Keep on Keepin’ on: How to persevere and get work done

I’m a swimmer. Swimming laps is one of the few forms of exercise that I can sustain on a regular basis. But I have a slight problem with counting laps. I push a way from the wall and I think in my head one. I get to the next wall and I think two. A little while later I’ll get to a wall and I won’t remember what lap I’m on!

So I’ll try to remember the last number I thought of — then I add one to that. The problem is, I started off counting the lap I was beginning, not the lap I just finished. So when I get to my goal (say 20 laps), I still have one more to go — and that’s assuming I didn’t mess up my counting! But my motivation is shot. I work hard to hit that number— only to realize, when I reach it, I’m not really done.

how to persevere

After I noticed this dilemma in the pool, I started to notice it other places too. Like in my goals for writing, for instance. If I set out to write 3 blog posts, usually about half-way through the first one, it starts to get hard and messy. So I put that one aside and start the second one. I’m excited about it – I feel like it will write itself! An hour later I find myself working on the third post — for the same reason I started the second one! I’ve been working 3 1/2 hours and I have nothing to put up on the blog.

Sound familiar?

Every project, no matter how trivial or important goes through phases. We start out enthusiastic — “This is going to be great!” Fairly quickly we run into some obstacles and realize, “This is harder than I thought…”

When obstacles come our way, we learn how to persevere and feel the rewards of it when we start to getting some traction. “Is that the light at the end of the tunnel?” No, it’s an oncoming train, because those initial obstacles were the easy part. Now that we are really into the project we find the really hard parts, the parts that make us wonder, “Why did I even start working on this?” At this point, quitting seems like the best idea, but we’ve got so much time already invested… This is truly the darkness before the dawn.

Understanding the full curve of these phases means that we can anticipate them; and we can use them to gauge our commitment to and investment in the project.

  • That first burst of enthusiasm is useful to get us over the inertia of beginning any large project. Use that time to fact find, gather data and make some initial failures. It’s the failures that help us to get a better handle on the real work that it’s going to take to make the project a success. Use the early optimism to test the riskiest assumptions. What has to be true in order for you to succeed? Tackle that early.
  • Then there’s the inevitable obstacles. Along the way we find out all the places where our assumptions were wrong, and all the things we forgot to consider. Good! This is the data we need to make a better assessment of what it’s going to take to finish the project. Don’t just barrel through these early obstacles — instead re-assess the project in light of them! With these challenges in mind, does it make sense to persist? How do we know how to persevere and when to let it go?
  • If you choose to continue on you may start to get into a rhythm; you’ll feel like you have traction. This is where most of the work that will lead to your success happens. Ride that wave! This is where you will be most productive.
  • Somehow, no matter how productive we are, there are those issues we’ve put off, or worked around that finally have to be addressed. They may be thorny, or risky, or just unknown. But to finish the project you have to face them. Though you thought about quitting when you encountered those first obstacles, it’s at this point — when you’ve spent much of your will power already — that the thoughts of quitting start to look attractive. This is where many great projects die. You feel like the worst is in front of you, when, in fact, you are 99% of the way there.
  • When you’ve gotten through these last obstacles you will finally start to see progress, and success. Of course, the real world isn’t this linear; there may be further successes, as well as challenges, as you keep going. But the progress you make after defeating the big problems will likely fuel your continued efforts.

In school we got partial credit for showing our work. In business it only counts when it’s DONE. (Click to Tweet)

Knowing that these ups-and-downs are coming, and working with them instead of fighting them, can help us to get more of our work finished. How have you learned how to persevere?


Photo credit: DVIDSHUB

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