How to stay motivated when results lag behind effort
Effort, expectations and results. In a perfect world they'd be completely aligned, right? Our language is full of pithy expressions that reinforce that notion: "Me? Lucky? Yeah - and you know what, the harder I work the luckier I get!"
Of course we don't live in a perfect world. For any number of reasons, there tends to be a gap between our expectations and what actually happens. And simply working harder often doesn't always appear to close that gap. At least, not straight away
And we tend to create reasons in our minds to explain the gap. Sometimes they're self-defeating, the results of a limiting mindset: "I'm just not good at this." Like me, and running a 5k!
Sometimes they're excuses, shifting the blame to things we couldn't control: "Well I missed out on that contract because of Brexit / COVID / the time of year." Sound familiar?
But very often there's another factor in play:
results tend to lag behind effort.
Think of this in terms of dieting, exercise, developing new business... it applies in so many different contexts. Have you ever embarked on a diet and, after three weeks, found you're falling off the wagon because while you can feel the sacrifices you're making, you can't see any benefit from them.
To use James Clear's terminology from his excellent book Atomic Habits, there's a good chance you're in the Valley of Disappointment. In other words, you're still waiting for the impact of your early work to kick in. Until this happens you're inevitably going to feel disappointment about the results you're showing.
In a world where - especially in early stage businesses - we're taught the importance of 'failing fast', this can mean we pull the plug too soon on efforts that have yet to show results. Don't get me wrong, there are times when that's the best thing to do: we are stopping things that will likely never work. But sometimes we're cutting off our efforts just before we've had a chance to really see the results. And that option can be seductive if those efforts represent a sacrifice we're not fully bought in to making
So, how can you tell? When should you persist and when should you cut and move on? The honest answer is that it's a judgment call, but here are some things to consider when you're making that judgment:
Confidence: how sure are you that the journey you've embarked on is correct? Have you been honest about what it is and how much you want to commit to it?
Commitment: are you genuinely committing to doing the things you said you'd do, as often as you said you'd do them? Have you accepted that the sacrifices are worth making?
Leading metrics: if you focus to much on the end goal, you can fail to celebrate the successes that are moving you in the right direction. Personally, I use a mixture of defined leading metrics, that I term 'minor victories' and 'major victories'. These lead up to the milestones I've set. Using leading metrics like this can help you assess your performance on 1 & 2 above.
Track everything: very much related to the previous point, record and use the data you are gathering on your efforts - and do it honestly. What activities have you done this week? How does that compare to previous weeks? How are those activities over time creating your minor and major victories?
Incremental improvements: make deliberate, small changes - and measure carefully the effect that they're having, both immediately and over a longer time frame. Continuous improvement is a passion of mine, and regularly stopping and asking how you can make each aspect of your activity more effective is a good place to start.
Be honest with yourself: as you make your judgment, it's crucial to avoid both the 'happy ears' and 'we're doomed' extremes. Either of these can persuade you to make the a decision based on mindset, not facts. Be wary of 'the easy answer'!
Listen to other people's views but make your own decision: it's valuable to understand the perspective of people around you, but make sure you apply a critically thoughtful lens to what they say: other people's advice is almost always coloured by their own mindset, so be prepared to disagree (privately) with what they've advised.
Success is borne from a broad cocktail of sometimes conflicting qualities, such as determination vs realism. You will need a balance of these qualities to create your own luck. This list will help you keep that balance true - and give you the confidence that, between the courage to carry on or the courage to move on, you're making the right decision.