Why is it that some people stick with their habits, whether practising jokes, writing their book or working out while most of us struggle to stay motivated? Scientists have been studying this question for many years.
How One Man Did It
In 1955, Disneyland had just opened in Anaheim, California, and a 10-year-old boy walked in and asked for a job.
Employment laws were loose back then, and the boy managed to land a position selling guidebooks for 50 cents each.
Within a year, he had transitioned to Disney’s magic shop, where he learned tricks from the older employees. He experimented with jokes and tried out simple routines on visitors. Soon he discovered that what he loved was not performing magic but performing in general.
He set his sights on becoming a comedian. Beginning in his teenage years, He started performing in little clubs around Los Angeles. The crowds were small, and his act was short. He was rarely on stage for more than five minutes. Most of the people in the crowd were too busy drinking or talking with friends to pay attention. One night he literally delivered his standup routine to an empty club. It wasn’t glamorous work, but there was no doubt he was getting better and his first routines would only last one or two minutes.
By high school, his material had expanded into a five-minute act, and a few years later, a 10-minute show. At 19, he was performing weekly for 20 minutes at a time. He had to read three poems during the show just to make the routine long enough, but his skills continued to progress. He spent another decade experimenting, adjusting and practising.
He took a job as a television writer, and gradually, he was able to land his own appearances on talk shows. By the mid-1970s he had worked his way into being a regular guest on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Finally, after 15 years of work, the young man rose to fame. He toured 60 cities in 63 days, then 72 cities in 80 days, then 85 cities in 90 days. He had 18,695 people attend one show in Ohio, another 45,000 tickets were sold for his three-day show in New York. He catapulted to the top of his genre and became one of the most successful comedians of his time.
His name is Steve Martin.
Martin’s story offers a fascinating perspective on what it takes to stick with habits for the long run. Comedy is not for the timid. It is hard to imagine a situation that would strike fear into the hearts of more people than performing alone on stage and failing to get a single laugh. And yet Martin faced this fear every week for 18 years.
In his words: “10 years spent learning, four years spent refining and four years as a wild success.”
How to stay focused when you get bored working on your goals
What’s the difference between the best athletes, and everyone else?
What do really successful people do that most don’t?
In a conversation between an elite coach and a retired baseball player at the gym, the coach mentioned the factors you might expect – genetics, block, talent – but then he said something unexpected: “At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”
People talk about getting amped up to work on their goals, whether it’s business or sports or art, and you hear people say things like it all comes down to passion, or you have to really want it. These soundbites – repeated ad nauseum on social media to the extent they brainwash us – lead us to feel depressed when we lose focus or motivation because we think that successful people have some bottomless reserve of passion, but this coach was saying that really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else.
The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite their feelings of boredom.
Mastery requires practice, but the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes. The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom.
The challenge we face is hard-wired into our psychology – we have a bias for new things. We like stimulation and repetition creates feelings of boredom and we drift away from the work into inaction. Just look at how social media has leveraged this constant dopamine hit for newness into a scrolling addiction!
In psychology, this is known as a variable reward. Slot machines are the most common real-world example. A gambler hits the jackpot every now and then but not in a predictable interval. The pace of the reward varies. This variance leads to the greatest spike of dopamine, enhances memory recall and accelerates habit formation.
But when it comes to work we need to do, once the initial gains subside and the dopamine hit wears off from our early gains into working on this new thing – whether that’s the new screenplay, getting fit, or whatever new long-term thing you’re working towards – we slip one day. We justify it as being OK – one day won’t hurt. Right?
One day becomes two, two becomes seven, and before you know it all progress has stopped and you’re back to square one. Or we switch that diet to a new one, or the workout to a new routine, or look for new training that will get us that new hit we seek. We look outside for stimulation to create the results which we need to create from within. We seek variable rewards.
Variable rewards or not, no habit will stay interesting forever. At some point, everyone faces the same challenge on the journey of self-improvement. You have to fall in love with boredom. We all have goals that we would like to achieve and dreams that we would like to fulfil, but it doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at. If you only do the work when it’s convenient, or exciting, then you’ll never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results.
I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting. When you start a business, there will be days when you don’t feel like showing up, when you’re at the gym there will be sets that you don’t feel like finishing, when it’s time to write there will be days when you don’t feel like typing.
Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what’s important to them and work toward it with purpose, amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life. Professionals take action, even when the mood isn’t right. They might not enjoy it, but they find a way to put the reps in. The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.
And here’s a trick that might help …
While there’s still much to learn, one of the most consistent findings is that the way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of “just manageable” difficulty. The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty. This zone is known as the Goldilocks Rule.
The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities, not too hard, not too easy, just right. Martin’s comedy career is an excellent example of the Goldilocks Rule in practice. Each year, he expanded his comedy routine, but only by a minute or two. He was always adding new material, but he also kept a few jokes that were guaranteed to get laughs. There are just enough victories to keep him motivated and just enough mistakes to keep him working hard.
When you’re starting a new habit. It’s important to keep the behaviour as easy as possible so you can stick with it, even when the conditions aren’t perfect. Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged, and if you hit the Goldilocks zone just right, you can achieve a flow state (aka Gnosis or Ekstasis). A flow state is the experience of being “in the zone” and fully immersed in an activity.
Scientists have found that to achieve a state of flow, the task must be roughly 4% beyond your current ability. In reality, it’s not possible to quantify what makes an action 4% harder than the last, but the essence of the Goldilocks Rule remains.
Working on challenges of just manageable difficulty seems crucial for maintaining motivation. Improvement requires a delicate balance. You need to regularly search for challenges that push you to your edge while continuing to make enough progress to stay motivated. Behaviours need to remain novel for them to stay attractive and satisfying. Without variety, we get bored and boredom is perhaps the greatest villain on the quest for self-improvement.
I wish you success on your path to greatness!
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