How To Do Hard Things For A Long Time

The Challenge

Accomplishing big things in the world takes time. Months, years, even decades.

From what I’ve gathered, building an audience takes about 2 years of consistent effort.

I’ve never had a problem pursuing my interests, but self-motivating to pursue a goal over multiple years is not something I have ever done before.

Attending college was easy for me because there was a certain social expectation to do so.*

*This is not the case for everyone. If attending college goes against the momentum of the culture around you, then graduating is a big fucking deal. That just wasn’t the case for me.

Going to your job every day is easy* because there’s a social expectation that you will show up and they give you money you need to live.

*it may not always be easy, but for me at least it’s easier over the long haul than self motivated work.

What Didn’t Work

I’ve spent a lot of time frustrated with myself because I would set a goal to do something over the course of two months but fail to follow through.

I would do really well the first two weeks. By week three I would be working at about half capacity with my focus slipping, and then by the fourth week I found myself sitting around watching Netflix.

About five weeks after setting the goal I would realize how far off track I was and then be angry with myself.

This cycle repeated itself over and over for me in 2019. It was incredibly frustrating because I kept making commitments to myself and then failing to meet them.

Three Week Sprints: Working With My Mind Instead of Against It

I found myself at the end of one of these cycles yet again in February of 2020. I had just had a few weeks of successful “on” time and was in the middle of my “off” period where I lost focus.

At this point the idea dawned on me that maybe I should work with my mind’s natural rhythm rather than against it. Perhaps I was losing focus after three weeks of work because my mind was tired and needed a break.

I read an article in 2019 advocating three week on, one week off sprint cycle. This allows people to recharge in the last week so that they can come into the next sprint fully refreshed.

I decided to try adapting this work cadence to my own life.

On the first Sunday of each month I sit down for an hour or so and do my sprint planning. I think about what I want to accomplish by the end of the month and how other parts of my life may interfere with it.

I even go so far as to write down a list of “derailers”, or things that I recognize may push me off course and limit my output that sprint.

This was particularly useful during my April sprint when NYC was experiencing the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was stressed out, living by myself, unable to see friends or family in person and this reduced my work output.

However, because I acknowledged it as a potential issue at the beginning of my sprint I was able to accept that this was ok and not beat up on myself.

Sprint Execution Tactics

Once I have identified my goals for the sprint, I block off time on my calendar to execute a subset of those goals in the next seven days.

I have found in the past that it is very important for me to keep my actual time commitments fairly short into the future. If I try to schedule work sessions on my calendar more than a week away, it’s unlikely that I will have the internal motivation to adhere to them and will find myself watching VEEP or The Office instead.

By keeping my commitments near in the future, I’m much more likely to follow through on them.

Weekly Retros and Sprint Planning Adjustments

If all goes well, by the next Sunday I will have accomplished about one third of my goals for a given month’s sprint.

On that Sunday I will then sit down and assess where I am relative to what I set out to do and schedule my work for the coming week. I make notes of things that worked well along with things that did not. If any particular derailers knocked me off course I acknowledge them and, if possible, outline ideas on how to avoid them in future.

This process repeats again for Week Three.

At the end of Week Three I schedule one final block of time for a Sprint Retro where I review and celebrate what I accomplished. I also note any further tweaks I want to make to my process for the next sprint.

I then get a full week off to mess around and do absolutely nothing. I can watch Netflix until 2am, or spend all day outside in Central Park, whatever.

This system has now worked for me for almost five months. Over those months I have published close to a dozen videos and written tutorials.

Most importantly to me, I have been able to remain focused and slowly, consistently working towards my goal for longer than ever before.

Hopefully this system can help others on their journey to accomplishing their goals.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions!

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