Take Pictures!: Motivation and Physical Indicators of Progress

You've picked a goal. You're excited. You sign up for classes, you go to Amazon and buy books on the subject, you post your progress on Facebook. People hit the "Like" button. Of course they do, because you're awesome. It's going to happen this time. The motivation surges through you like a river.

Then one day goes by. Then another. Now it's been a week since you've done any real work towards your goal. A friend asks you how things are going with your project. You shrug and say that you haven't done much but will probably pick it up again soon. Then you change the subject.

Joey from Friends covering his ears and yelling
Or you just do this

Does this story sound familiar? I'm willing to bet that it does. It's the story of online courses that are never completed; of gym memberships that are paid monthly and never used (which is what gyms bank on). It's the story of most New Years Resolutions. But it doesn't have to be your story anymore.

Why So Many Goals Fail

Why does this happen? What is the reason behind all the abandoned and unfulfilled goals?

You may be tempted to think that these failures are a result of unrealistic goals. People may just be shooting too high, which makes failure almost inevitable. After all, if you're looking to lose 50 pounds in 3 months, what more can you expect? Surely, you may think, most goals fail because they are pure fantasy. And there's no doubt that this happens. Oftentimes, people underestimate the time or work necessary to learn a new skill or make progress in a certain area. As a result, they immediately shoot for the ideal and feel disappointed when they fall short. Unfortunately, they tend to make this mistake again, since never completing a goal results in never truly understanding how to complete one in the future.

But this is only part of the answer. In fact, we would argue that it is the much rarer issue. Most of us, as adults, don't live in a fantasy world. We have been through enough successes and failures in life to understand how things work. We know we are probably too old to play in the NBA and that, before we can win big money at the tables in Vegas, we need to win weekly poker nights more often than not. Sure, we may still overshoot, but we rarely overshoot by much. And with a little practice we can learn to make better goals and stop overshooting at all. So why do these goals still sometimes fail?

The Loss of Motivation

Child on the floor, exhausted, with book lying on his face.
Been there, my friend

More often than not, the culprit is motivation. More precisely, it's a lack of motivation.

You've probably noticed this before. You've made the decision to learn something or get in shape. You sign up for a course or join a gym. You dive into the deep end and spend hours working on it. Suddenly, you start to understand brand new things or your partner notices how you seem leaner. And it feels good. So, you go right back into it...right until it fades. Suddenly, you realize that the leap from "terrible" to "decent" was a quick and easy one to make. The leap from "decent" to "good," however is a different story. You keep working hard but there are no immediate returns. The material gets harder and, when you look in the mirror, the person staring back at you was the same guy that was there last month.

Then what's the point? There's no longer any incentive to pick up some flashcards or get out of bed early and sweat for an hour, much less shut out the world and practice deep work all morning. The goal begins to feel like more trouble than it's worth. Your motivation fades and your effort dwindles. Before you know it, weeks have passed since you've worked towards your goal. It's time, you figure, to just let it go. You absorb the hit to your pride and move on.

A Simple Tactic to Maintain Motivation

But it doesn't have to be like this. In fact, it shouldn't be like this. Thinks about it: there are people who create and reach goals all the time. It's not because they luck into it or are superhuman. It's because they keep at it when the returns don't seem to justify it. They still recognize the cooling of excitement and the slowing down of progress, but they keep going anyway. This, more than anything, is what success depends on.

So, how do you go about doing that too? It's not like you don't know that pushing through a lack of motivation will help, but it's so hard to do. That's why today we will be sharing with you one of our favorite tactics to keep yourself motivated after the initial excitement wears off. You can use this as often as you like and it works with nearly any goal you may have.

Take Pictures

One of the reasons we get motivated to work towards something is because we can see the returns. Once you notice that your beer gut is starting to vanish, you suddenly feel like going for a quick jog. When you nail a dance move, you want to keep doing it and admire how easy it has become. When you impress a beautiful woman by speaking Italian to the owners of a local restaurant, you can't wait to make more flashcards when you get home.

Woman grabbing man by the tie and seductively pulling him towards her
Which may be a while later...hey, a man can dream.

