In his wonderful book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes Clive Wearing, a musician and musicologist whose memory was erased almost entirely after a severe brain infection.
Post-trauma, Clive’s short-term memory lasted only a matter of seconds.
Sacks writes, “He remembers almost nothing unless he is actually doing it, then it may come to him.” Yet Clive’s musical self, his performative self, remained almost completely intact. It just needed to be activated. When playing music or conducting a choir, Clive could re-attain his former virtuosity. As long as his fingers and his mind were in motion, he could play beautifully. Clive’s wife writes, “The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar… He knew exactly where he was because in every phrase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody… When the music stopped, Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal.”
We are perhaps not so different from Clive when it comes to creative projects. The minute that we lose momentum, we lose the thread. We become extremely vulnerable to distraction and defeat. Our inner critic awakens, and we start second-guessing ourselves, doubting the possibility of success. Other people’s demands creep in, vying for our attention and focus. We start to generate shiny, new ideas that seem even more worthy of execution, tempting us to move onto the next big thing without ever finishing.
It’s just like Newton’s First Law of Motion: The tendency of a body in motion is to keep moving; the tendency of a body at rest is to sit still. In other words, it’s a lot less work to keep moving once you have some momentum, than it is to start moving from a dead stop.
If we can keep moving on our projects every day – stoking that creative fire regularly to keep the flames high – it’s infinitely easier to stay focused, make great strides, and blast through the roadblocks that inevitably come up.
Here are a few tips on how to build and maintain momentum:
1. Know that momentum takes time to build.
As serial entrepreneur Andy Swan has written, one of the most common mistakes is to “set lofty goals from a resting start.” With images of fame and success dancing in our heads, we set the bar too high, fail to make the grade, and quit because we’re discouraged.
Just as you would start training for a marathon by running a few miles and building from there, if you want to write the great American novel, you might start by trying your hand on a short story.
It’s important to set small, realistic goals at first. Challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it. Setting achievable goals, and experiencing incremental success will help you build momentum and confidence.
2. Carve out a consistent block of time to work on your project.
Particularly if you’re juggling creative work with other commitments, finding regular time to devote to your project in a daily way can be extremely challenging. But there is nothing more important. Consistent execution is paramount: it keeps your head clear and focused; it rewards you with a constant feeling of progress; and, most importantly, it keeps the ball moving forward.
Don’t wait for this free time to magically “open up.” Rather, proactively carve out a block of time in your daily schedule – and make it public. As Gina Trapani advises in a Fast Company article, you’ll want to honor this commitment the same way you would a meeting with another person. Think of it as a meeting with your muse.
3. Work on your project every day. No seriously, every day.
In his collection of interviews with painters like Chuck Close, Dana Schutz, Fred Tomaselli, and Julie Mehretu, author and artist Joe Fig observes, “They are successful because they work incessantly. Several work seven days a week.”
When it comes to momentum, frequency of execution is perhaps more important than the duration of execution. Even if you’re working on your project for just an hour a day that’s enough to keep your objectives and recent activities top of mind. Then, when you sit down to work on it again, you can slip quickly back into the flow.
Occasionally, something will knock you off course, and you won’t be able to work on your project that day. But if you’re striving to push it forward every single day, you’ll stay on track regardless.
4. Once you really get some momentum going, don’t be afraid.
Anyone who’s ever been downhill skiing knows about the scary flipside of momentum. We yearn for it, but we’re also afraid of taking it too far. What if we start going too fast? What if we get out of control?
Seth Godin writes, “Many of us fear too much momentum. We look at a project launch or a job or another new commitment as something that might get out of control. It’s one thing to be a folk singer playing to a hundred people a night in a coffeehouse, but what if the momentum builds and you become a star? A rock star? With an entourage and appearances and higher than high expectations for your next work?… Deep down, this potential for an overwhelming response alerts the lizard brain and we hold back.”
Don’t hold back. When it comes to creative execution, the key is to get moving, and keep moving.