Maintaining Motivation and Measuring Progress

In my last post, I provided a brief overview of the concept of deliberate practice, based on my reading of Anders Erickson’s book Peak. I have continued to read Peak, and recently came across something interesting – Erickson’s discussion on maintaining motivation. Maintaining motivation is important for anyone who wants to produce at an elite level. Elite productivity isn’t about having one or two days, or even months, of great performance and output. Rather, elite productivity requires exceptional performance for many months, and likely even years and years. While external motivations can help in the beginning of a quest for excellence, eventually we have to draw on internal motivations – purpose, autonomy/control, and mastery. Today I’ll focus on increasing the sense of mastery of a skill, as a way to maintain motivation to continue working on that skill. Erickson points out that measuring progress at small, incremental levels, is the best way to generate a feeling of progress, mastery and accomplishment. Here are three techniques that can help you continue to stay motivated when you feel your drive diminishing

1. Keep a daily victory scorecard.

As I have stated in my post on 5 personal habits, keeping a daily victory scorecard is one of my core daily habits. I have been keeping a daily victory scorecard for about nine months now, counting every day a) how many words I’ve written (at least 400 per day), b) how many hours I spent programming c) have I maintained six hours of deep, uninterrupted work, and d) have I spent 45 minutes in vigorous physical activity. Each day if I pass my goal, I get one point for that day. If I ever feel my motivation diminishing, I just look up at my daily point calendar and reflect how far I have come in the past nine months. At last count, I have written over 95 thousand words (a typical novel is about 70 thousand), worked out 139 times, spent at least 141 hours (likely much, much higher) coding, and over 600 hours of deep focused work. In total, I have achieved 575 goals in 178 tracked days (I had a few set backs where I did not track days). Just typing these metrics out is driving me to keep pushing forward.

2. Keep a list of everything.

I love lists. In addition to framing and focusing what I want to accomplish in the near and distant future, lists also give me the opportunity to see how far I have progressed and that I indeed am moving forward toward some ultimate outcome. To-Do lists are essential to daily productivity, and if you aren’t in the daily habit of writing and completing one, you may want to consider one.

But what about other lists? Some other lists I keep are book lists, goal lists, task lists, project lists, people to call lists, ideas to follow-up on, etc. I even start a numeric list – 1 through 6, at the beginning of each Python lecture on Tuesday nights. My goal in every lecture is to ask six questions. Every time I ask a question, the number gets crossed off.

The more lists I keep, the more items I can cross off lists. To me, crossing off items in a list is the best part of keeping a list in the first place! For every book I read, I cross it off my book list. Every time I reach a new weight goal, I cross it off my weight list. The best part of a To-Do list is the feeling of accomplishment when crossing tasks off it. As more and more items get cross offed a list, the more progress I see myself making.

3. Review past progress when feeling unmotivated.

Technique 3 is where the magic really happens. If you begin to feel like you are losing steam, look back over your daily victory scorecard, or any of your lists, or any work involved towards mastering a skill. Notice how much progress you have made since you first started developing that skill. It may be a particular concept or technique or goal. Chances are, when you were initially learning that concept or technique, you had many thoughts and feelings of doubt. “This is it. This is the concept that I will not be able to push through.” But then you realise that you kept working at that technique and eventually got it.

I vividly remember back in Grade Five or Six when I first started working with fractions. I also remember thinking “I’ll just never understand fractions. I am not smart enough for this.” Every time I get stumped in some new mathematical concept, I always go back to my thinking about fractions. Yes, it took a bit of time, but now I have a mastery of fractions and can read and understand them like I was reading the A, B, Cs. Whatever mathematics I am struggling with now, if I keep moving forward, eventually I will understand it as easily as fractions.

Keeping measures of progress are key to maintaining motivation. Especially helpful are the times when your progress hits a wall, but you keep pressing forward. These times give quantitative evidence that you can indeed keep getting better, smarter, and faster at a given skill. In addition, keeping track of performance measures helps generate momentum and acceleration. The more measures you keep at small intervals, the quicker you will see those measures change over time. If you really want to see those measures move, put your pedal to the metal and get busy working towards your most wildly important goals, one day at a time.

Happy Working,


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