How to Measure Your Degree of Persistence


Recently, Cal Newport over at Study Hacks, wrote an interesting article where he claims that getting started is overrated.  He argues that too many people get started without commitment.  As a result, they waste valuable time and energy on pursuits that they will give up after a few months of haphazard effort.  Action without persistence is a waste of time.

Continuing from Cal’s idea, I think it’s useful to ask yourself what your level of commitment is to a project or goal before starting.  Measuring persistence isn’t easy.  The only true way to know your persistence level is to work on a project and see when you give up.  If you quit a goal after two years, your degree of persistence is two years.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have years of our lives to waste just to measure the level of commitment to a new project.  Although it won’t measure the real thing, I think there is a thought experiment that comes pretty close to pinpointing the actual value.

Are You Willing to Work Forever?

Pick any goal you want to measure your persistence for.  Now, ask yourself how long you would be willing to work on the goal, without any positive feedback.  How long would you be willing to work on a project, without being able to see any results from your efforts?

That length of time, I believe, is a rough estimate of your commitment to a project.  Notice I didn’t ask how long you would be willing to work on a project.  Instead, I asked, how long you would be able to work in a vacuum, devoid of any knowledge that you were making progress.

If you want to get in shape, ask yourself how long you would be willing to go to the gym every day, if you didn’t lose a single pound, didn’t increase at all in strength, or didn’t look any different.  How long would you be willing to last?

If you want to start a business, ask yourself how long you would be willing to keep experimenting and producing without earning a single dollar of revenue.  Or receiving any indication that your business would continue.

    Persisting Forever is Stupid

Obviously, working forever without any results means you’re doing something wrong.  Either you’ve picked an impossible pursuit (try flying by flapping your arms) or your approach is completely broken.

However, as a thought experiment, this question is still valuable.  There are going to be periods in the pursuit of any goal, where you will completely lack positive feedback.  You won’t have any motivational fuel to encourage you forward.  The question is based on how long you feel you can continue in spite of this total absence of results.

    Avoiding Projects With Short Persistence Values

To go back to Cal’s original article, about the dangers of starting without commitment, I’d argue that you should avoiding starting projects that have low persistence values.  If you can’t honestly give a high persistence value for a project, don’t bother starting it.

What’s a high persistence value?  It depends on the pursuit, but I’d say the safest value is, “forever”.  “Forever” in the literal sense means an infinite amount of years, your entire lifespan or some other unimaginably long period of time.  But in this context, it simply means that you aren’t relying on positive feedback to motivate you forward.  If you were able to continue towards a goal forever, without seeing results, you’re in the safest position to pursue a goal.

Once again, this is a thought experiment, not reality.  Even if my persistence value for a goal is “forever”, that doesn’t mean I don’t expect to see results somewhere along the way.  It just means I won’t give up, even if they don’t appear.

Few of your projects will have such high persistence values.  But, I still think a high value is important, even if you wouldn’t devote your entire life to a project.  Steve Pavlina suggested that most online small businesses take 3-5 years to become successful.  This means that if you’re planning to start a website, but your persistence threshold is six months, don’t even bother starting.

Similarly, I believe the minimum persistence value needed for getting in shape would be a year.  Although it is possible to make significant progress in just a few weeks, that isn’t always the case.  You might spend months at the same level as new habits are forming or you reach a plateau in your conditioning.

Persistence Isn’t Motivation

I have a “forever” level of persistence (at least hypothetically) towards my the most important areas of my life.  There isn’t a time-limit where I would decide to give up on being healthy, having fulfilling relationships or working for something I’m passionate about.  More specific dreams have somewhat shorter values, but I try to make them as long as possible.

Having values of “forever” for some goals isn’t a matter of motivation.  Motivation is the urge to seek positive feedback.  Persistence is the ability to continue forward in the complete absence of any.  Motivation can’t push you forward in a pursuit you would continue even if you never received any positive feedback.

Instead, I believe persistence is a combination of patience and an intrinsic desire to do the activity.  Running a business for me is a near “forever” in terms of persistence.  I’m patient in that I don’t expect any immediate feedback for any business effort I take on.  In addition, I love writing, creating new products, selling and being my own boss.  Even if I was forced to run these as a no-income hobby, the value would be enough that I would be able to continue.

Video games are popular because they supply near-constant feedback for actions.  Kill the enemy monster, get experience points.  Life isn’t a video game.  There are often huge gaps where there is little reward for hard work.  The longer and more difficult a project, the larger these vacuums can be.  Motivation is important, but it’s also important to be able to persist through those seemingly infinite valleys.

  • jon

    along the same lines, i would suggest the dip by seth godin. it’s a really short book about knowing when to quit and when to stick. highly recommended.

  • Ketan Patel

    This is a great article and it really spoke to me because I am trying to lose weight and start launch a business and sometimes I really feel like packing it all in and just getting a regular job but then I remember my hate of the rat race and I get a little inspired again.

    That last parapgraph is excellent and I’m going to add it to my list of quotes.

  • JayCruz

    I really needed to read this. I always thought that all you needed was motivation, but persisting forever is the key.

  • david

    Thanks for the good post, Scott!

    To me, persistence is somehow about doing whatever you’re doing for the sake of just doing it, not for some expected end result – to run because you like the feeling of running and the motion of your body, to design a website because you like creating something, to write because you want to express yourself, to study because you love to learn.

    I think you wrote a couple of posts on something like this a while back, about the old Greek concept Arete. While I think it’s possible – well, at least it is in theory – to have unlimited persistence without enjoying the journey, I think in practice Arete and persistence goes hand in hand.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for bringing up this point. Unlimited persistence shouldn’t mean you never quit. But it should mean that you have the ability to quit for the right reasons. In my opinion, valid reasons for quitting are:

    * You’ve changed. (you no longer want the goal/enjoy the process)
    * The pursuit has changed.
    * You were mistaken about the pursuit or yourself. (i.e. the pursuit/you didn’t change, but new information changed your perspective)

    These are pretty vague, but I do believe there are valid reasons. What shouldn’t be a valid reason is quitting because feedback is currently lacking. That was the emphasis for this post.


  • Cal


    I really enjoyed this article. I think you’ve hit on a great framework here for thinking about the issues of high-value achievement.

    Here’s a thought. Does it make sense to integrate some notion of lack of other activities into the persistence calculation. That is, perhaps you imagine you have 1 – 2 slots for following high-value achievements. When making the persistence calculation you are not only asking how much time you want to devote to that pursuit, but, also, how much time you are willing to occupy one of your limited high value slots. I’m wondering if for some things, people might be happy to keep working on it for years, but perhaps not the expense of other big things that are even more exciting?

  • Scott Young


    Admittedly, it’s a rough measurement. A degree of focus would also be a good idea. Absolute persistence with no focus isn’t really a commitment.


  • Fey

    Great article~

  • Jenn

    Interesting thoughts. I must admit that I have spent the years to learn the answer to “…to know your persistence level is to work on a project and see when you give up.” My degree of persistence in a working project is 2.5 years. I’ve run my own businesses, and worked in a variety of industries and can say without qualm that after 2 years I’m pretty much bored to tears with that activity. Another half a year to find my new direction, and then I lose my persistence ability for that work and move on to something new.

    However, if you ask me as a thought exercise to commit to how long I would persist with a goal (eating healthy, exercising daily, calling Mom once a week, etc) I would give you a much lower estimate. I think my persistence (and perhaps yours too!) in a work capacity is different than in a personal capacity. I will, for example, only exercise daily for 3 months before I give up if there is no positive feedback from the effort.

    Interesting in theory, but I think in practice it may be a different set of numbers that shows up for people.