It’s hard to stay motivated.

This is not a new idea. I don’t expect to present anything new here.

That being said, there is something that I’ve been using to stay motivated recently that felt worth sharing.

And that something is a yo-yo.

Well, it isn’t the yo-yo per se; it’s what the yo-yo represents: progress.

Motivation as a Daily Activity

“People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.”

― Zig Ziglar

I’ve tried a lot of tricks to get motivated, and none of them have ever lasted longer than a day.

Then again, a day - today - is all you really need.

If there’s a way to be motivated for a day, and I can use it every day, then I’ll be motivated forever. Proof by induction[1].

So what motivates me for a day?

Well, motivational videos certainly don’t hurt, but being yelled at to suck it up while watching people exercise only gets me so far.

What really motivates me - and, I suspect, most people - is the subjective experience of progressing.

That is to say, the feeling of making genuine progress is genuinely motivating. Conversely, what could be more demotivating than the feeling that, for all the effort you put in, you aren’t accomplishing anything at all?

So what can we do every day that gives us the feeling - no matter how other parts of our life are going - that we’re making progress?

Enter the yo-yo.

Feeling Progress As Percentage Growth

The subjective feeling of progress you get towards a given goal (i.e. learn some yo-yo tricks) is proportional to how much progress you’ve made towards that goal thus far.

That first 1% feels like real progress - after all, you’ve gone from 0→1%, which is a proportionally infinite increase. Going from 1→2% feels great as well: you doubled your progress!

Going from 50→51%, on the other hand, may take an equal amount of time as 1→2%, may actually be the same amount of progress, but subjectively feels like far less. If you’re going on a road trip, the first mile you get away from home feels significant; the 323rd mile, on the other hand, is utterly unremarkable.

Real progress is linear and nondecreasing; the subjective experience of progress approaches zero[2]. To paraphrase a common quote: the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, but the first bite feels like it accomplishes a whole lot more than the five-hundred-and-first bite.

To sum it up:

Subjective Feeling of Progress = Progress Made Today / Progress Made Total

The numerator is limited but the denominator keeps growing, and so the longer you’ve been at something, the less progress you feel you make on any given day.

Always Starting Over

If you, like me, are motivated by the subjective feeling of making progress, then in order to motivate yourself, that feeling is what you want to maximize.

Because the feeling of progress made towards any existing goal shrinks over time, the only way to maximize that feeling is to continuously start new projects. This is the key idea: you want to be working on or learning something new until you don’t feel like a day’s worth of work or practice is contributing. Once you hit that point, move on to the next thing.

Thus, in a way, you will always be starting over, picking up new skills and trying new things until you’ve exhausted the low-hanging fruit to be picked.

No matter what happened with the last activity, no matter what else is going on in your life, you can always get a fresh start here. Just choose something new to learn, and get going.

Factors For Choosing Activities

As for what kind of goals or projects work best for this, there are a few common factors to keep in mind:

  1. Short and sweet - this is a way to stay motivated, not a major effort. You should be able to improve with about 10 minutes of dedicated practice per day.
  2. Easy to learn - this isn’t supposed to be difficult. Progress should be easy. Also, resources for learning (YouTube videos, books, whatever) should be widely available at the beginner level.
  3. Fun - this should not be a chore. It should motivate you, not cost you willpower to do each day.

Some less important factors:

  1. Cheap - no need to break the bank for this.
  2. Active - this isn’t exercise, but it helps to get the body moving.
  3. Low stakes - nothing is riding on success; there’s no deadline or expectation.

Get A Yo-Yo

Pick something to try. It could be a yo-yo, cards tricks, lock picking, macrame, knot tying, basket weaving, juggling, hackey sack, whatever.

Then, early each day, learn something new and practice it.

And let the feeling of progress motivate you to do other stuff.

  1. ^

    Not actually a proof by induction.

  2. ^

    Assume that we make 1% absolute progress towards our goal each day, such that we will accomplish the goal on Day 100.

    On Day 1 we make “infinite” progress going from 0→1%. On Day 2 we increase our existing progress by 100% progress going from 1→2%. On Day 3 we increase our existing progress by 50% going from 2→3%. On Day 4 we increase our existing progress by 33% going from 3→4%.

    The amount we increase our existing progress by is 1 / (n - 1) on Day n. The limit as n→infinity of 1 / (n - 1) is zero.

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:04 PM

I like this post! Saved the comment about the "a day is all you need" induction to my quote bank,


I was guessing this was going in a slightly different direction, namely: tracking progress (in a spreadsheet is what I do) such that you can actually see the fact you're still making progress (this is why video-games with the clear leveling indicators are so addicting!) and you don't mistakenly believe you're stalling and get demotivated.

I like the new skill idea too though. I am already prone to starting over in new arenas a bit too much, but having a set time for a new skill is a good idea.