How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards

How to Stay motivated when progress is slow, nonexistent or backwards

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So you’ve decided to change or improve yourself in some way. Congratulations! Taking the first step is the most important and the hardest. In those beginning stages, it can be surprisingly easy to find motivation. You are buoyed by the excitement of starting something new. The gains are immediate and can be impressive.

But after the initial surge of improvement, you might hit a wall. Your end is still far away, but you aren’t improving at quite the same rate. Before, you could keep yourself going with novelty, adrenaline, and a sense of accomplishment. Once that progress slows down, your motivation also slows. They say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. You can cruise along for awhile, but when you’re on step 400, now you really know how far you have to go and you’re already tired. And it’s going to take ages! And there are obstacles! And there is boredom!

So how do you keep going when the end is still far and you can’t find incremental improvements to keep you going? How do you stay motivated when progress is slow, nonexistent or backwards? Here are some ways to reframe your journey to focus on the journey ahead.

You Struggle is Preparing You to Handle Success

When we picture success, we often imagine it to be instant and easy. We think failure is the slow trudge and struggle of hard work through the beginner courses. This is where many quit because we think success is going through the bunny slopes, but doing it with fanfare and paparazzi while wearing a mink coat and cashing in millions of dollars.

But success isn’t about navigating the beginner stage fast or slow; success isn’t overnight success. And overnight success isn’t really what we expect it to be. Overnight success is like getting pushed down the black diamonds on your first day skiing. There are a lot of pitfalls.  We don’t even understand the pitfalls yet because we’re only at the bunny slopes-level in mentality. If we are still at the bunny slope stage, we should be happy that we aren’t going down the black diamond slopes because we aren’t prepared to have black diamond-level problems yet. We learn how to deal with those problems while working through the bunny slopes.

We see people who achieve success at a young age and then think nothing of watching them crash and burn. We think, we would do better if given the chance. But we have no idea. The problem with lotto winners or pro athletes is not that they’re dumber at finances than the average person with their upbringings; much of the problem is that that they get all the money in one go. The problem with overnight success is that you have all sorts of difficult situations and problems and you never had to figure more basic versions of the problems out when it didn’t matter. You can face a new obstacle on the bunny slopes and trip and fall and learn; it’s much harder to trip and fall on a more treacherous obstacle on the black diamonds with people watching and criticizing your every move.

If you can’t stop yourself from spending when you’re on a low income, it doesn’t become easier when you have money. It may take longer for you to get into trouble, but having more money doesn’t mean you have better control; it just means you have more to lose. This is the reason you need to start start saving before you make a lot.If your brakes don’t work when you’re going slow, they’re not going to work better when you’re going fast.

In this way, you can be happy with your beginner awkward phases because they teach you and prepare you for the big stakes games. You can be happy for your awkward early relationships because they taught you how to be better when you meet your future spouse. You can be grateful for your bad entry-level jobs, because you wouldn’t want to play around when you have the chance to prove yourself at your dream job. You can be thankful for beginner poker games, because when a million dollars is on the line, you will have developed a great poker face from playing for a nickel.

Chances are you will make more money later in life. We can be grateful that we are struggling when we have struggles now, because when we get more successful, we’ll know exactly what to do. When we are trustworthy with less, we can be trusted with more. It just takes time and trial and error.

Your Struggle Teaches You to Love the Journey

I don’t know where I’ve heard it first but I’ve heard it multiple times: you have to love the process. The people that become great musicians, loved learning how to be better musicians. They didn’t love fame. I mean, you can chase fame too and you might still be successful. But many people will flame out first. It’s like someone who loves crossing finish lines but doesn’t love to run. How far is that person going to go?

Recently, I made a joke about another blogger complaining about their page views:
Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 11.05.12 PM.png

And I got a surprising amount of pushback. Like, people can complain about stuff like this! And of course people can complain about anything they want. But it’s so weird to me to complain about blogging. This is a completely optional activity that for the vast majority of people makes no money. Most people are doing it out of love and with no intention of ever being famous or quitting their jobs over it. It’s like being angry that people aren’t appreciating the way you karaoke or read. Sure you can complain, but why are you doing this in the first place? If you want to make money, there are easier ways. There are probably ways that you would like doing not for the money. Maybe you should try one of those. Because the journey and the obstacles are definitely going to happen – “success” might not. If you hate the journey, will you ever be “successful?”

