Two Simple Rules for Progressing at Anything
They’re deceptively straightforward, but if you can follow them, you’ll see the benefits
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To make long-term improvement in anything—from running to writing to eating to gardening—you need to do it consistently. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up, at least not too badly, when you don’t. It’s simple, but not easy.
Rule #1: Do the Thing
This is self-explanatory. If you don’t regularly run, you will not get better at running. Showing up day in and day out; taking small steps to achieve big gains; being unrelenting, consistent, or self-disciplined—whatever you want to call it, it is critical to lasting progress. In a world inundated with self-prescribed hacks, quick fixes, and countless other silver bullets—the majority of which are plentiful on promises yet meager on results—it’s easy to forget the importance of hard work. But even the most talented athlete or the most gifted artist is nothing without pounding the stone. Putting in the work—when you feel like it, and perhaps especially when you don’t—will eventually yield results.
Stephen King said it well in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks…Above all else, be consistent.”
So, yeah, get to work, even when you don’t want to.
Rule #2: Don’t Beat Yourself Up When You Don’t Do the Thing
Doing something for the long haul means you’ll make mistakes and have bad days. This is just how it goes, an unfortunate reality. How you respond when this happens is important.
Beating yourself up is perhaps the most common reaction. It is also the worst.
Freaking out about not doing the thing—or at least not doing it as you planned—is a waste of time and energy. It does nothing to change the past. It feels lousy in the present. And it is not helpful for the future; if anything, it often makes it worse. If you are overly hard on yourself, you may just quit. And even if you don’t, you’ll be apprehensive going forward. Why take a risk or attempt to rise to the next level if the cost of failure is a self-inflicted beatdown? Fear is an awful long-term motivator.
Back in high-school, one of my football coaches would often say, “The key to being a good cornerback is having a short memory.” You are going to get burned every once in a while. The quicker you let go of that, the better.
Having a short memory doesn’t mean you don’t learn from your mistakes. You do. You just don’t dwell on them or get angry. You analyze them. Then you take what is helpful and leave the rest behind.
This kind of self-compassion doesn’t come easy to Type A, highly driven people. If you find yourself being overly hard on yourself, pretend that you’re giving advice to a friend who’s in your situation. What would you say to them? We tend to be a lot kinder and wiser in how we treat our friends versus ourselves.
Mantras can also help. They snap you out of your head and put you back in the present moment. Here is one I like to use with both myself and my coaching clients: This is what is happening right now. I’m doing the best I can.
Doing the thing—whatever it may be—over and over again takes you to hard places. It requires self-discipline and persistence to keep going. Not beating yourself up too badly when you don’t do the thing is what allows you to brush yourself off and get up when you are down. Put them together and what you get is long-term progress.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul and Peak Performance and co-founder of The Growth Equation.