Mental Momentum

Often times when you are first starting a task, it is easy to get overwhelmed by how much energy it is taking to do even the smallest aspects of the task. You wonder to yourself, “If it’s this hard to do less than 1% of this task, how am I going to make it through the entire thing?” When I start to think this, I try to remind myself of the concept of mental momentum. If you can sustain a decent level of effort for an extended period of time as you get started on a particular task, you will develop momentum that allows the process to become easier and faster as you progress, and this momentum will make it much easier to continue working. This concept spans many different types of activities, from exercise to homework to a big assignment at work.

This is a result of what I like to call “loading up your mental RAM.” If you’re familiar with computers at all, you know that a computer consists of a large hard drive that stores the vast majority of your information, as well as something called Random Access Memory, which is what the computer uses when actively working on tasks. When the computer has all of the information it needs in RAM, it can quickly and efficiently accomplish tasks. But when it lacks information in RAM, it has to go to the larger, typically much slower hard drive to obtain that information, which takes more energy and time. This is like your mind as you first start a task: you have to pull the information from deeper parts of your mind or other sources such as books, the internet, etc. But once you’ve obtained most of the information you need to accomplish the task, you can much more easily do the work.

In addition to obtaining more of the information needed to accomplish the task, your mind becomes accustomed to the patterns needed to easily do what the brain is asked to do. The brain is an amazing pattern recognition machine (even when patterns don’t exist, which can be seen when people try to see trends in random processes such as the stock market or the next roll of the dice in Vegas). As your mind recognizes what patterns are needed for each initial step, it begins to optimize the application of those patterns as you work. For example, let’s say you practice martial arts and your instructor teaches you a new kick at the beginning of the class. If you use that kick throughout the class in various activities such as drills, free sparring, forms, etc., then by the end of the class you are going to be able to execute that kick with far greater ease and proficiency than when you first learned it, even if it was very challenging to learn initially.

So, the next time you face a daunting task, remember to take one thing at a time and that it will mostly likely get easier as you work on it. If you have had an experience demonstrating this effect, feel free to share below!

3 comments on “Mental Momentum
  1. Linds says:

    Awesome post! I can really identify with this, although I’d never thought of it in comparison with RAM (and after reading your description I think I might have had an incorrect assumption of how RAM works, anyway). That makes a lot of sense!

    I like that you pointed out that the initial stages of a project can often feel the slowest, as you’re spending a lot of time to find the information you need to get started. I also like your point that pattern recognition helps our brains to perform tasks for the project more efficiently and more easily as we get farther into the project. I’d never thought about that before.

    One technique I use in gaining momentum on projects and getting over the initial hurdle of getting started is compartmentalizing the project, especially when it’s a project on a scale that you’re not used to handling. Every person probably has a different way of compartmentalizing projects, but mine is typically to use tables and to-do lists. If there’s a set of tasks or steps I have to perform on multiple documents, I make a matrix so that I can tell at a glance where each document stands, and so that my mind isn’t cluttered with keeping track of whether I’ve performed each task for each document, or whether I’m forgetting something. Likewise, if I know I have a massive to-do list for a project, I try to break down those to-dos into categories or associate them in some other way so that I can look at one small set of to-dos at a time rather than being overwhelmed by the volume of work ahead of me. For me, compartmentalization is all about making the project feel smaller and reducing the volume of mental clutter to keep me from getting discouraged at the outset (or even halfway through) a project.

    Sometimes a project is so complex that I can’t even tell what I need to do to start, so I write down everything I can think of that I know about the project or need to figure out. Then I break that down into whatever categories I can make of the information, and try to focus on them one at a time to fill in the gaps, clarify my understanding of what the project encompasses, and develop a plan. If I reduce the mental clutter and I’m able to make some sort of progress on the project, even if it’s just to figure out what the project is, it helps me feel less discouraged and overwhelmed.

  2. I actually can relate to this. I have a very hard time focusing on a task, like actually putting myself in flow takes me a long time for most tasks ( even leisure). And so, I need to combat this everyday. I tell myself to do the work, but to not really give a crap, so I open my books etc and just start reading the text. At one point, something will trigger my flow or interest me, and i’ll start plowing through my work at the speed of a thousand galloping gazelles!

    Good post, i’m in the process of finding blogs like mine, and i’ve found yours so far, and you write well so it’s good! See you around! I’ll be checking for new stuff.

  3. corwinolson says:

    Thanks Nicolas. I’ll check out your site as well. Feel free to sign up for email updates as well, if you don’t want to actively check my site. I will of course never share any email addresses.

    Yeah, achieving flow state when you have very little momentum on something is tough, I battle that often myself. Sounds like you’ve found a good approach that works for you!

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  1. […] next time I could work on it than I thought it would be. In other words, I didn’t lose as much mental momentum as I feared I […]

  2. […] inclination my mind has to interact with whatever is in front of it to establish some forward momentum in that […]

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