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Executive Function: Persistence

What motivates us is shaped by all the various experiences that shape who we are. So when it comes to persevering through ambivalence, uncertainty, and inner resistance, there are few shortcuts to genuine self-knowledge. If you’re struggling to study for your plumbing licensure, barely keeping your eyes open as you memorize ventilating piping and fixture regulations (or whatever is on such an exam), the answer may not be to fight through. The answer may be to quit. Maybe plumbing isn’t for you. If you don’t want to be a plumber, don’t be a plumber! We need competent, fulfilled plumbers. We need a competent and fulfilled you. Maybe we don’t need you to be a plumber.

Assuming you are trying to do something you genuinely care about, there’s still likely to be a struggle. I’ve found in working with students and by observing myself, many temperaments respond very differently to motivation. When exercising, for example, some people find it motivating to watch mile-markers as they pass, to track how far they’ve come and how far they have yet to go: I’ll get there in four minutes … I’ll get there in three minutes … I’ll get there in two … Fantastic! I find countdowns like this brain-numbing and demotivating — and that’s ok too. I need to meet exercise challenges with an accepting detachment: right now life is sweaty and uncomfortable, but it may not be this way forever.

1. View Your Processes as Experiments

It’s very common for students to have no idea how they work best and to have accepted a kind of inevitability to their work habits. There’s a fixed quality to their efforts that could benefit from some creative problem solving. When trying to focus on a project, what happens if you set a 30-minute timer and leave it in another room? What happens if you shift your sleep schedule earlier and work in the morning? If you switch from coffee to tea? If you work outside or in public?

Use trial and error, and maybe even document what approaches are helpful by jotting down a note in your planner for next time. Pay particular attention to when things go really well — or really poorly. Some of us need to work in 3-hour bursts and others in disciplined 20-minute increments, and some of us need to do a little of both, depending on the day or season. Lean into what works, and don’t believe there’s only one way to stick to your project.

2. Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Someone Else

Most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never dare or wish to talk to anyone else. If someone in our lives is struggling to maintain momentum towards their goals, we likely wouldn’t criticize them for being lazy or inconsistent: we’d express curiosity about how they operate — “Oh, what’s going on?” — listen to their complaints and fears, assume they’re doing their best, and ask what we could do to help. Extend the same courtesy to yourself!

3. Become Comfortable with Discomfort

This is easier said than done. I find this idea related to delayed gratification, and often easier to approach negatively. When I procrastinate or indulge myself in a short-term distraction, I often believe that I’m going to enjoy it far more than I actually do. Don’t get me wrong! We’re clearly in a golden age of serial storytelling, and I watch my fair share of television. But it can be easy to think that Netflix is going to lighten my grouchy mood, or relieve me of boredom, or help me feel comfortable and relaxed … and it just doesn’t do that. If being severe with yourself about some distracting habit — for ease, let’s keep it on media – isn’t working, try this: the next time you play Fortnite, just say to yourself what you think you’re going to get out of it, and then observe whether you actually are getting what you want from it. You may find there’s a good bit of discomfort in your comfort, and this can help you see the long-term comfort in the discomfort of hard work.

Working on our goals can certainly be exhilarating … but not always. Sometimes, we can think fun is better than it is, or that hard work will be worse than it actually is. Whatever our tactics of self-motivation, they will be effective only if grounded in reality.

4. Stop When You’re on a Roll

I’m ambivalent about Hemingway as a writer and as a person, but I think his approach to work is sound: “Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” When we can leverage our enthusiasm to get back into the work, we don’t need to be severe in policing ourselves.

5. Come Back to the Path

This idea isn’t backed by some public intellectual or deep body of research … but is a hard-earned one for me. I know that at times, I’ve wasted a lot of energy worrying about falling off the path to my goals. Then, once I take a short-term benefit (donuts!) over a long-term goal (health!), I’m more likely to do so again … after all, I’ve already “fallen short.” Very few of us will execute our goals without error. Don’t feel doomed to failure; instead, accept that you may face some setbacks. Give yourself the grace you would extend to someone else, square with reality, try a new way, and return to your plan.

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