I think overall, the people who love the journey will go the farthest. Consider this response from Elementum Money.

Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 11.30.47 PM.pngElementum Money sees the value in the journey. She’s getting better at writing. She’s enjoying the process. And though, according to her, her pageviews are not where they could ultimately be, she knows that she hasn’t devoted the time to marketing. It’s something to work on in the future. And since she enjoys the process, there’s plenty of time in that future.

Make Sure to Celebrate Every Small Win

Similar to my articles on how the rich justify donating less to charity, or why frugality is for the rich there are many ways to look at your financial health. The main ways you can trick yourself, sometimes for the better, is to switch from looking at absolute values to percentages or vice versa. By switching to looking at charitable spending in absolutes instead of percentages, the rich could feel better about their charitable spending while spending less as a percentage than the poor. By looking at percentages, the rich could also spend a middle class salary and still call themselves uber-frugal.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with switching your thinking from absolutes to percentages or vice versa. It’s like looking at a glass as half full or half empty.  Or seeing that dress that no one could agree on as blue or gold. It’s just a different way of characterizing something you see.

If you’re dealing with low level progress, you can shift your thinking to  concentrate on the percentage change. If you look at the absolutes, you might think, oh I only saved $50 this month. That’s not a lot of money. If you look at your percentage, maybe that’s 10% of your discretionary income, and maybe that’s more impressive to you. What could be really motivational though is that maybe last month you saved $50, but this month you saved $100 – that’s a 100% increase in savings. 100% That’s quite a lot. And I’m not saying you should happily fall off the wagon, but if you backslide, think of the percentage increase when you get back on track again!

You need to celebrate the small wins.
Whatever progress you’re making, it’s ok if you celebrate the smallest increments – percentage or absolute. There is no one on high judging you for which you choose. It only matters whatever keeps you motivated to keep moving. Any progress is still good progress. Don’t let declines in progress distract you when they could just as easily motivate you.

What if Progress is Going Backwards?

Ok, so I hope this is encouraging you a little bit for when progress is slow. But what if it’s not just that you’re moving ahead slowly – but you’re actively on the decline. How do you stay motivated when you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you’re moving backwards?

The thing is, progress is not all in one direction. Two steps forward, one step back. Or one step forward, two steps back. It happens.

I heard this great line in a podcast The Art of Manliness by the Author of Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World), that the first rule of being a doctor is Do No Harm. So if you’re not having a great day, if you know you’re not making progress, that’s ok. You’ll have days like that. You can’t win them all, you can’t make progress on every day. Some days you’re just fighting not to drown.

The only rule for yourself that day is don’t harm your goals. If you’re trying to mind your anger, and everything is going wrong and you just don’t think you can be a GREAT person today, that’s fine. Just don’t cause any irreparable harm. Don’t yell at your family. Don’t send out mean emails. You don’t have to beat yourself up for not getting ahead; just try to contain the level of harm done.

Or if you get into a car accident while paying down debt – that’s going to slow down your progress and it sucks! But don’t give up the whole game just because you hit a pothole. Ok you’re not going to pay down as much debt this month because of this unexpected expense – but try to keep levelheaded and stay the course as much as possible otherwise. You can be on triage mode and just congratulate yourself for not digging yourself further into a hole. That’s a terrific win, even though it doesn’t feel like it. It’s overcoming these obstacles that will get you to the end. You’re a champion even if it doesn’t feel like it.

How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards

In conclusion, you won’t always be improving by leaps or bounds. That’s A-OK. Remember that you’ve made the first step toward your path of self-improvement and that it’s this vast middle area where it really starts to get fun. You learn to overcome obstacles, learn to love your craft and get better prepared for success. As long as you continue to celebrate your wins and keep the big obstacles from deterring you completely, you’re well on your way for your inevitable success.

I’d like to leave you with the following quote I read in Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World:

I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking ‘if only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. – Janna Levin

It can be easy to be caught up in pitying ourselves and the obstacles we go through. We think we would rather have everything handed to us on a silver platter. But we actually don’t. There’s the old joke about the guy who died and in the afterlife, he wins every game, can get any woman he wanted and owns everything. He gets frustrated and asks to see “the other place” thinking that he was in Heaven. Then he’s told, nope, the place where you get everything you want, is a kind of hell.

You are in the middle of your magnificent journey. Why would you want to skip ahead to the end? This is when it’s about to get really good. Good luck!

