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Big Ideas

The Art of Momentum: Why Your Ideas Need Speed

When we lose momentum, we become vulnerable to distraction, self-doubt, and apathy. A look at how constant motion is crucial to idea execution.

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.

The minute that we lose momentum, we lose the thread.

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.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (42)
  • Howard Freeman

    Is this an issue of ‘momentum’ or, as with Clive Wearing, is it simply muscle memory?

  • Jocelyn

    @ Howard – I think it absolutely is akin to muscle memory. Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a great memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in which he compares training for a marathon to writing novels. There definitely seems to be an advantage in finding a routine, a rhythm, so that your “creative muscles” are ready to perform when you need them.

  • Arjun

    Nice piece of advice. I like the part where you use Newton’s law. Thanks.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    This post is spot on. Move the body to move the mind is how one of my colleagues says it. We know – or remember – now that our physiology and our body’s autonomic nervous system influence and are entwined with our emotions, intellect, and imagination. A veritable 95% of the mind, by some estimates, is unconscious; this part of “mind” includes blood flow, heart beat, respiration. If we can find regular ways to take physical action, we can – as you so eloquently say – keep up the mind and heart’s creative momentum.

    I work with writers, artists, and professionals around the world with Yoga As Muse, and I witness remarkable results.

    Thanks for your post, Jocelyn.

  • Ivan Hernandez

    Excellent post Jocelyn! I particularly love the statement: “frequency of execution is perhaps more important than the duration of execution”. Great reminder of the importance on constant and continuos action!
    All the best!

  • Angela

    Great article Jocelyn, this was a great read and can be applied to many things we do as it relates to momentum, setting aside a block of time for our “project” and working on it every day.

  • Catalina B.

    Your ideas don’t keep up with you, you need to keep up with them. And nail it all down to excellent execution. First, everybody should learn the word persistence and then – routine. You don’t want to be primed by a negative depiction of working every day, when working every day on what you really care about is essential.

  • Darren Negraeff

    I also love Andy Swan’s stuff – I actually remember that post about momentum very clearly. And nice add Jocelyn – that book was great and very relevant to building something or working on a project.

    In general, too often we wait for the inspiration to come to us, but we must remember that action generally precedes inspiration – first you do, then you get excited about what you’re doing.

  • Grace Oris

    Thank you, Jocelyn for this great article. I’m just starting on my “next big thing” and this time I intend to keep the momentum going. I’m going to keep coming back to read and reread this article whenever I notice I’m slowing down. I love the allegory to Newton’s Law of Motion. Right on!

  • Angela Hill, Incitrio

    I really enjoyed this article, great job. Your thinking is also synonymous with Jim Collins’ Good to Great concept of Momentum as well, where companies that became incredibly successful had unifying factors…and one of them was momentum. It’s a lot easier to stay focused on your end goal whether it’s successful creative, sales goals or business transformation, when you stay focused and keep the momentum going.

    Angela Hill, President & Creative Director
    INCITRIO | where global brands start fresh

  • Lindy klk

    Brilliant article !! Wow thank you so much for this invaluable information!!
    As you can tell by my enthusiasm, it really resonated with me …..
    Loved how you started off with the ‘true story’ and ended with the ‘tips / advice’ …
    Just what I needed at this time!

  • David Lemley

    Wow! Frequency trumps duration in producing confidence.
    Just what I needed to relearn today (and yesterday). Thank you for writing this article, Jocelyn.

  • Lori Fagerholm

    I strongly agree with most everything here, except for the tip about working on the idea every day. I tried for years to move my ideas forward a little every day, including weekends, but found all it got me was burned out. Now, I take one or both weekend days, depending on my energy level and workload that week, to do whatever I want. My work is better, I get more done, and I don’t feel burned out. My brain needs time to wander, to go where it wants without my trying to direct it. Time to read novels, gaze out the window, draw things not related to work. I try to let go of “doing” and just “be”. Everybody’s different, but I’ve found I need this time off.

  • Jocelyn

    @ Lori – I urge the every day, because I think it’s a noble goal. BUT I agree it’s not right (or necessarily feasible) for everyone. I think what’s more important is some kind of regular rhythm – whether it be working at the same time every day, or working at the same time each weekend, as you do.

    @ Angela – Love Jim Collins. He was also part of the inspiration for a piece from earlier this year on “Saying No”:

    @ Darren – “Action usually precedes inspiration” – I couldn’t agree more!

  • James Munene

    The article hits the nail on the head – It spells out tips that will make a great difference when we put them to practice.

  • Bruno A

    act like we have had a severe brain infection in the past? not 100% sure about this one…

  • Rebecca Ryals Russel

    As an author I hear this message daily in various forms–but it is right on the nailhead and very important to remember.

  • Dathu

    Yeah you are right when you want achieve bigger goal you have to achieve small one first which can you lot more confidence,energy and encourage to achieve the bigger one.

  • Say No! to the Office

    Building momentum is good advice, but there comes a time in every project when you’re far enough away from the start that the motivation that pushed you into it seems a long way in the past, yet the finish line still seems a long way off (the dip). Virtually no amount of momentum will get you through that – it’s like being in a roller-coaster at the bottom of the big climb. Momentum helps, but you need some external force to get you to the top, and that is grit, determination, self control, willpower and seriously hard work.

  • Chris Kirkham

    I loved this post, and thanks to Lifehacker for showing to me. I can’t really formulate a way of writing this where it doesn’t sound spammy so “Thanks very much for these informations! I very plan on using these daily now!” I need to make my username custom european handbags or something now.

  • jkglei

    Ha! You are cracking me up, Chris. Thanks for the kudos.

  • E Reamico

    wonderful. just what i needed.

  • The Creativ3 Bee

    Found the post through Lifehacker. Absolutely brilliant ideas. And the pleasant surprise is that they’re actually put in a way that’s very doable. I guess I’ll stop rambling now and get to my homework.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Justin Alex

    Thanks for this post! Got this off Smashing Magazine’s Facebook page, and it’s really an inspiring post that tells us how do we proceed with ideas. Will be trying to implement this in my mindset.

  • kathrynananda

    Thank you. 🙂 The part in this equation that I’m struggling is maintaining the balance and ability to let go, to support the practice (momentum) of daily rest and surrender… But I liked the downhill metaphor, and I will explore resting in to the concepts of momentum and flow. … I think it will encourage me with a daily physical practice, during which I’ll meditate on the momentum of my projects, as balance to all this mind focus. 🙂

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