Sticking at things can be tough, don’t you think?
You set yourself a goal, say to learn conversational Spanish or to read more books. You gen up on tactics, watch a few Youtube videos, and — wooyah! — you’re fired up like a lit Catherine wheel.
But then, the hard work begins. A learning curve appears, steep as a granite cliff. You panic. Your motivation shrivels up like a neglected houseplant. And just like that… POOF! Your dreams of world domination atomise into thin air.
Annoying isn’t it? So why is it so hard to stay gritty sometimes?
What if I told you there’s a science-backed tip to stay doggedly determined (like Jessica Jones chasing a sadistic super villain—but without the moody hangover)?
First, some backstory.
A few weeks ago, while on holiday in Greece, I clocked three juggling balls on a shelf. How hard can it be? I thought.
THUD, THUD, THUD. Relentlessly they fell. I Googled juggling tips. I swore. (A lot.) And this painful scene went on for days.
But just as I was about to accept defeat, my coordination got an unexpected software upgrade. Suddenly, I could juggle.
Turns out doing was improving
I know that sounds obvious. But when you’re learning something complex, such as writing, or any skill where progress is hard to measure — it’s easy to throw down the balls (or pen) in frustration.
Like some days, writing feels as insurmountable to me as learning Dutch or quantum mechanics, or perfecting Hollandaise sauce… something I’ve tried and failed at many times.
I’ll read an article by a favourite writer and it’ll be so beautifully written I sweep all thoughts of writing aside. What’s the point? I think. And go back to eating my pile of carbs.
Learning to juggle was a reminder that when writing feels like it’s going nowhere — improvement is happening.
Seth Godin sums it up in his Akimbo podcast on writer’s block. He says: “Bad work paves the way to good work”. But it goes deeper than that.
Time for that tip I promised you.
Scientists call it progress theory. It’s where small wins ratchet up productivity, energy and ambition. And it’s the side-effect of learning something relatively quickly. Also: it may be more potent than we thought.
If it hadn’t been for a chapter of small wins, Watson and Crick may not have discovered the structure of DNA.
“Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous,” Watson wrote. But then, “A shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits”. All of a sudden, they couldn’t stay out of the lab… going on to snag a Nobel Prize.
The Harvard study that cites this example found small wins to be THE most powerful driver of productivity in the workplace.
Surprising, right? You’d think there’d be bigger, juicer carrots; like, PlayStation rooms, or fridges full of ice cold beer. And yet…
“Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
Oribi Founder, Iris Shoor, tested this theory out on her staff. She replaced the superficial allure of fancy parties and free pizza with “magic moments”. Opportunities for her team to step out of their comfort zones and learn new things.
After a year of marathons, sky-dives and bungee jumps, her “personal growth” project had given people the confidence to achieve more than they ever thought they could.
It doesn’t have to be learning the harp or applying for MasterChef. You could:
— Sign up for a storytelling night and confront your fear of public speaking
— Take part in a 5k run, or a half marathon—whatever feels like an accomplishment to you
— Reach for any minor milestone that expands your sense of achievement
Will it sharpen your enthusiasm to keep on pushing on?
I don’t know.
But I do know that since learning to juggle, I’ve piled through a mountain of work after a particularly sluggish period of inertia. I even finally completed my online copywriting course.
Next, I’m determined to nail Hollandaise sauce. I mean, come on. It’s not astrophysics.
But I’m hoping it’ll fuel me up for the next learning curve. Because anything for an extra dose of motivation, right?
How about you? Have you noticed the power of small wins?