How to Stay Motivated Over the Long Run

by Tim Arendse on September 7

We all have our dreams. For me, it’s being a great writer. Ironically, I used to find nothing more demotivating than a relatively small, well-written blog. It would say, “Don’t bother, because this person is better than you.” I get a similar feeling in judo. There are some guys who will leave the club before I manage to throw them in randori. Sometimes the feeling of “Why bother?” just creeps in.

Unfortunately, it's never this easy.

Unfortunately, it’s never this easy.

Comparing ourselves to others is normal. It’s another artifact from our ancestral past. Is this person a threat to my well-being? Can I bamboozle them out of their resources? If the world suddenly converted to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, comparing ourselves would be useful to our survival. Until then, we’re stuck with another quirk of the human condition.

When I meet someone who is who better than me, it’s because they either have experience in this discipline or have experience in something similar. There’s never any mystery. However, I still find myself preferring a magical shortcut over doing the actual work.

You learned to hate practice as a kid.

For many people (including me), practice is a dirty word. It means falling and getting up, over and over. It means doing the same thing for hours, not seeing any noticeable improvements. When I was young, I made a big decision about practice; I decided it wasn’t worth it. Practice was boring and the results didn’t show up nearly fast enough. I was being swindled out of fun, and I decided that practice was for the birds.

As a kid, I had a dream of playing the electric guitar. I would be the envy of my classmates, putting on impromptu shows in the hallways of my school. It was going to happen. If only I could bridge the gap between being a complete newbie and Tom Morello. My guitar teacher told me what I had to do: practice an hour a day.

I distinctly remember sitting down with my guitar and amp and practicing the same song a few times. Boredom began to settle in. I played the song again and looked at the clock. Ten minutes had passed. I lasted another five minutes before shutting off the amp, putting the guitar back on its stand, and filing “Ode to Joy” back into my music folder. Tiny Toons was on, and I could practice later. Eventually, I sold the guitar and amp to someone who would actually use it.

My perception of time was so grindingly slow that unless I truly loved what I was doing, it was torture.

10,000 hours goes faster than you think.

We all love the idea of being good at something. The prestige happens when you hit the top and being good at something is gratifying. Malcom Gladwell famously said that in order to attain mastery at something, you need work at it for 10,000 hours. If you worked at it for 8 hours a day, you’d get there in about four years.

To a lot of people, the idea of working of 10,000 hours is demotivating. That’s a long time to get to the good stuff! Here’s the kicker though: no matter what you do, those 10,000 hours are going to pass, and if you’re an adult, they’re going to pass quickly.

This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon called logarithmic time perception, first described by Paul Janet in 1897. According to the Paul Janet, you experience half of life by the time you’re in your late teens.

While there are several hypotheses as to why this happens, one thing is for sure: your perception of time is slower when you’re younger and faster when you’re older.

On the one hand, this sounds a little depressing and scary. You might have just learned that you effectively have less life left than you thought you did. On the other hand, the time you spend practicing is going to go a lot faster.

When does the fun start?

I’ll admit: I don’t know most disciplines well enough to tell the difference between an intermediate and a master. When I see someone winning in judo, I don’t think, “Wow, he sure is lucky his opponent sucks…” If someone picks up a guitar at a house party and starts playing something coherent, I don’t think, “They’ve maybe have 1500 hours on that thing… amateur.” Nope, I sit back and admire. Despite not being masters, they’re already in the good stuff. You don’t have to be a black belt to win in judo and you don’t have to be a world-class guitarist to play music people want to hear. You just have to get through the initial learning curve and stay disciplined after that.

I think that each discipline has a “driver”, something that keeps you buzzing forward. In a creative pursuit, it could be sharing what you’ve created. In a physical pursuit, it could be beating an opponent or a personal best time. It could be mastering a set of techniques.

Where will you be in five years?

Think in blocks of five years. These days, when run across a small blog where the author is a much better writer than I am, I think to myself, “I could be that good in five years.” I don’t plan to stop writing, so I know I’ll get to that level. Maybe I’ll get there in two years, maybe I’ll get there in ten. Either way, it’s a useful illusion that keeps me motivated.

As of writing this, I’m going to see 10,000 waking hours (assuming I sleep 8 hours a day) by April 19, 2017. That’s a life-changing amount of time. Whatever you’re struggling with now, you could solve by then, and whatever it is you’re trying to master, you could put a big dent in it.

I’m not going to write 16 hours a day, but I do plan to write at least one hour a day. That’s a hell of a lot better than saying, “10,000 hours!?! Nope. Pass me the remote”.

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. The decisions you make today are going to affect what your life looks like in the future. There literally is no better time to start than right now. Next time you see someone who is already where you want to be, say to yourself, “That’s where I’m going to be in five years”. Life always seems long until you’re looking back on it. What are you going to look back on?

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

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