toughest, most “boring” part of a process, which is the middle.  It’s often easier to start a diet than it is to keep one up for months.  It’s also easier to finish that last minute on the treadmill after you’ve already been there for 29 minutes.  But from minutes 4 through 27, we are naturally less motivated than we were at the beginning or than we will be at the end.

For some of us, this is enough: push yourself harder, have others push you harder, and you just keep trying harder and harder.  You just have that motivation to master the middle, and tack on the beginning and end to finish the job.

But what if our motivation fades?  What if we practice for a while, don’t feel satisfied with our progress, and get busy with other things, and making that next trip to the gym just feels like a bigger and heavier burden each day?  What do we do when the very act of practicing itself becomes a seemingly unattainable goal?  At that point, we may find that seeing a rock star, hearing motivational advice, or thinking about practicing more, makes us less motivated, even though those very things used to increase our motivation in the past.

What happened here?  How do we get ourselves out of this rut?

Here’s what happened: when we put effort into something, we expect a reward.  Usually, we expect a reward that is some tangible gain to us, such as weight loss, smoother instrument-playing ability, or increased work output.  Unfortunately, we cannot often predict exactly how much practice leads to how many results.  Thus, our expectations may be too high: we guessed that we should expect a certain amount of improvement after a certain amount of effort, such as loss of 30 pounds after 6 weeks of running on a treadmill 30 minutes a day, but we didn’t know for sure that we would lose that many pounds after that much exercise, right?  So when our expectations didn’t match reality, we didn’t feel so great.

Furthermore, after several repeated attempts to lose weight, we may become used to the idea that our expectations just aren’t matching reality.  This is when a self-defeating transformation occurs: we think we “realize” or “learn” that no matter how hard we try, we will never achieve the goal we want.  Or, it is “impossible” or “just too hard” or “not worth it” to keep trying, because our final goal just seems way out of reach.

On top of that, others may notice our decreased effort and tell us we need to try harder.  This may make us feel stuck in an impossible situation, since we have “learned” that our goal was attainable, “learned” that practice gets us nowhere, and yet we are expected to keep doing something that isn’t getting us very far very quickly.

If you find yourself in a rut like this, here’s how to get yourself back in action:

1) Ignore grandiose philosophical advice.  You may hear a lot of advice from people who make it sound like writing a PhD thesis is such a superhuman, grand feat that requires 110 percent of your brain power sustained nonstop over several years.  You may internalize this idea enough that when you actually sit down to write your thesis, you spend more time feeling riddled with insecurity and guilt than you do focusing on writing.  To regain focus on writing, make the task as small and easy as possible.  Building up the task into a bigger and bigger goal in your head is only going to make it seem even harder to finish or even approach.  Take “baby steps,” as you’ve often heard, I know.  But when I say baby steps, I mean write down what that first baby step is, and then break it down into even simpler steps if you find that the baby step was still too large.  Start with something really, ridiculously easy, and you’ll find that sometimes, you’ll get some momentum.  It’s much easier and more productive to go from 0 to 0.1 to 0.2 mile per hour, than it is to force yourself to jump to 10 mph while you’re actually just sitting there going 0 mph the whole time.  This is how businesses are built, how theses are written, how marathon runners are made.

2) Shift your expected reward from goal to persistent practice.  Remember, a key problem was your false association of “effort = no progress” or “effort = negligible or pointless progress, or even loss.”  There is something to be said for using faulty strategies, but for things where you know what needs to be done, such as going for a walk 30 minutes a day to get your heart pumping, your goal is to re-associate effort with reward.  So change your expected reward to focus on the effort.  This is the real secret of rock-star behavior: relishing the persistent, lifelong state of practice, rather than focusing on the end goal that motivated that practice.  People who stay in shape their whole lives find motivation in the sheer joy of exercise, rather than only focusing on some final fitness goal.  People who are truly dedicated to lives of academic research find joy in the ups and downs in the process of doing research, not just in the end goal of publishing a paper or getting an award.  Instead of waiting for your weight to drop by 20 pounds, learn to enjoy the taste of broccoli, perhaps with the help of some garlic and healthy spices.

3) Don’t make practice itself seem overwhelming.  Practice – writing a few words, making a few steps on that treadmill – is inherently supposed to be small.  Make your expectations of how much you will practice as small as you need to, to get yourself to take the first step.  Instead of telling yourself, “I will go to the gym three times a week and do 20 sets of weightlifting and abdominal exercises,” tell yourself, “I’ll go to the gym and I just have to be there for an hour.  I don’t have to actually do anything while I’m there.  But I do have to at least stand there, without my smartphone in hand.”  This alone will cause you to work out at least a little, since just standing in the gym would be quite boring otherwise!

And note that, “rock star” is not really describing a person; it is describing actions.  Someone can be a rock star in one area of life, but struggling in another.  You will find that people who inspire you have struggles of their own.  You will also find that there are people out there who consider you to be a rock star at something already!


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