Get Momentum

I was reminded of having momentum recently when I was able to create some buffer for my weblog, which simply meant I had written several pieces a few weeks in advance, so I was not writing hand to mouth and trying to figure out what to publish the following week. So how was I able to write more of these drafts quickly (and create some margin as a result) when it would have previously taken me more time to write fewer drafts?

Well, one thing that changed between now and then was the fact that I showed up every day and did the creative work sincerely without distractions or interruptions. I was focused in terms of what I needed to achieve (write two drafts a week), so I worked with that in mind. Once I knew my weekly outcome, I stepped back and focused on the process of showing up and doing the work every day. In other words, I did what I said I was going to do — I was consistent. Once I had some momentum, it was easy for me to continue building that buffer. In many ways, it’s like compound interest. You start out small and then you get significant returns over time as a result.

Having momentum is not limited to the domain of writing (or any creative pursuit), but can be applied to almost any endeavor (personal and professional included). I first noticed this momentum when playing arcade games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat in the 90s, and later playing the tennis games, Top Spin and Top Spin 2 in the early 2000s. I noticed (in the latter case) when my player won a few winners in a row, I could see the bar flashing below his name in the scorecard to indicate that he had momentum. His chances of scoring subsequent points increased with that momentum.

I think the video game designers did a good job of portraying momentum in real life. In reality, when one player/team is on a streak, they are more likely to carry that confidence in subsequent points/games, giving them the perception of being invincible. Similarly, it’s possible to go the other way as well, resulting in a downward spiral of losses.

As I write this, I am reminded of the baseball team, Oakland Athletics. This team finished first in the American League West at one point after winning 20 consecutive regular-season games and ranking 5th in the history of top 30 streaks. Even though it all started with forming a team based on empirical analysis and research, you can’t discount the role of momentum in their everyday gameplay toward creating that winning streak.

Sports psychology and consultant Jeff Greenwald wrote in his article:

The reason momentum is so powerful is because of the heightened sense of confidence it gives us — the most important aspect of peak performance. There is a term in sport psychology known as self-efficacy, which is simply a player’s belief in his/her ability to perform a specific task or shot. Typically, a player’s success depends on this efficacy. During a momentum shift, self-efficacy is very high and players have immediate proof their ability matches the challenge. As stated earlier, they then experience subsequent increases in energy and motivation, and gain a feeling of control. In addition, during a positive momentum shift, a player’s self-image also changes. He/she feels invincible and this takes the “performer self” to a higher level.

Momentum shift (positive or negative) for players/teams can occur over a few hours, days, or even weeks. This can happen for a few reasons.

Sports psychologist Patrick Cohn says teams or individual athletes build big leads by striving to achieve success and lose them by trying to avoid failure. Most collapses (shifts in momentum), he thinks, come from some combination of growing pressure on the party that starts to lose a big lead and momentum that builds in favor of the party staging a comeback. He calls it “momentum squared”. He says the players start to perk up and get excited when they have that feeling of momentum.

He pointed this out in a USA Today article:

You stop playing the game you played to be in that position. And the moment you switch to trying not to screw up, you go from a very offensive mind-set to a very defensive mind-set. If you’re focusing too much on the outcome, it’s difficult to play freely. And now they’re worried more about the consequences and what’s going to happen than what they need to do right now.

How do we get momentum in our personal and work lives when we seem to get stuck and not able to get the results we want? Well, it turns out there is a reason we get results from the times we don’t feel stuck. As per Newton’s First Law of Motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest, while objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

It is harder for a stalled car (out of gas) to move than one that is already running. Similarly, it is harder for someone to succeed at first (be it sports, sales, or any pursuit) compared to others who already have a head start and are doing well, but that would be an unfair comparison as it might have taken the latter group time to get started and find that momentum.

In my experience, momentum comes from making progress, no matter how small. It comes from having confidence. That comes from showing up every day and doing the work (since that is all you can do) regardless of whether you feel like it or not. In other words, you have to rely on the process of everyday work and trust that it will determine the outcome of your work. Someone has wisely said that taking the first step is often the hardest.

In the beginning, you have to push yourself and simply not give up. You have to push through shyness, self-doubt, and fear. You have to look for reasons that something will work rather than looking for excuses as to why it might fail.

Find a way to get started. I am reminded of this quote by Walt Disney where he said the way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

You have to do whatever it takes to get that stalled car going, such as winning that first game or match, making that first sale to the customer, losing the first few pounds of your body fat, etc. At first, you probably won’t see any results (and that’s okay), but that shouldn’t deter you from doing the work.

For instance, if you’re in sales, do the outreach a few days a week. Show up and do the work. Call your prospects and customers. Follow the process. Keep it simple.

Look for the things that are working rather than the ones that are not. Default to the positive. Focus on how you are going to do something rather than why things you’re doing are not working. Whether you believe something is possible or not, you’re right either way.

Do whatever it takes to get going, then do whatever it takes to stay there. Woody Allen has so aptly said that 80 percent of success is simply showing up. The important thing is to keep moving forward all the time no matter how slow you go. What’s important is that you’re not retreating. Celebrate your daily wins and progress. Reflect on what you learned and move forward. Make tiny improvements to your process to keep getting better results.

Having momentum can be the difference between success and failure in our lives. It’s hard to get started when you’re stuck. It’s the snowball effect that keeps winning teams winning and losing teams losing. You can have momentum on your side, but you have to put in the reps. There are no shortcuts. You have to believe in yourself, and you need both positive intent and action. Strive to win instead of avoiding mistakes or failure. As they say, offense is the best defense.

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