Progress Must be Deliberate

“It’s not the hours you put in your work that counts, it’s the work you put in the hours.”

Sam Ewing – Professional Baseball Player

The motivated individual must be wary of the fact that simply showing up may not be half the battle. Have you ever been committed to a goal but been faced with the thought that you really aren’t feeling it that way, so you plan to just show up and go through the motions? Those days happen, and on those days one could argue that showing up at all is better than the alternative, which in this case would be to not show up at all. At the very least, showing up keeps the habit for which we are trying to achieve sharp. If we are trying to get better at golf, showing up to the driving range is better than not going; if you are trying to lose weight, going to the gym and doing 10 minutes on the treadmill is better than not exercising at all; reading through a chapter of the textbook for your master’s degree keeps you in the habit of studying, even if you don’t retain most of the information and have to read it again later. I am a firm believer that any progress or commitment, on a particular day, is better than no progress or the potential of dulling our positive habits which are setting us up for success. However, in order to achieve meaningful growth in any pursuit which will bring us happiness and fulfillment, we must have sufficient amounts of those days where we not only show up, but we pour our heart and soul into our work, such that every effort we can have is dedicated towards our progress. If we do not consistently show up in this kind of manner, then we are doomed to mediocrity.

Refer back to the quote from former White Sox and Blue Jays player, Sam Ewing. Sam is referencing the need not for mindless motion our casual pursuit of our goals, but for concentrated effort and determination. It is possible to make some progress by simply showing up. It is possible to understand the basics of chess movement and strategy after just a few games, but in order to achieve any sort of proficiency you must dedicate yourself towards learning advanced techniques, analyzing the great players, and studying your own mistakes. This requires determination and focus.

Likewise a basketball player can go out and shoot hundreds of free-throws, but unless she is determined to get better, and analyzing her movements, noting the difference in her movements and thoughts between those shots she makes and those she misses, she won’t get any better or will at the very least not improve as much as she COULD.

Robin Sharma has studied the habits of elite-performers in sport, business, wisdom, psychology, art, and more – the findings of which he lays out in an easy to follow format such that we may achieve similar greatness in our desired realm in his book “Everyday Heroes.” Sharma identifies for his readers that one, of the many, common traits shared by such successful people across various disciplines is that they approach their work with a sharp focus and the desire to improve. Take Tiger Woods, who even after his meteoric levels of success, decided that he needed to change his swing. Even though Woods was already perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, he recognized an opportunity for improvement, and completely reinvented his mechanics by concentrating on subtle movement changes day in and day out, even on rainy days and holidays. Tiger wasn’t just going through the movements, well in this case his focus was on his movement, he was concentrating on progress and change.

Simply showing up does not involve the required levels of mental focus, neurological intensity, or physical stress required in order to make a change. The survival of all living beings comes down largely to their ability to conserve energy and maintain homeostasis (normal/balanced function) throughout their system. Energy was to be used only in necessary circumstances for example when a threatening situation arose and the expenditure of energy became a life or death situation. Change does not occur without introducing a stress that necessitates the need for our brain and body to create such a change.

Therefore we can create an environment that will enable us to change, that is to progress in our desired goal, by mimicking stress. Fortunately, that no longer means running from saber-tooth tigers or roving bands of violent neighbors who want to steal our food, but the center of our brain that regulates our response to stress, our sympathetic nervous system, does not truly distinguish the nature, cause, or ultimate effect of that stress, and thus the body responds similarly whether we are running from a wild beast or trying to learn a foreign language.

When the body becomes stressed, our system is flooded by epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine which makes us hyper alert and focused, and increases neuroplasticity – our ability to learn. Think about this: imagine yourself as a pre-historic human whose village is attacked by a lion. Our brain responds to that stress by jacking up the aforementioned neurotransmitters such that we become appropriately stressed by the truly life or death situation caused by that beast. During this event, suppose we realize that by grabbing a sharp stick and using it as an extended form of self defense, we can fight off that attack. Our body at this time is highly neuro-plastic because it wants to remember everything that happens during this event because anything that successfully protects the system will be vitally important to our future survival. Thus, the stress of this situation permanently imprints itself upon our conscious and subconscious brain and we have now learned a new skill.

Remember that the stress response is no different from a physiological standpoint whether we are trying to ward off attackers or study for a test. The same neuroplasticity or desire to learn that saved us from the attack can help us study for the test and remember what we studied because was ingrained upon our mind during a period of intense focus and controlled stress.

The word stress often carries negative connotations. Dr. Alia Crum of Yale University and her colleagues are responsible for a great deal of the research demonstrating what I have just discussed (for more thorough analysis and to be frank, better descriptions I highly recommend Dr. Crum’s research papers and her interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman on the Hubermanlab Podcast which I will link below.) In order to distinguish a useful form of stress such as that which we are discussing, Dr. Crum and her colleagues coined the term “eustress” aka good-stress. This is the type of stress which we can deliberately impose upon ourselves in order to obtain beneficial or useful results.

Among many of their discoveries, Dr. Crum discovered that our perception of the outcome of a certain event will affect the outcome of such an event. Take a cold shower for example. Cold showers are not pleasant, in fact they are extremely uncomfortable. However, many positive outcomes have been linked with cold showers such as the ability to improve metabolism, focus, and the ability to positively react to negative stress. Much of these benefits however come from the fact that the person subjecting themselves to the stress MUST believe that what they are doing will create positive change. It may not be something that one looks forward to, but someone who takes a cold shower, hates every second and doesn’t really understand their reason for doing so, will not exhibit the same types of positive adaptations as the person who faces this stress in a positive manner.

This is fascinating research that indicates our attitude towards a behavior influences our outcome. After what might seem like a fairly sever tangent, I will now attempt to land this plane by bringing it back to the beginning point which is that our intent and attitude towards the behaviors of practice, learning, and improvement will largely determine our outcomes. Rather than merely showing up, we must show up with the intention of making progress.

Therefore the attitude towards which we approach an objective is of vital importance. If we show up with the proper amount of focus and intent, we can trigger a eustress response in our physiology that creates hyper-engagement, channeling our energies towards improvement. Whether it be playing the piano, refining our sprint technique, or reading a text-book for our Medical School class, when we concentrate our will towards our task, we create an internal environment that makes us susceptible to truly learn, improve, and retain rather than simply go through the movements.

Thus, while not every day is our best, and some days the most we can hope to do really is to just show up, real progress is made when we prepare ourselves for what is often a struggle, but recognize that within that struggle is the opportunity for improvement. This is how we come to develop a sense of mastery whether it be in sport, academics, art, or simply our own well-being.

Intent matters.

Link to Alia Crum and Andrew Huberman discussion:

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