How to Cultivate Psychological Momentum After a Year of Standing Still

Photo: Tempura/Getty Images

I never thought I’d say this, but the impending return to “normal” life is stressing me out.

For some people, the pandemic has freed up time to learn new skills and invest in hobbies. For me, it’s been a year of feeling thwarted: The sense of taking two steps forward and one step back, over and over again. The book proposal I’ve been working on for longer than I care to admit has been “almost done” for months. Whenever I begin to feel as though I’ve gotten back into the groove of creative confidence, I seem to slide back off the saddle.

At my darkest moments, I fear I’ve lost my writing mojo. I worry that when the pandemic finally ends, I will be playing catch-up from a year of lost momentum. What if I never get it back?

Why ‘mind over matter’ really does matter

Maybe I’m neurotic, or maybe I’m right. Psychological research tells us that the perception of forward motion actually propels continued success. The feeling of “I’ve got this” makes it easier to, well, get it — and to then set your sights on the next prize, and claim that, too.

The catch: While a winning streak makes it easier to keep on winning, the opposite is also true. One setback can tumble into another, and then another, until you’re neck-deep in a good old-fashioned slump. To get out of it, you need to replenish your sense of psychological momentum.

Psychological momentum is “a psychological force in which several factors or qualities converge in a synergistic way to enable one to perform at a level not ordinarily possible,” as University of Maryland professors Seppo Iso-Ahola and Charles O. Dotson wrote in a 2014 paper. It’s the mechanism that drives “mind over matter” thinking — the mindset that feeds the steely determination that spurs you to outdo yourself again and again.

Because of its association with personal victory (and, by extension, triumph over an opponent), psychological momentum is most often invoked to describe the competitive edge of athletes at the top of their game. Sports also give us a useful model for understanding how the phenomenon works in practice. Think of Serena Williams casually winning her record-breaking, 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 Australian Open… while pregnant. Yes, she is legitimately an athlete of once-in-a-generation prowess. But it was also relevant that she saw herself as a winner, particularly in the wake of several fierce and high-stakes wins. All of these factors — understanding her innate advantages over her opponents, plus the frequency and intensity of her wins and the duration of her momentum — likely increased Williams’ likelihood of winning the Grand Slam, Iso-Ahola and Dotson argued in a 2016 paper.

How does a person’s belief in their own greatness translate to concrete, real-world manifestations of greatness? The answer, put simply, is efficiency.

To quote Iso-Ahola and Dotson yet again:

In general, people strive to be efficient in completing tasks and in doing so, to save time and energy. Psychological momentum (PM) facilitates this efficiency by making successful task completion more likely and faster. This efficiency principle of PM means that whatever tasks people undertake, perceptions of positive PM enhance their sense of success in goal pursuit. When they initially experience success, their self-confidence and competence grow, leading to heightened expectations, expanded mental and physical effort in task performance, increased perceptions of positive PM, and a greater likelihood of success.

The more you succeed at completing your given tasks, the faster and better you will be in subsequent efforts. And, critically, the less likely it is that you’ll squander time and energy on starts and stops.

This is all fine and good when you’re already on a roll. But how do you trigger a sense of momentum when you’re currently feeling stuck? For better or worse, the solution is simply unsticking yourself. And to do that, you’ll need to give yourself some wins.

The power of a few small wins

Success of any variety is a powerful motivator. Shooting for a few small, actionable achievements every day can be all it takes to reclaim your sense of forward motion — and with that, your confidence in what you’re capable of achieving.

Instead of trying to break your pandemic-long fitness dry spell with a daunting, hourlong HIIT class, for instance, you could set aside five minutes for some stretching. That messy storage closet that you’ve been meaning to organize since the Way-Before Times? Commit to choosing three items from inside the quagmire, and decide to either keep, donate, or toss them.

As Iso-Ahola and Dotson attest, a sense of momentum doesn’t happen on its own. But when you feel that success is within reach, odds are you’ll find a way to reach it. Even the humblest of wins can pull you onto a better path.

It’s also worth remembering that every major achievement is the sum of many smaller, incremental ones. As Ryan Holiday once pointed out in Forge, “It is by carving out a small win each and every day — getting words on the page — that a book is created.”

I’m going to take this wisdom to heart. No slump needs to last forever. The mojo you miss is momentum you can create: one page, paragraph, or sentence at a time.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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