How to feel more grateful when your progress seems slow

Does the slow pace of your progress bother you?

When you want to learn a difficult skill, you will inevitably hit periods when your progress appears slow.

There are several reasons for this.

First, progress does not happen linearly. You might go weeks or months without measurable progress. And then you might have an afternoon in which you achieve all of your goals, out of nowhere.

(Although measurable progress, or apparent progress, is not the only important type of progress. Improving your mindset can make a world of difference too. But let’s not get too far off topic.)

The second reason why your progress might appear slow is that you are not a static, unbiased observer. As you get better at whatever skill you’re developing, you are also becoming a better critic. The higher your skill level, the more potential improvements you’ll notice. When you were less skilled, you simply could not notice these potential improvements. Another way to look at this is that, as you learn, you’re raising your standards for what is a “good” performance.

Third, when you first learn a skill, your ability level is low. The learning curve is usually shaped such that you can make the biggest gains with relatively little effort early on. For example, when you’re learning to speak in public, you can fairly quickly learn to improve your posture, to wear clothing that flatters you on stage, and to apply basic structure to your speech. It might take you five or ten speeches to master those basics. But learning how to make your audience laugh or when to pause for dramatic effect takes more time and practice. You will not develop those skills as quickly, so when you’re learning more advanced sub-skills, your progress, if you had to put a number to your overall performance, is slower.

Feeling that your progress is slow, though, can hurt your motivation. Early on, you learned a lot and got better every time you practiced. Now, you might practice for a month and not be able to tell the difference between your performance today and your performance a month ago.

How can you stay motivated when your apparent progress has slowed down?

One simple way to maintain your motivation is to generate some gratitude for the progress you’ve already made. You cannot conjure gratitude out of nowhere, but you can pay attention to certain things that will generate that feeling of gratitude for you.

In particular, take a look at how Past You performed.

And when I write Past You, I mean more like One Year Ago You than Three Weeks Ago You.

For example, a few years ago I suffered from pretty serious burnout. At one point, I could not clean the house for half an hour without panicking. I remember those moments now, but I forget some of the details. When I read in my journal and see what I wrote back then about my struggles to deal with basic daily tasks (such as deciding where to go for a cup of coffee), I feel tremendously grateful.

I still have problems these days, but they are better problems.

To use another example, I sometimes think that I am not getting much better at bouldering, despite climbing for several hours two or three times a week. But, now and then, I ask a friend to film me when I go climbing, so I can go back and look at myself climbing a route or problem a year ago. When I compare my skill now to my skill a year ago, there is marked improvement.

Incidentally, being able to look at (or “look at”) Past You to feel more grateful is a good reason to record yourself sometimes. For some skills, it will be obvious how to record your performance: you could film yourself playing a sport or speaking in public, for example. For other things, such as when you’re developing a new mindset, you might record your thoughts in a journal.

That means you have two homework tasks today:

  1. Look at yourself from some time ago. Can you tell that you have improved a lot since then?
  2. Record your current level of skill at something you’re looking to develop in the coming year. Write down what you’re struggling with, or record yourself.

Let me know how it goes! 🙂

Yours,

— Peter

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