I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation lately.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that in less than a week, I’m going to be running for my life in order to avoid being devoured by a swarm of flesh-eating zombies.
Stick with me, I’ll be coming back to this.
I bring up motivation because the process of training for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse reminded me a lot of what it was like at the beginning of my journey to get better with women. Which is a bit of an odd comparison but it makes sense when you think about it.
You see, everything is easy and exciting at the very beginning of any project; it’s all new and shiny and full of potential. Your head is swimming with visions of future success, whether it’s outpacing the zombie hordes or surrounding yourself with a harem of incredibly sexy people who think the sun rises and sets in your pants.
Trying to improve your life and get better at dating tends to follow a particular pattern. The early days may be tough, but they’re the sort of difficulty you can surmount without too much effort. In the beginning, it’s everything you’d hoped for and you’re wondering why you never tried this before. The positive feedback you’re getting from the early progress is almost intoxicating…
And then you hit the wall.
Suddenly that gentle difficulty curve you’ve been following has turned into a goddamn cliff. You’re no longer making any progress; hell, you may well be getting worse.
It’s disheartening and discouraging, and it just. Keeps. Happening.
How are you supposed to keep going when you’ve put in all of this effort and you’re still getting nowhere? When you’re racking up rejection after rejection, when every email you send on OKCupid is met with thundering silence and every Saturday night is long dark night of the soul? What incentive do you have to keep trying when all you’re getting is heartache and misery?
How do you keep moving forward when everything inside you is screaming for you to give up, to quit, to let it all go because it’s just never going to work?
You have to know how to push yourself back up and keep moving forward.
Finding Your Motivation
Motivation is a finite resource. It’s almost shockingly easy to run out of motivation for the pursuit of a goal. It’s easy to be committed to an idea when everything is going your way. The positive reinforcement rewards you for your effort and helps confirm that you’re on the right path and that it’s all going to be worth it. It’s when things get hard that you have to learn how to inspire yourself to keep going.
Everyone has their moment where they hit their first major obstacle; it’s the moment where suddenly not only does success not seem inevitable, but it seems to be further away than ever before.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been doing a lot of running lately. It’s become an important part of my lifestyle; not just as a way of maintaining my level of fitness but as a way of de-stressing and spurring my creativity. When I’m out on the trail, I can feel everything melt away; I’m not thinking about the past or the future, nothing but what’s in the now. Not bad considering that I used to joke that the only way you’d catch me running is if something was chasing me.
Well damned if that didn’t happen. I saw an ad for the Run For Your Lives Zombie 5k coming to Austin and… well, having made multiple jokes before about survivalist nerds convinced that the Zombie Apocalypse was their time to shine even though they’ve never shot at anything beyond XXCocksForUrMum6 in Call of Duty multiplayer, I felt like I had to sign up. And since I fully intended to survive this particular race, that meant I had to put some time into training.
And it fucking sucked.
I knew it was going to be tough, but I thought it couldn’t be that hard. After all, I didn’t do much running, but I spent a lot of time on the elliptical runner and jumping rope. My endurance was pretty good, my legs were strong… I had this.
Oh man, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first time I tried to run a mile without stopping, I threw up, right in the middle of the running trail. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die.
The second time I tried to run a mile without stopping, I didn’t throw up, but holy crap did I ever want to.
The third time, my legs cramped up and I doubled over in some of the worst pain I ever knew.
There was no way in hell that I could do this, I thought.
Amusingly, this wasn’t too far from how things were when I first started trying to get better at dating. I was coming off an early, easy high after I’d been out with some friends who showed me just what they did when they wanted to pick up women and who guided me through some early interactions. I thought I had it locked. And when I went out and tried on my own… well, let’s just say I spent a lot of nights shuffling back to my car, hoping that nobody noticed that I was trying very hard not to cry from frustration and anger.
This wasn’t one time. One off night is happenstance. Two bad nights is coincidence. Three bad nights means that you’re seriously wondering what the hell is going on. After a good month of going out three, four times a week1 and getting nowhere, I was beginning to be convinced that maybe this wasn’t actually going to work. And maybe it was just me; some people got to be good with girls and some didn’t… and I was destined to fall in the latter category.
But then: fuck destiny. My initial motivation to keep trying, to keep working came from a grim determination to tell everybody – including myself – who told me that I was The One Who Wasn’t Good With Girls to go collectively fuck themselves. Not the healthiest place to come from, but it was good enough to keep me moving forward. It gave me my initial push to keep fighting, to keep working at it while I looked for other ways to keep motivating myself.
It was that same stubbornness, that single-minded drive that I was going to make it to the end of this race “alive” that kept sending me back to the trail.