How Being Single Helped Me Become Rich

being single helped me become rich

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Being single seems like it would be an impediment to gaining wealth. Being a part of a couple means that you can share expenses with someone else (some people even share email addresses….for some reason). Also, if you date or marry someone who makes more than you do, you more than double your salary. A giant jump in salary and reduced expenses? Seems like a recipe for financial success!

For me though, if I had gotten married to any of my exes, I likely would not be in the field I am in now, have the career I do or have as much saved to my name. Here are the reasons being single helped my career and finances and ultimately led to wealth.

1. I Couldn’t Drop Out of the Workforce

I didn’t know any stay-at-home moms growing up. We grew up very middle-class and everyone’s parents seemed to work. I just assumed I would work as well. My adult life was very different – because of the move from middle- to upper-middle class.

I live in a very well-educated area, I’m a lawyer and well, I’m Asian. Most of my peers are lawyers, doctors and engineers. So I tended to date lawyers, doctors and engineers. And many of the women I know did the same. They did well in school, met their husbands, married and had kids, and many quit their jobs because they could. Their husbands made the equivalent of their parents combined salary and more than enough to support the family. The wives they didn’t love their jobs and they wanted to raise their kids. Why have the hassle of a full-time job when you don’t need the money?
My job can be demanding and stressful. The number of times I had thought of quitting – well it was basically every two weeks last year.

What made me keep going? Well, I would like to say that I was taught to Lean In, but futility was probably the most likely culprit. I’m single. You can’t be a housewife, without the wife part. And you still need to pay for that house! But if I had married and had a high-earning husband, it would have made a lot less sense for me to stay at a tough job.

I’m not an ambitious person. I never aspired to a high-paying or powerful job. If I knew I could stay at home and eat bonbons all day, I totally would (I’m not sure anyone would marry me knowing that, but hey, maybe I’d raise their kid as well). But as a single person, I have to earn my own bonbons! The point I’m making is that if I had gotten married, I likely would have married someone who made very good money and I would have had a choice – to continue working or stay at home. And I’m betting there’s a good chance I would have chosen to stay at home.

2. There Was No Reason to Drop to an Easier Job

I dated an attorney when I was 23. I remember him telling me that he worked a lot but he didn’t see any reason to reduce his hours, as a single person. He didn’t have to go home to a wife or kids. I feel the same way today. I work a lot, but I don’t feel guilty. There are no kids waiting for me at home.

The career I’m in is not great for work-life balance or for women with families. Women certainly can succeed in a demanding job while raising their children but those women always seem superhuman. I, however, am decidedly human. And lazy. As stated above, I would have looked for reasons to quit my job if I could have. Having a family at home that I was neglecting? That would have been a good reason. Being single? Well, that’s no reason at all. I could keep working. I could still meet up with friends – after work. Without a family, I felt like I couldn’t justify working fewer hours. And because I continued to work at a job that required a lot of hours, I continued to be paid very well.

3. I Had the Freedom to Follow My Career

My parents were oddballs – my dad always moved for my mom’s job even though he made more. But in “typical” hetero couples, the couple will typically move for the man’s job, not the woman’s. I think I also would have leaned more towards this latter group.

I tended to date men who were very ambitious and had a lot of job opportunities. They also had jobs that would require a fair amount of moving (i.e. doctor) or jobs that wouldn’t offer the best opportunities in the DC area (software engineer, where Silicon Valley would beckon, or corporate lawyer, where New York has the brightest opportunities). I’m fairly certain that I would have followed my hypothetical husband in his career and I don’t know if or when they would have followed mine. That’s how it usually goes.
I went to law school in a small town. Of the married students, the men’s wives followed them there, typically having portable jobs like teacher or nurse. The women’s husbands typically stayed where they were and the couple was long distance for at least 3 years.
I knew a couple – she had finished her first year in law school. He had been accepted to a great program in the same city, among other offers. I assumed he would pick the school in the same city so she could continue her studies. Instead he picked the best ranked school to which he had been accepted and she transferred to a school in that city. After his first year, he transferred to an even better school and she quit law school (people usually don’t transfer their last year of law school and there weren’t other law schools in the area of the final law school). After he graduated, he worked for a firm for one year, and then quit the law altogether.

