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!

2 thoughts on “How to Stay Motivated when Progress is Slow, Nonexistent or Backwards

  1. So many great points here! I also struggle with seeing the beauty of the journey rather than all the obstacles alone the way. It’s good to have these reminders about how important and beneficial these “obstacles” can be 😉

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