Find The Milestones
This is a concept that I bring up often in my articles, but it remains relevant: any large undertaking is going to be intimidating by dint of it’s sheer size.
One common way that we all tend to psych ourselves out when it comes to self-improvement is that any major change takes time. A lot of time. As I’ve said before, dating is a skill and the old rule of thumb -as codified by Malcom Gladwell – is that life always finds a way.
Wait. Wrong Malcom. Sorry, I keep getting them confused.
What I meant was that any skill supposedly takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Nobody masters anything overnight and trying to run before you can crawl is only going to depress you. You need to learn to pace yourself and break any goal into smaller, more easily attained goals.
When I was having those long dark nights where I would come home frustrated, depressed and angry, I was trying to go from “loser” to “playboy” in one single leap – never mind that I had only the bare bones idea of what I needed to do. When I was puking my guts out on the trail, I was making the mistake of trying to go from “no running at all” to running a 5k nonstop without building up the necessary endurance and practice that it was going to take to get there… and I was letting my focus on the end goal trick me into ignoring the progress I had made.
I was trying to take on too much, all at once and the fact that I wasn’t getting the results I’d hoped for (i.e. getting girls to come home with me, running a mile in less than 12 minutes without throwing up) sapped the will to continue right out of me.
The key, I learned was to focus on smaller, more immediate goals.
I wasn’t going to try to take on the entire 5k all at once: I was going to train myself so that I could run a single mile. Then a mile and a quarter. Then a mile and a half.
When it came to dating, I had to break things down in a similar fashion. I wasn’t going to just dive straight into trying to get same-night lays; I was going to have to start just by being able to approach women without being shot down. Then I would have to be able to keep the conversation going for 5 minutes. Then 10. Then as I was improving in making the approach, I was going to have to work on getting better at flirting and at learning how to generate attraction before I started getting more phone numbers, then turning those numbers into dates.
Those shorter-term goals were easier to reach – thus rewarding me with positive feedback and maintaining my motivation – and each one would put me closer and closer to my end goal.
Be Accountable To Others
Sometimes it can help to enlist others in our drive to succeed. After all, who doesn’t love having their own cheering section, encouraging them to keep going, to take just another step?
But as useful as it can be to have one’s own squad of personal cheerleaders it’s more than just about having people who have your back. Sometimes what we need is to be held accountable for our own progress. It’s one thing to promise yourself that you’re going to achieve a particular goal; after all, if you fail, nobody knows that you were even trying in the first place but you.
It’s another entirely when you tell others that you’re going to succeed at something. When you put a goal out publicly, it becomes more than just a silent bargain between you and your self-esteem. You now have others watching you… and it’s up to you whether or not you’re going to disappoint them.
It gets harder to slack off – or to quit, for that matter – when you know that others are paying attention to you. That self-inflicted pressure can be a surprisingly good way to motivate yourself to keep trying; it removes the easy out of convenient excuses and rationalizations that let you feel better about not giving it your full effort. You may be able to convince yourself that maybe tonight’s not a good night to practice talking to people… but can you really convince other people to agree with you?
Part of what kept me on the running trail for the zombie 5k was that I shot my mouth off in front of thousands of people via the League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen podcast. After making a point of saying I was going to run this damn race and survive, I was locked in. Sure, I could probably come up with a convincing reason why I “had” to drop out or why I couldn’t make it… but everybody would know that short of busting my ankle, it was tacit to my admitting I was all talk.
And then friends of mine signed up to run as well… more reason why I couldn’t back out.
There are a number of ways of keeping yourself publicly accountable when you’re trying to get better at dating. Start with a concrete goal: meeting X number of people, going out Y times per week, something – and post it to your social networking accounts. Keep running updates. If you worry about public scrutiny (or annoying your friends) you can start an anonymous blog chronicling your trials. Even if you don’t have a large readership, just the awareness that the knowledge is out there can keep the pressure on. Many forums and discussion groups (ahem) have sections talking about self-improvement and relationship issues; these make for excellent places to find not only support but accountability as you provide updates to your progress.
If you have like-minded friends, they can also help. When I was working at getting better, I had a group of friends who were my regular wingmen; we kept each other honest about how we were really doing. If we started slacking off, we’d be quick to call bullshit on the weak excuses and rationalizations. Even when we were out, we would provide each other with the pressure to keep trying. There were more than a few times when I would hand one of my buddies $100 in ten dollar bills – which represented a not insignificant part of my budget. Every time I approached a woman – a genuine approach, not just a “Hello I must be going” sort – he would hand me ten bucks back. If I didn’t make 10 approaches by the time the bars closed, he got to keep the money. Suddenly I had a lot of motivation to practice making approaches… having the loss of a hundred bucks hanging over my head put a very real consequence to slacking off.