This is all to say that all around me I saw contemporary examples of women’s careers being put on the backburner. And though everyone likes to think of themselves as the one person who would buck the trend, I don’t think that about myself. I’m very typical. I doubt that I would have kept the flame going for my own job. Again, I never cared that much for a high paying job or any job at all.

I doubt I would have moved to a law school away from my husband or that he would have followed me there. And it just makes sense to put your eggs in the overachiever basket. So I would have stayed working whatever jobs I could find wherever my husband decided was best for his career.

4. I Couldn’t Stick My Head in the Sand About Finances

My mother always warned me not to be dependent on anyone. Well guess what? You can’t be dependent on someone else if there isn’t anyone else.

That link above is to the typical horror story of a wife who got divorced from her highly paid husband. That honestly could have been me. And though my dad is an accountant and I’m clearly interested in personal finances, I know that incentives have a huge role in creating who we become. Most people are content with the easy route. You’re more likely to become a better cook when you have to cook for yourself. You run faster when you’re being chased. You’re forced to put in the reps and when you put in the reps, it’s hard not to get better.

That’s how it was for my finances. If I had married someone who was really good with money (and most of my exes were), it could have been very easy for me to slip into complacency. I could have focused on saving money while running household chores but not investing or earning it. I could have huge gaps in my personal finance knowledge.

I’ve written a little about how I had hoped for being saved by a student loan act of God. But eventually I had to learn to become my own savior. I had to take control of my debt, of my finances and my career. Being single meant that I needed to support myself. There simply wasn’t anyone else to take the reins from me. So I took them for myself.

5. I Could Live a Simpler Lifestyle

The benefit of having a partner is that you would likely save money on rent. But there are a lot of other costs that can come with being a couple. For instance, when I’m in a couple, I eat much fancier meals. I put some extra effort into how I look on a daily basis. I would have to have nicer furniture, probably a nicer apartment and I definitely would have to have a TV and a premium sports package.

There are also some ways to save from being single. For instance, I can crash on my friend’s couch when I visit a city, instead of splitting a hotel room. I don’t have to visit his family or go to his friend’s weddings. My mom, when she was single, would only eat rice and soy sauce. Not falling too far from the tree, left to my own devices, I eat eggs and rice with soy sauce on the regular. This wouldn’t fly with someone else in the picture.

This is not to say that these costs would translate to the savings of shared housing. But there’s often a bit of a disconnect between what people expect in their relationships and what could actually happen. I have a very simple lifestyle because I live by myself and I have very simple desires. It would be difficult to find someone else who would want to live this simply. Being single helped me save money because I didn’t have to impress anyone with my lifestyle. I didn’t have to deal with all the hidden costs of coupledom.

How Being Single Helped Me Become Rich

My life would have been really different had I gotten married to one of my exes. I can’t tell if I’d have a greater net worth based on our theoretical combined net worth, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be as big a contributor to our net worth. My hypothetical net worth would have been primarily his financial contributions divided by two. And in the event of divorce, I’m not sure how I would have fared.

It’s not a better or worse outcome – it’s just a different one. I probably also wouldn’t have started a personal finance blog because many of the stories that I wanted to tell – paying off my law school debt, dating as a rich woman – wouldn’t have made any sense in this alternate reality. Too many things would change given this one change in circumstance.

I should mention that I’m not advocating marriage or singleness. Neither path is a guaranteed path to …. anything. You can be rich or poor in either path. In my blog, I really want to champion singles. It’s easy to find articles about saving money if you’re a couple and it often seems like this is the only path to financial greatness.

But I don’t believe singledom is a worse position from which to achieve financial stability. Too often we see the positives of a relationship, without seeing all the other tradeoffs. We assume we would have a partner who would contribute equally, who won’t impair our own careers or won’t change us. None of those things are guaranteed.

For me, I could see all these societal expectations of being a stay-at-home mom, of supporting my husband’s career, of being content in a passion hobby while my husband earned the big bucks – and I would have given into these expectations. I’m not saying being wealthy is a better goal than any of these other goals – I’m just saying that my singleness affected the choices I had available to me and when I acted on those choices, I came up where I am now – in a very stable financial position.

If I had been married, I would have had more choices and I cannot guarantee that I would be in the same place that I am now. It’s not better or worse; it just is.

Getting married isn’t a sure pathway to wealth and being single doesn’t mean you’re going to end up poor. You can become rich as a single person – for some of us, it might be the only way.