When it comes to any goal directed activity, finding your momentum is key. Momentum, “the strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events” (Merriam-Webster), is like high-test fuel in your gas tank. Momentum increases motivation and energy, making it easier to accomplish goals, whether big or small.
In general, it’s best to have a realistic view of oneself and the world. However, when it comes to momentum and motivation, there are healthy cognitive “biases” and behavioral strategies that can be particularly beneficial. This post reviews 5 of these methods – ways to find your momentum as you pursue important goals.
1.) Start Small
For some people, taking that first step toward a goal or project is the hardest one. In that case, taking small steps is the way to go. As a matter of fact, a Stanford Professor has devised a program known as “Tiny Habits” that demonstrates the benefits of spending just a few minutes on a task each day as one step toward accomplishing a challenging goal. For example, if you’d like to exercise more regularly, instead of setting a goal of 30 minutes per day, start with something like 5 or 10 minutes; that’s much easier to commit to and follow through on. Once you exercise for 5 minutes, it’s often easy to just keep going, making it into a longer workout. The mind can get overwhelmed with the thought of “30” or “60” minutes, but exercising for 5 minute feels easy to most.
It’s easy to wait for the right amount of motivation before engaging in an important task; that’s human nature. But, if the motivation isn’t there (which reflects the fact that your thoughts aren’t creating it), a great way to develop it is through action. So, don’t wait for the motivation, but instead create it by starting small. Oftentimes, you can “trick” yourself into doing more, by igniting the energy that’s already within you, and overriding any thought/emotion sequences that may be blocking you (e.g., anxiety is a common culprit that can limit motivation and action; procrastination provides a short-term remedy to the anxiety).
2.) Do the Easy Stuff First (Or, the Hard Stuff, Depending…)
Any task or goal has different components, some that are more challenging and some less so. If you start with the less intensive steps, you’ll quickly make some headway. This provides a sense of accomplishment – of momentum – making it easier to tackle the harder stuff.
On the flip side, some will argue that it’s best to complete your most demanding tasks first, at the start of the day, to get them out of the way. This, too, can create great momentum, as the mind is less cluttered with draining thoughts like “when will I get that other stuff done?” Everybody is different and each day presents unique challenges, so be flexible and try both approaches, depending on the circumstances.
3.) Focus on the Positive
A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, entitled, “So near yet so far: the mental representation of goal progress,” found that highly motivated people tend to overestimate how much they have completed in the early stages of a task and on the flip side, underestimate how much they have done towards the end. Both of these strategies provide the fuel that keeps them motivated. While these types of cognitive biases happen largely on a subconscious level, the first scenario is a good example of how a sense of momentum can lead to increased effort and motivation.
Try to emphasize the glass ‘half full’ versus ‘half empty’ metaphor. Sounds simple. It is in theory, but not necessarily in practice. This relates to what the aforementioned researchers found – that if you believe you’ve accomplished a decent amount in the early stages of a project, then you’ll feel more motivated. While this is a subconscious process for many, it’s also something you can play with on a conscious level, by deliberately choosing to take a positive perspective. Evolutionarily speaking, our minds are wired to tilt toward the negative, as this cautious, conservative approach provides a sense of protection. So, choosing to see things in a positive light may take a bit of effort – feeling uncomfortable and even disingenuous at first – but it’s well worth it when it comes to goal attainment. Consider tools like the Lift app that provide further positive support toward goals.
4.) “Touch” your Goal Everyday
Make what’s important to you a priority by “touching” it everyday. By this, I mean that you should spend some time, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, making contact with your goal everyday. Whether you do something tangible (e.g., making phone calls, doing research, buying that yoga mat) or simply think about your goal, it’s time well spent. Remind yourself of how important your goals are, and remind yourself of the value of putting any attention on it (rather than judging yourself). This is similar to the concept of taking small steps, but with this strategy, you’re deliberately making it a regular practice, whereby you put attention on your goal each and everyday, no matter what. Do this for a week or two and you’ll likely feel a strong sense of momentum, and consequently, an increase in motivation as you see the progress you’re making.
With this strategy, it’s important to let go of perfectionism. Perfectionism can be a real killer of motivation, momentum and creativity. For example, some people avoid doing anything if it can’t be set up in the exact way they want or envision (e.g., “I don’t have the time or energy to clean my entire house the way it needs to be cleaned, so I’m not going to do any of it” – this “black and white thinking” is a classic, unhelpful cognitive distortion).
Like everybody, I like to do things well and can sometimes see that desire slipping toward perfectionism. Whenever this happens, I try to pause and focus on the positive, reminding myself that any progress is good progress and to continue chipping away at the task at hand.
(See Ivy Pan’s excellent post on the concept of “Grit” – which discusses how the combo of ‘perseverance and passion’ is one of the biggest predictors of success with goals; “touching” your goals on a regular basis is one part of this equation.)
5.) Track Your Progress
Having a concrete representation of your progress, something that you can look at on a regular basis, is a powerful reinforcer that creates momentum. A simple checklist is one way to do this. As you complete certain tasks, check them off your list and voila, there you have that clearer sense of accomplishment. This is such as easy way to create momentum, yet far too often, we forget to employ basic strategies like this.
There are other tools that can be used to track progress toward a goal, including web and mobile phone applications, many of which are free. For example, Strava is an excellent, free web service that provides in-depth analytics for runners and cyclists. Their software allows you to compare your performance to other athletes and see how you’re improving over time. Seeing all of this data and progress from week to week serves as a reminder of the big picture, which can provide a great momentum boost. Plus, tools like this can provide a sense of connection as you pursue your goals, which is an important factor with any accomplishment.
I believe that as humans, we are inherently motivated and full of energy (barring physical illness), so the challenge is to tap into what’s already there. Some of the strategies outlined above may sound straightforward; that’s because they are! Try them out, as an experiment, and see what happens. The great thing about momentum is that it not only leads to greater productivity, but it also tends to make projects more enjoyable as well.
About this Contributor: Kim Pratt, LCSW, is a passionate advocate of personal growth and healing. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 10 years, and in private practice as a therapist to adults of all ages since 2007. Prior to her clinical career, she worked in the information technology sector in the SF Bay Area. She is a proud spouse of 14 years; co-parent to two beautiful non-human beings; a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation; and an aging jock. Her formal education was received at UC Berkeley (Masters in Social Work) and the University of Michigan (B.A. in Anthropology), where she also played varsity tennis (Go Blue!).