Progress Is Hard
When I first started learning Esperanto – possibly the easiest language you can learn – I had a vision of where I’d be after 3 months. I’d be sat in a random coffee shop somewhere in the world, using the language to express myself and my thoughts with my new international friends.
The thought really excited me and I got started learning right away.
Several months later I was feeling frustrated that despite my regular effort, I still wasn’t comfortable at all using the language, or even close to where I imagined being at the start.
The experience perfectly mirrored what happened when I first decided to hit the gym and change my body. Months of sweaty, sweary sets later and my body wasn’t all that different. I hadn’t become that much bigger or stronger. According to the numbers, I was showing some improvement, but nothing to tweet Eddie Hall about.
It’s important to be realistic about what we can achieve in a given time, but it’s often difficult to really know what that looks like at the start.
When you think about where you want to be, it’s deceptively inviting to imagine some grand version of it. Getting there, of course, is a different story. To stay disciplined to a process, or multiple processes, that’ll eventually lead you to your distant goal requires consistent work over time.
My initial mistake in both cases was focusing too much on a distant goal and too little on the discipline and process that would take me there step by step.
Having rough, long-term goals is motivating, but it’s counter-productive to define your day-to-day effort according to them. When your only focus is a long-term goal, you’re in a state of having failed to achieve that goal every passing day. Eventually that state of mind can become tiring and demotivating. People also quite often redefine long-term goals as they get closer to them, which means they never escape the mentality of believing they’ve failed to reach their goal. I see this in the gym all the time. Some of them are the best looking failures I’ve ever seen.
For me, process-oriented thinking works much better for day-to-day progress. I did 50 Hebrew flashcards this morning, and 100 sit-ups. Just like yesterday. Can I speak Hebrew like I want to yet? !לא Have I reached my ideal body condition? Not even close.
Today wasn’t a failure because I’ve not reached those states. It was a success because I’ve followed the process – a process that accrues results over time. I’ll be back tomorrow for my next batch.
Through my own long-term pursuits, such as training and language learning, I’ve come to treat progress with more respect than I did at first. Progress isn't a function of effort alone, but effort and time. As time goes on, you adapt and improve, and so your effort must adapt to maintain the same cadence of progress and avoid plateaus.
Making real progress is simple, but it’s not easy. Your effort is immediate but your measurable results are in the post, and it’s a Sunday.
The key is to normalise yourself to a routine that lets you show up regularly. The key is to define success according to your process, rather than blurry long-term goals. That way you’ll be moving in the right direction and you’ll feel good about it. Time will accrue your effort.
When I now find myself in a coffee shop chatting to my international friends in Esperanto, I’m sometimes reminded of what it took to get here.
Progress is hard, and that’s exactly why it’s so satisfying.