This past week I have been meditating on the topic of persistence. Given that I had planned to write and post a blog about it over the weekend, but it is now Monday and I am just getting to that task, I may be better at thinking about persistence than in actually doing something persistent. But then, I am doing something about it now, so I guess that is persistence in itself.
The past few months have been an exercise in persistence for me—not the steady slog of one foot after the other, but a sputtering, on and off sort, like learning to drive a car with a stick shift. Each time I stall out, I take a moment to breathe, then start again, hoping I will travel a few feet further and that, eventually, the process will smooth out.
I often think of my life as walking along a path. Last year I realized I had a choice of paths, one clear to see because it was a long, straight stretch with nothing exciting about it. The other was harder to view, but it was clear that the start of it ran along a rocky cliff edge. I could choose the straight path and continue along the dull but generally comfortable slide into the end game of my life or I could jump off the cliff and see if I can grow wings.
I opened my eyes and jumped.
How do we change our lives? How do we go from recognition that there is a problem, to having a glimpse of the solution, to decision, and then onward to action? And what do we do with ourselves at that point?
How do the seasons change? Sometimes gracefully transitioning from one to the next, other times with fitful bursts of stubbornness or exuberant joy, but change they do, inevitably.
Can we learn to be more like the seasons? Sometimes I find the inspiration to do something, whatever it is, and I run urgently down that path, reinforced by the sense of accomplishment or curiosity. Other times I get distracted by the flowers along the way. Or I find myself grumbling about how hot or cold or windy it is or the difficulty of scrambling among the rocks in my way. What makes the difference?
Sometimes the difference is the goal in mind. If I know that a pleasant café waits for me just another mile up the path, my feet move faster. Or if I’m counting the calories burned, and feeling successful in that endeavor, I might find another few ounces of motivation to keep me going.
Sometimes I lose sight of the goal. The shining mountains become obscured by clouds, the dips and turns of the path become confusing. Often the inner voice of so-called reason tells me that the journey isn’t worth it. Other times the difference is more subtle. I’m not sure why, but somehow I start to doubt the purpose of walking this path, the reasons I am walking on it. I feel like it’s all pointless and lose the motivation to figure out why.
So how do I keep myself going despite all of this? Sometimes it’s just one-foot-after-the-other-keep-it-up-until-it-gets-better persistence, but there are tools to make the journey a bit easier.
For me, given the wandering nature of my focus, the trick is to enhance what I call “spiral persistence.” I’m generally not much good at sticking to a task until it’s done. Even when I’m caught up in the flow of the moment, when everything moves beautifully in unison and great work is getting done, inevitably a part of my brain starts hopping down some other bunny trail, dragging my attention behind it. I’m good for fifteen minutes, but after that, I am hopelessly distractible.
The trick I have found is to focus while it’s good, then allow myself to release into the momentary distraction, or scratch my curiosity itch about whatever bright mental trinket caught my eye. Then, my momentary urges satisfied, I swing my attention back to the original path. Over and over until the job is done and the next loop of the path opens before me.