Building Your Persistence Levels

Yesterday, I wrote about discovering your persistence levels.  Commitment, I argued, isn’t the same as motivation.  While motivation is the push to seek rewards and results, persistence is the ability to continue even when those rewards and results don’t appear.

Persistence is important along with motivation because most goals have vacuums.  Vacuums where you get zero positive feedback or encouragement towards a goal.  Even if you have motivation, if you lack persistence, you won’t be able to make it through the largest of these vacuums.

Since persistence isn’t the same as motivation, I think it is built up in a fundamentally different way.  It’s a different mental ability, and needs different training.  Doing the bench press won’t make you run faster, and running a marathon won’t give you large biceps.  Building the mental asset of persistence takes a different approach.

    Approaching “Forever”

In yesterday’s article, I discussed how the ultimate level of persistence is when you are willing to continue forever towards a goal, even if you never get any results.  This demonstrates the difference between motivation and persistence.  Motivation fails if you foresee the possibility of never reaching your goal.  Why bother trying if you’ll never get there?

When you completely remove positive feedback, you’re left with only two sources of momentum to push you forward.  The first is the intrinsic value you draw from the activity.  If you’re passionate about something, it is far easier to persist, even if the results don’t come.  I doubt Nelson Mandela could have become president of South Africa if he decided arbitrarily that after 20 years of prison, he’d just stop caring about removing the apartheid.

The only other source of drive is regret from the alternative.  Even you don’t receive feedback, the pain you’d feel from not reaching your goal is less than the pain of giving up and wondering whether you would have made it.  To quote Helen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  If you have a similar attitude, that regret over lost possibilities might keep you focused in the complete lack of feedback.

These two drives are what I’d collectively call persistence.  The drive that comes from intrinsically enjoying the path towards an end, and the drive that comes from feeling that you’re doing the best option available, even if you don’t make it.

Motivation can is fueled with positive reinforcement.  If I have a successful month with my business, that is incredibly motivating for me to continue going.  However, if I stagnate for a few months, or even start to recede, my motivation will drop considerably.  That’s when I need to rely on those twin back-up drives called persistence.

Building Persistence

Enough talk about what persistence is, how do you build it?  Part of persistence is just improving your self-discipline.  Increasing the level of what you can resist mentally and emotionally before you collapse.  While self-discipline is important in the short-term, I don’t think it is as critical for goals that last years and decades.

Instead, I think the way to improve persistence is to enhance the two forces that make it up.  Either by increasing your intrinsic enjoyment of the pursuit, or increasing your resolution that giving up is unbearable.

Finding Intrinsic Enjoyment

The first step to this is easy, don’t work on goals you can’t enjoy.  Don’t start a business if you don’t like the customers.  Don’t start a training regimen if you hate the gym.  Don’t enter a faculty if you don’t like the subject.

The second step is to find ways to enjoy the work, regardless of the feedback.  In many ways, this can be as simple as becoming aware of what you’re doing.  It can be easy to become so obsessed with feedback (i.e. motivated) that you completely lose sight of what you’re doing in the current moment.

If I had a bad month at the gym, where my strength levels declined, that might start to cloud out the fact that I actually like going to the gym.  The same is true of learning, running this business or my social life.

The solution is to switch your focus back on the tasks and let the results fade out of your thinking.  Get back to focusing on what you’re actually doing, and enjoying it, instead of obsessing about the numbers.  Focusing on numbers can be important for results, but that’s only when you’re actively making a new plan.  When you’re actually working, it’s usually better to focus on the work and forget the outcomes.

    Avoiding the Alternative

The alternate way to boost your persistence is to accept that the alternative, to you, is less desirable.  I’ve written previously, that my goal is to run an online-based business full-time.  Only recently have I started to approach that goal.  In the past, there were many months when I completely lacked positive feedback that I was going in the right direction.

During that motivational crisis, the thing that helped me persist was that I knew struggling at this goal was better than the alternative of giving up.  I knew that I would always be driven towards the goal, so it was better to work towards and fail, than it was to sit back and wonder if I would have succeeded.

This approach may not sound too inspirational, but it works.  When you’re facing a dry-spell of motivation, it can be hard to summon up the optimism to believe things will get better soon.  But you can always compare the alternatives of giving up entirely with continuing through adversity.

I started this discussion yesterday, by referencing an article Cal Newport wrote about the danger of starting without commitment.  Since most worthwhile goals will have large gaps without feedback, it’s absolutely essential that your engines are running on more than just enthusiasm.  Persistence is the back-up fuel that can get you through the vacuums.

  • Sara at On Simplicity

    Intrinsic enjoyment definitely works better for me than just avoiding the alternative. It also helps if I allow my attention on a goal or project to ebb and flow naturally. I work like crazy when I’m into it, and then let myself back off when I’m not. That way, the all-or-nothingness is taken out of the equation.

    I love the comparison to back-up fuel; that’s really what it comes down to in the end.

  • Laurie

    I’m all for intrinsic enjoyment to get things done. When I’m working on anything that brings me pleasure / happiness / satisfaction, the more likely I am to do it and do it well – it also makes getting up in the morning easier. It’s true when you say ‘don’t work on goals you can’t enjoy.’ Not only are they harder to achieve, but also they take you away from the goals you would enjoy working towards.

  • Aatash

    The reason I really connect with your 2 persistence articles is that I have noticed that I reached the most success on my goals when I was willing to work for a long time with no positive feedback or reward. It was when I didn’t become too dependent on the results when I actually started to get them. Great article 🙂

  • Myth SilverStar

    Although, this is an old article I just wanted to say that it is thoughtfully written.

    I now see why I find somethings easier to do in my job than others. My job basically consists of two parts – research and programming.

    When I am programming I tend to be very focused and productive, but when I am doing analysis/research I am very inefficient. It frustrates me because deep down I enjoy research.

    I have thought about why I behave like this and the answer is that programming is a job where there is a lot of a feedback. You write a program and either it works or it does not – and if it does not you are strongly motivated to make it work – even if that means working 24 hrs, without eating or sleeping.

    On the other hand in research you may wait months and sometimes even years to see a result. After 2 hrs at your desk, one might still not have understood a single technical paragraph you started out very motivated to understand.. I think at this point the brain just decides to take a vacation for the next few hours.. or sometimes even for the rest of the day. Of course eventually the next day you tackle it again, because it is hard to consider the alternative of giving up … but the fact is that one should have returned to the task much much earlier, for example after a half-hour break.

    So the question is when engaged in a zero-feedback task how to shorten/manage the breaks you take (that is take 1/2-1 hr break instead of 6hrs)

  • Shruthi M

    I can’t even begin to tell you how you have shaped my life Scott. I’ve been following your website for years, and literally, what you do is beyond public service. You’re changing lives. As you can see, I revisit some of your old articles regularly, and it astounds me the kind of clarity and vision you had at such a young age. Kudos to you buddy! And keep changing the world with the awesomeness that is you!
    Cheers !

  • Shruthi M

    I can’t even begin to tell you how you have shaped my life Scott. I’ve been following your website for years, and literally, what you do is beyond public service. You’re changing lives. As you can see, I revisit some of your old articles regularly, and it astounds me the kind of clarity and vision you had at such a young age. Kudos to you buddy! And keep changing the world with the awesomeness that is you!
    Cheers !

  • Patrick

    Hey Myth SilverStar, it’s been many years since the article and since your comment. Any updates on how to handle your situation? As I am almost in the exact same boat.