Progress comes quick initially. This is because you're going from nothing to now learning the basics. And that's a great feeling. The problem, though, is that they're the basics for a reason: they're relatively easy. Once you get into the tougher parts, it comes more slowly. Your body has adapted to your morning runs and so doesn't burn fat as quickly. Italian practice has mostly become studying verbs you will rarely use. You no longer see the same things that excited you before. It's a lot less fun.

And that's why we encourage you to take pictures. Or record videos. Or keep old practice sheets. This allows you to hold onto that feeling of achievement when it would otherwise fade. It gives you back that sense of accomplishment that was lost. As a result, you never lose your reason to lace up your running shoes or pull out your grammar book. You've bottled that excitement that leads to action. It belongs to you now.

Some Tips on Using Pictures Effectively

It sure sounds like we're promising a lot, doesn't it? And yet, that's how confident we are in this method. We firmly believe that, if you adopt this tactic, you'll be able to stay committed to your goals far longer than you would have otherwise. As a result, you'll make much more progress and succeed much more frequently. To help you out, we've provided some tips on how to go about employing this method so you can get started today.

1. Start Today

Ideally, you'll be able to start on your very first day of working on your goal. If you've already been doing it for some time, though, you'll still be able to benefit from starting this today.

So, whatever your goal is, take a snapshot of where you are at this moment. If you're looking to get in shape, go to the bathroom, take off your shirt and snap a photo. If you're practicing your basketball shooting, go to the courts later and throw up 10 3-pointers, 10 free throws and 10 layups. Ask a friend to record it on your phone. If you're alone, note how many shots you made and how many you missed and write it down in a notebook dedicated to your goal.

This works no matter what level you're at. If you have already mastered the conjugations of a language, print out an article written in that language. Underline any word that you don't know or phrase you don't understand. If you're trying to eliminate debt, print out physical credit card statements and keep them in a binder. For any goal you have, a physical indicator of progress exists. Once you've found what that is, get your first piece today.

2. Routinely Create More

Once you have your first indicator, it's time to set up a schedule to create more on an ongoing basis. This is important because it'll help to show that progress exists even when it slows down. For instance, it's easy for you to recognize when you've lost 5 pounds in the first few weeks of working out. It's a big, quick jump. Adding a pound of lean muscle over two weeks, on the other hand, is a lot harder to notice. You may look in the mirror and not feel like you've changed a single bit, since the daily change has been so tiny that it's rendered invisible. If you have a picture from right before that pound and one right after to compare, however, the difference is clear. You're given "start" and "finish" without the cloak of the "in progress" stage blinding you.

To get the full benefit, you'll want to establish a timeframe for your indicators. For something like paying off debt, monthly statements do the work for you. For other goals, it's on you to decide how frequent you want these to be. Whatever you do, try to make it a little more fun. If your goal is fitness related, for example, ask your partner if you can send them a weekly shirtless photo to get their opinion and keep you motivated. Who knows, you may end up getting one or two in return.

3. Revisit Them When You Need a Boost

After you've built up a few indicators, make sure to keep them all together. We recommend getting a cheap 3 ring binder you can use for this purpose, but a folder on your computer can work as well. This way, you can flip to any point in time on your journey and get a feel for where you were at. Obviously, the further back you go, the more noticeable the difference will be. But make sure to also consider more recent examples to remind yourself that you're still making progress. The guy you were last week is still ahead of the guy he was a week before. It's important to remind yourself of that when the gains don't seem to be there.

So, when the workday is over and all you want to do is plop down on the couch, pull out your binder. Go through the pages. Actually see the evidence right in front of you. This isn't perception or estimating: these are concrete truths that show your progress. You really did once look like that. There was a time you only understood half of that article. Seriously, you went from accidentally making 2 out of every 10 free throws and now you make 8 regularly. Let that sink in and then imagine what you'll be able to say about yourself a month or a year from now.

Your Assignment

As we said earlier, you need to get started today. So, reflect on your current goal and decide what form of indicator may be the most fitting. Once you have that, buy a binder or create a folder on your computer, take a picture, video or what have you, write the date on it and put it in the binder. Set a day of the week or month to create your next indicator and mark it on your calendar or set an alarm on your phone.