Art of Sustaining at Things

This article is the second part of the Art of Things series. If you haven’t read the first one yet, I’d advise you to check Art of Starting Things first.

Background

I never really planned on writing this article. The original idea was to publish Art of Starting Things and move on.

“Man, why stop there?”, said my Aussie friend. “Starting is not enough. You have to write about Sustaining and Finishing things”.

And honestly, it got me thinking. It’s a fact really. Starting anything new is hard enough, but sustaining at it … now, we’re talking pure art here.

If you haven’t read the previous article (Art of Starting Things), you should probably check that one first. But if you’re having issues sustaining at whatever it is that you started – well, you’re on the right place.

Real-life story

“I’ll probably close my blog”, said a friend of mine.

This was way unexpected really. He recently published an article that, within an HOUR, ended up on the front page of HackerNews! This, in return, generated over 12k views in a single day! For comparison, I’ve been blogging since June and my most popular article generated around 100 views in total. What he achieved in a day I haven’t been able to do within 8 months. Not even close.

Naturally, I was perplexed at this. Why would he do something like that? He obviously has a gift for writing, he picked a perfect niche as well and some of the new articles that he announced will probably skyrocket over the first one.

“It’s just that I’m not feeling motivated about it. I don’t feel the same excitement and it feels more like a chore now.”

Motivation is a spark, not a fuel

This, in all honesty, was one of the biggest game changers for me. I was always under the impression that you need to be motivated in order to keep doing things. Be it a new diet, starting to exercise, or just – blogging. My impression was as simple as – I have to be motivated in order to keep doing it. Because, what’s the point if I’m not motivated and excited, right? Why keep doing it?

Now, I can’t really pinpoint the exact moment when or how I came to the realization that it might not be like that. I think it was due to a combination of podcasts and books that I happened to be listening to and reading at the time. But somehow it hit me. I had that “aha!” moment. The moment of infinite wisdom. The big revelation. Motivation sucks; aim for discipline.

Motivation is really good to get you started. It’s great as a spark, but it’s terrible as a fuel!

Let me tell you something as raw as it gets – if I were to work out only when I felt like working out, I’d probably be working out once in every 3 months. I kid you not. Every single morning when I get up, the last thing that I feel like doing is putting my shoes on and going to a gym. Literally. I’d rather eat a bee. Doubly so when it’s damn cold outside!

Waking up at 6:45AM? The same. Blogging? Same. Eating that chicken breast day after day after day? Same. You get a gist, right?

So, one might ask, and righteously so – why the hell do I keep doing it if I’m not enjoying it? Turns out that the answer has a formal name: delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, describes the process that the subject undergoes when the subject resists the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later

Source: Wikipedia

That’s as simple as it gets. It’s all about making a smaller effort now (e.g. deciding to work out or blog even if not feeling like doing it) in order to collect a greater reward in the future (e.g. health benefits or excitement from publishing a new article).

There’s really no magic here. And yet, one might wonder – but how do you keep making those small efforts if your whole body is screaming at you, trying to prevent you from doing it? Again, the answer is really simple – discipline.

Aim for discipline

Look, the bad news is that your brain will ALWAYS win over you. It just has an advantage that you will never be able to beat with a willpower. ALWAYS. Yeah, motivation might come as a superman and beat it temporarily, but your brain will always get you over time. It plays a long-term game and you are not destined to win here.

So, what do you do if you can’t win? Well, either you give up, which is what pretty much everybody will do. Or, you cheat!

Discipline is the best way to cheat your brain. Not even the best, but, probably THE ONLY WAY to win that game. Yep. Seriously.

How do you do that? Well, it’s actually really simple. You keep doing whatever it is that you wanted to do. In my case, when I wake up, even though my whole body is screaming at me, I just have my routine where I take a shower, wash my teeth, pick my bag and … go to the gym. I don’t really “think” whether I want to do it or not. I just do it. Automatically. Day after day after day.

Same is true for blogging. I don’t wait to feel hyped about blogging. I just pick a day or time when I’ll be able to blog and … I just do it. I ignore whatever my brain wants and I just start hitting those keys.

And here’s the best part — once you get over the initial “scream”, it becomes easier. You don’t even remember that you didn’t feel like doing it in the first place. And the outcome? You just worked out, wrote an article or went by with another day of eating clean. Congrats! The delay has passed and the gratification will kick in. And you know what? That gratification is way better then the one you would have felt if you opted for an “instant” instead of “delayed” one 😉

You don’t have to FEEL like doing it. Just do it.

I just want you to remember this really. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions that we have.

Whenever you feel like NOT doing something, just stop thinking and do it. You can thank me later!

Some useful advice

Keep it at 85%

There was a study that they run on professional sprinters. First, they were instructed to run 30 meters but very loosely, without any tension, but at 85% effort. They weren’t told their time. Then, they were instructed to run the same 30 meters but this time giving their 100%. Suffice to say that, in almost every single case, the first number was way better than second.

Point being — unless you are doing a once-in-a-while performance, you should keep your effort at 85%. This is the only way to sustain long-term at anything.

Keep it simple

There is a principle in programming called KISS, which stands for Keep It Simple Stupid.

