Keep Calm and Carry On: The Professional’s Guide to Persistence

G o on, admit it. We’ve all got something – a work project, a gym membership, occasionally our children – that we quietly fantasise about abandoning. And if one particular project doesn’t quite make it over the line, it doesn’t really matter, right?

Actually, it matters more than you’d think. A recent collection of studies performed by two professors at Northwestern University in the US piqued our interest. In one experiment, the professors gave participants ten minutes to come up with as many creative ideas as they could. They then surprised the participants with an extra ten minutes to finish the task. Before the additional ten minutes began, they asked the participants how many extra ideas they thought they could produce. On average, participants came up with 66% more ideas than they had predicted they would – and these ideas were even more creative than the ones produced during their first effort. In other words, they completely underestimated how persevering could power up their creative potential.

Now, as you know, we’re all about achieving your potential (creative or otherwise), not underrating it. But developing the ability to persevere is easier said than done when our society’s rapid turnover of ideas, products, projects and information makes moving on seem much more attractive than simply moving forward. So how do we counter this culture of easy surrender and push ourselves to press on when willpower starts to wane? Here are a few key tips:

  • Pick your battles.

  • What keeps you awake at night? This is where you start. Clarifying exactly what has become a struggle and why is the first step in the right direction. And the laws of physics are on your side: any start – no matter how small – is forward momentum. Once you’ve started, you just need to keep moving.

  • Break it down.

  • Feeling overwhelmed? Whatever you're undertaking, it will be more manageable in bite-sized bits. Give yourself the space – both literally and figuratively – to achieve each minor milestone. “And don’t forget to stop and celebrate each step you take,” says PEPworldwide:nz managing director Kathryn Anda. “That makes it easier to take the next one.”

  • Use an incentive.

  • What’s in it for you? There’s nothing wrong with having a reward at the ready. You know your weaknesses; you know what motivates you, too. “It doesn’t have to be a tangible reward,” adds Anda. “Just allow yourself some time to feel good about persevering. Most people finish and carry straight on to the next project. Instead, take the time to stop and acknowledge your achievement.” (And hey, if you are motivated by a more tangible reward, we won’t judge.)

So dig deep, back yourself, push through. Whichever cliché you prefer, it’s time to resist the path of least resistance. Modify your mindset into one that maintains momentum, not one that slumps into submission. Develop persistence into one of your key behaviours. Like the participants in the study, you may even exceed your own expectations. And we think that’s worth a bit of extra effort.