Put success on autopilot by building momentum

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vollyball momentumMy oldest daughter is playing high school volleyball these days.  While talking about her experiences on the court, I’m struck by how much she attributes her team’s performance to something called “momentum.”

Shifts in momentum: athletes, sports fans, and analysts talk about this all the time.  But what is it exactly?  Is it real or magic?  Truly experienced or just imagined?  Assuming it is real, is there any way to capture and transfer this witchcraft to other areas of our lives outside of athletics?

Before we dig in too deeply here, let me first say that, when it comes to the concept of “momentum,” I am of two minds.  I both love it and hate it.

The research geek in me sort of hates it.  Try finding valid psychological studies on momentum.  There is no data because it’s impossible to collect.  How do you measure “momentum”?

The spiritual geek in me sort of loves it, because it seems mysterious and magical.

But is it real?  I think it is.  And the fact-finding geek in me, while unable to find any solid data on “momentum,” is satisfied by the research of Chicago University Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  I know.  It’s Hungarian.  Pronounce it: “CHICK-sent-me-HIGH-ee.”

Csikszentmihalyi calls it “Flow.” According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a psychological state of, “completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow is a state of mind in which a person is fully immersed in a “feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

Sounds like a magic spell if I ever heard one.

Anyway, if we substitute the concept of “Flow” for the concept of “Momentum,” the research geek in me rejoices–because Csikszentmihalyi, and now also his followers, have collected libraries of scientifically valid data.  Flow is a psychologically optimal experience.  It’s real, common, and measurable . . . and magical.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research is valuable because not only does he document Flow’s existence and benefits, but he’s also identified how to prevent the experience: encourage anxiety—particularly about results.  But most athletes and coaches already knew that—right?  Interestingly, my daughter the volleyball player, says that feeling of fear is exactly what her team tries to avoid on the court–because fear is a killer of momentum.  So is thinking too much.  When you’re in the flow, you’re not thinking.  You’re just doing–being.  You’re in the “Zone.”

That’s all well and good if you’re on the court, field, course, or track.  But what if you’re trying to lose weight?  Or debt?  Or get your basement cleaned, or finish your homework?  Can we gain a state of flow or momentum in these situations?


The key is to focus on something small and easy.  Home finance guru, Dave Ramsey, calls his debt elimination program, the “Debt Snowball Plan.” It sounds good, but logically–it’s dumb.

“The math seems to lean more toward paying the highest interest debts first,” Ramsey says. “But what I have learned is that personal finance is 20% head knowledge and 80% behavior. You need some quick wins in order to stay pumped enough to get out of debt completely. When you start knocking off the easier debts, you will start to see results and you will start to win in debt reduction.”

Huh. Sounds a lot like momentum to me.

So how to create momentum?  Forget about results and start small with something you can control right now.  Great teachers and coaches know this.  They chunk big problems down into manageable bites.  So whatever your challenge, don’t worry about the score.  Focus instead on getting to the right spot on the court, or walking fifteen minutes a day, or saving an extra five dollars a week, or doing just one of the ten math problems you have for homework.

The secret to success is not in overcoming big and difficult challenges –but in engaging consistently in little manageable ones.  Your engine of momentum is ready to run.  All you have to do is turn the key.

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