We tend to believe that overcomplicating stuff is the only way to do it properly. For example, if we’re talking diet – we believe that making ultra-complex food plan is the way to go. If we’re talking exercise – the only way to advance is to go with super complex plans. You get the gist, right?

This achieves only ONE thing — we either never start or we give up rather soonish.

As the saying goes – don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Keep it simple stupid.

Discipline equals freedom

This is a saying used by Jocko Willink extensively and, frankly, I’ve heard of people having it tattooed as well.

Sounds like rubbish but there’s a truth behind it. By being disciplined and knowing WHEN you do things, you actually get MORE free time to play with. Give it a thought 😉

If you’re not feeling like doing it today, do it now and rest tomorrow

Another one by aforementioned Jocko and, frankly, another game changer for me. I’ll paraphrase his words: “If I’m not feeling like exercising today, I’ll go and exercise and, if I feel restless tomorrow, I’ll skip it then”.

This is really nothing more than a brain hack. The truth is – 9/10 times you won’t be feeling restless tomorrow and you’ll keep doing it.

Conclusion

Main problem is that we often confuse motivation with discipline. If we’re not motivated to keep doing it, we’ll just not do it. This is wrong. Motivation is a spark to get you started, but discipline is a fuel that keeps you going.

Don’t overcomplicate stuff. Keeping it simple is the only way to keep doing anything long-term. It’s usually a marathon, not a sprint.

Useful resources

  • Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss – this is my spark. I usually re-read this book when I need motivation to embark on something new. Here’s my review of it.
  • Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink — this is my fuel. This book changed my view on many things, one of them being – discipline.
  • JRE #1080 and JRE #1212 are two podcasts with David Goggins that I use as an everyday fuel. I re-listen to them ALMOST every morning when I work out.
  • JRE #1417 is another source of fuel that I use when I’m not feeling like listening to David Goggins.
  • Living with a SEAL by Jesse Itzler might come as a surprise but I found this one to be yet another amazing spark. Here’s my review of it.
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth came as a recommendation from a good friend of mine. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely in my “to read” list for the next few months.
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear – haven’t read this one either, but people swear on it
  • How to beat procrastination – another amazing article by Tim Urban from WaitButWhy.com

If you liked this article, you might also like:

If you want to stay up to date about what’s happening on this blog, you may befriend me on LinkedIn, follow my posts on Instagram and Twitter, or subscribe to RSS feed. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Art of Sustaining at Things

  1. Fantastic post as usual, Mihailo.
    I feel a lot of productivity has been lost due to our culture that focuses on motivation, rather than discipline. “We are looking for a motivated engineer” is typical in job postings, “he is such a talented and motivated kid” is a common feedback from teachers.

    Discipline and motivation are both means to produce a pushing force that allows you to gains speed, therefore traveling larger distances in your goals. Motivation is strong but unpredictable and, in your own words, fantastic to get through that initial “static friction”. But if motivation is the only force relied upon, then eventually you will slow down, get back to zero speed, and having to deal again with that initial static friction. Discipline is less powerful, but its reliable and constant push helps build speed over time (which we can think of as ‘routine’), which allows to travel very large distances with increasingly less effort, as you only need to provide the force to keep the momentum going, and never deal again with the initial friction.

    This is obviously easier said than done, waking up early to go to the gym will always always suck…

    1. Man, thanks a lot for an honest and detailed reply!!

      >> I feel a lot of productivity has been lost due to our culture that focuses on motivation, rather than discipline. “We are looking for a motivated engineer” is typical in job postings, “he is such a talented and motivated kid” is a common feedback from teachers.

      You know, this is really interesting. I never actually gave a thought to this. I think you might have a very valid point here. Maybe you just inspired me to do another blog post in the future. Interesting, really.

      >> Discipline and motivation are both means to produce a pushing force that allows you to gains speed, therefore traveling larger distances in your goals. Motivation is strong but unpredictable and, in your own words, fantastic to get through that initial “static friction”. But if motivation is the only force relied upon, then eventually you will slow down, get back to zero speed, and having to deal again with that initial static friction. Discipline is less powerful, but its reliable and constant push helps build speed over time (which we can think of as ‘routine’), which allows to travel very large distances with increasingly less effort, as you only need to provide the force to keep the momentum going, and never deal again with the initial friction.

      Perfectly said, really. I actually do believe (or, well, hope) that many of us are not aware of the fact that you (usually) need motivation to jumpstart anything, but then you need discipline. So, I do hope that by at least being aware of it, anyone reading this would benefit in a way. Would you agree on that?

      >> This is obviously easier said than done, waking up early to go to the gym will always always suck…

      Man, absolutely. But as I said above, my theory is that once you ARE aware of it, at least it shouldn’t come as a surprise and you should be prepared. For example – you should be AWARE that, after waking up early day after day, eventually your motivation will plummet. But this is EXPECTED. You have to expect this. And once it does happen – you MUST keep pushing through because THAT’S THE ONLY WAY. It might sound a bit harsh, but I really see it that way.

      Motivation is, again, from my POV, all about brain chemistry. And as we all know, our chemistry varies throughout a day; and it does so A LOT. So relying on something which is 100% unreliable is, well, not the best thing to do, right? 🙂

      Anyway, thanks a lot for such a long reply man! Really appreciated! I’m working on a final article in the series now – Art of Finishing Things. Hope you’ll enjoy that one too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top