Have A Mesurable Goal – And Keep Track Of Your Progress
When you’re trying to achieve a relatively abstract goal – such as “getting better at dating” – you can get lost easily in the weeds. What exactly does that mean? For some people it means having at least three new sex partners a month. For others, it means finding a long-term, committed relationship. For others it just means being better able to get dates more readily than they are now.
Having a more concrete, definable and measurable goal makes it easier to know exactly what you’re striving towards and, critically, gives you a metric with which you can define success and failure. It’s fine to say “I want to get healthier” for example, but “healthy” is a bit of a moving target. This could mean anything from giving up sodas and drinking more water to taking up weight training. On the other hand, “I want to be able to bench-press twice my body weight” or “I want to bring my blood-pressure under control” are more defined – and thus, more measurable – goals.
Having a goal that you can define and quantify means that you can track your progress towards it. This is why I always recommend keeping records and journals: they provide a record that can remind you that you are making progress and keep your motivation to reach the next milestone up.
I want to run a 5k race: easy enough, make it 3.12 miles and you’re done.
I want to run a 5k race in under 30 minutes: trickier, but measurable. Thanks to my iPhone I can keep track of my average pace, my run time and speed, even my mood and the weather; I can see at a glance that my average pace is slowly starting to increase and I’m getting closer, ever so much closer to that goal of a 9:30 minute mile.
“I want to get better at dating”: Tricky.
“I want to approach more women, get more phone numbers and turn those numbers into dates”: Much more measurable. You now have metrics that you can measure your progress with. If you get a little more in depth – assigning numerical values to moods, for example – you can even track how you felt going into the interaction and coming out of it, measuring your level of self-confidence vs. levels of success…
One of the benefits of record-keeping is data visualization; some people respond better to visualized representations than to the raw data. A pile of numbers can often be just that; columns and figures that you have to spend time analyzing. A graph, on the other hand can help provide an at-a-glance understanding of how much progress you are and aren’t making and makes it easier to pinpoint areas where you may be lagging behind and fix them.
No Matter What, Keep Moving Forward
One last key to motivation is momentum. Dr. NerdLove’s Law of Emotional Motion2 people at rest tend to stay at rest; people in motion tend to stay in motion3. That is to say: the easiest way to lose motivation is to stop trying. Even when you hit those walls and plateaus – and you will – you need to keep pushing yourself to make progress. The more you allow yourself to slack off – the more “breaks” you take, the more times you “go easy on yourself”, the more excuses you make for not doing the work – the more motivation you lose, and the harder it becomes to get that motivation back. The enemy to improvement isn’t difficulty or unattainability, it’s complacency and stagnation.
When you hit your sticking points, you don’t want to just stop until you figure it out – you want to keep the forward momentum going by constantly trying different approaches.
When I hit my first wall – I was better at approaching women but I kept getting shot down and shut out while talking to them, leaving me feeling as though I were back to square one – I knew I had to keep at it. If the approach I was trying wasn’t working, then maybe it was time to try something else. I tried developing different material, altering how much I talked, how physical I was, my energy levels… I was going to keep moving, keep battering at that wall because if I let it cow me into stopping for long enough, I was going to lose my motivation to keep trying. And eventually – after much experimentation and documentation – I found what I was doing wrong and figured out how I could fix it… and I was through that wall, my motivation higher than ever before. Until I hit my next wall, and the process repeated itself.
It took time and effort and study and pain and tears… but the more I worked at it, the more I kept trying to move forward, the closer I got to my goal.
Those first few torturous runs that I barely made it through… those nearly made me quit. Instead, I realized I had to drop back and build up; be willing to walk and run and slowly increase how much I was running vs. how much I was walking. When I got frustrated with my speed, I had to practice running intervals instead of just trying to run full-tilt boogie until I ran out of gas.
And it paid off.
As of this writing, I’ve run two half-marathons4 and I can run 10ks on a weekly basis. Back when I started, I would have laughed in your face if you told me that I would be able to run five miles, never mind thirteen. And now I’m looking forward to training for a full marathon after I outrun some zombies on Saturday…
Keep moving forward.
- I had a lot more free time and disposable income at the time [↩]
- as stolen from an early edition of the Principia Mathematica (et Amorata Pro Nerdicus)… who knew Newton was a player? [↩]
- except when acted upon by outside forces… at which point this metaphor goes way the fuck off the rails as we try to quantify whether or not running into an ex-girlfriend counts as “outside forces” [↩]
- Sadly, I am informed this does not count as having run a whole one [↩]