Momentum: The Compound Interest of Self-Discipline7 min read

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Do you feel that, in some areas of your life, you put in a lot of effort yet things never seem to improve? You might have clocked in hundreds of hours in your side business, or in learning a new language, or in transforming your health, yet you feel that progress is slow, and easily lost.

Here are some other examples:

  • You’ve practiced meditation for ten years, and yet the quality of your practice is not much different as compared to year one
  • You’ve got close to your desired weight multiple times, but then reverted back to your baseline very quickly
  • You’ve tried to bring more positivity into your relationship by practicing appreciation, yet the old habits of complaining and criticism seem to constantly overpower your efforts
  • You’ve tried practicing affirmations to undo years of conditioning and negative self-talk, yet you don’t feel very different from when you started

The reasons for this could be that your efforts are going in the wrong direction, or that you are using an ineffective approach, technique, or strategy. Yet often the problem is not in what you are doing, but in how consistently you are doing it.

In other words: you are taking steps, but not building momentum.

These are two different things. Whenever you take action toward your goals or values, you are taking a step forward—this is what we call a +1 in Mindful Self-Discipline. Momentum, on the other hand, is the accumulated energy or power behind your steps. It makes it easier for you to make further progress. It multiplies the outputs of your efforts.

Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.

— Alfred A. Montapert
Mind the Gap: The Magic of Momentum

Unlike what most people think, the main ingredient of momentum is not the number of steps you take in a given direction, but how close together they are. The shorter the gap, the faster you will build momentum. If the gap is too long, it will never happen.

Suppose you want to boil some water. You need to leave your kettle on the heat for five minutes for the water to boil. With every extra second, more heat is built up on top of the heat already accumulated. But what happens if you leave it on for three minutes, then turn it off and come back to it the next week for another three more minutes? You may do that every week in your whole life, and the water will never boil.

In this example, the quantity of steps is irrelevant, because the gap is so big that the previous steps are no longer valid. After a weeklong break in the process, the water completely cools down to the baseline so you are starting the process all over again. You have lost momentum.

Taking positive action on your goals is always a step forward, but it’s not momentum unless it’s consistent enough. A step forward is a self-disciplined action—it takes effort, purpose, and willpower. Momentum, on the other hand, is how consistently disciplined you are over time.

Momentum is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and enigmatic forces of success.

— Darren Hardy

Let’s say you want to learn French. Every time you study French you are taking a step forward, but you are only gathering momentum if you do it daily, without a break, for a certain period of time. Otherwise, the bulk of your next study session will be spent in recovering the progress you lost due to being out of touch with that skill for too long.

The same happens if you spend twenty minutes every morning training your mind on the art of focus, and spend all the other hours of your day cultivating distraction. The gap between your focus exercises is too long; even worse, your gap is spent in a way that negates the effects of your training, as you are taking steps in the opposite direction. So when you get to your meditation cushion the following morning, you are not building up on your efforts of yesterday—you’re starting again from scratch.

The applications of this idea are endless. Chances are, you are not making the desired progress in an important area of your life because you are not applying this understanding to the situation.

How Much Momentum Do You Need?

Understanding the need for building momentum is not difficult. What can be challenging is knowing how much action you need to take, what is the maximum gap between the steps, and how long you need to keep that pace to build real momentum. This varies from activity to activity, and from person to person.

Here are some examples to help you see these elements in action.

  • Playing one minute of piano ten times a day is not as effective of a practice as having a ten-minute daily training. The gap between steps is short (👍🏻), but the steps themselves are too small to compound (👎🏻).
  • Running eight hours once a month will not be as good for your body as running two hours once a week. Meditating an hour twice a week is not as effective as meditating for twenty minutes every day. In both cases, the action is big (👍🏻), but the gap is too long for it to compound (👎🏻).
  • Decluttering your home for five minutes every day may be a great way to start the habit, but it won’t make any real difference if every day you create more mess than you can ever tidy in five minutes. The gap is short (👍🏻), but the actions are too small given the nature of the challenge (👎🏻).
  • Intensely trying different marketing strategies one after another, for short periods of time, may never yield the desired results. Here, the steps may be big (👍🏻), and the gap short (👍🏻), but the action is not kept for long enough to make a real difference (👎🏻).

My Kung Fu master, Chan Kowk Wai, taught that we need to repeat a given routine a thousand times before we become fully proficient at it. Well, we can get to a thousand repetitions by practicing the routine once a day for nearly three years, or we can get there by practicing it ten times a day for a hundred days. Do both of these lead to the same level of proficiency? No.

In the former case, it takes you ten days of gap to accumulate ten repetitions, while in the latter it happens all in a single day. The effort is much more concentrated, and therefore the compound effect is much greater.

Maintaining Momentum

What about keeping momentum? How long of a gap can we get away with before we start moving backwards? That also depends on the person and the nature of the activity. It also depends on how long you have done it for.

If you have exercised daily for a year, completely stopping for a week is not going to really hurt you (provided it doesn’t snowball); but if you have only exercised regularly for three weeks, stopping one week could mean that you have lost all the momentum you had so far gathered.

One day without training, ten days to recover.

— Chan Kowk Wai

In some skills, once we have gathered enough momentum and reached a certain level, we can stop practicing it and we will never really lose it. If you have really learned how to ride a bike, you may spend a decade without touching a bicycle, and you’ll still know how to do it. The same is true about speaking a foreign language once we have spent enough time in full immersion. For other skills, once you have reached a critical mass, you can maintain it lifelong through minimum effort.

The Art of Building Momentum

Momentum is even more important than action, because it’s what translates into real change. Action that doesn’t lead to momentum is unlikely to be sustainable—as it doesn’t get easier over time—and it’s unlikely to be transformational, as it doesn’t take advantage of the compound effect.

Achieving momentum in anything is about having the right type of action steps, spaced by short gaps, and kept for long enough so that you reach a tipping point. Some activities have a very short cycle of momentum—meaning you get to momentum quickly, and lose quickly. Others have a longer cycle.

Determining what you need to do get momentum, and how much momentum you need, is not always straightforward, and we may never have full clarity about it. Yet one thing is certain: if in any given area of your life you are moving in circles, you know you have a momentum issue. You are not gathering enough of it to break through your current challenge.

Assuming you are taking the right type of action, if you are not getting the results, try one of these three things:

  • increase the action
  • diminish the gaps
  • persevere for longer

Increasing the action could be spending more time on that activity—such as decluttering for half an hour instead of five minutes, or doing one hour of exercise instead of twenty minutes. Or it could mean improving the quality of your action—such as meditating with greater determination, being more focused during your studies, or having a stronger intention to change your negative self-talk.

Diminishing the gaps is pretty clear: practice more often and more consistently. Consider making it a non-negotiable part of your day by including it into your morning routine or making a Never Zero commitment.

Persevering for longer is the final piece. At times you are doing everything right, and the only problem is that you have unrealistic expectations about how long it will take. Reconnect with your aspiration—with why your goals matter to you—, as this will help you have the patience needed to stay with the process until the end.

What habit, goal, or area of your life needs more momentum?

Which of these three do you need to work on?


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