Just going through the motions is never enough

Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash

You think you at getting better at your job, your hobby, your sport but…

You probably aren’t.

There is a human tendency to equate time invested with actual progress but that’s a fallacy.

Once you acquire a certain level of proficiency you reach a plateau, you congratulate yourself and then become complacent.

After that, you become worse.

A person with 20 years of experience is most likely to be worse at his job than someone who’s only done it for a year.

When you don’t grow, you shrink.

This happens for a number of reasons:

The illusion of progress is not just work-related, it happens even in things you have a genuine interest in like, hobbies or sports.

I’ve been playing the sax for 5 years and I’ve got the feeling I haven’t improved much for the last 2 or 3 years. I know there is the plateau effect but still. I have become comfortable.

I go through the motions, I do the exercises, I play the tunes but the motivation is not as strong as in the beginning. I cut corners and I avoid complex stuff.

I hope repetition will take me there but I know it won’t. I’m falling for the illusion of progress.

Automatic repetition does nothing for progress, if anything perpetuates the same mistakes.

Deliberate practice

You have to practice every day like if you were a complete beginner, regardless of how many years you’ve done.

Having a beginner’s mind opens your eyes to every possibility, you start questioning assumptions you’ve made, and start feeling like the task it’s something completely new.

Speed is the key also, you have to do everything in slow motion, so you can be aware of your thought processes and your mistakes.

When you don’t do that, you are lying to yourself, pretending you are improving when in fact you are regressing.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Bruce Lee


It’s easier to fall into the trap of the illusion of progress and to protect our ego by constructing narratives around our improvement.

This gets reinforced by our colleagues or teachers when they try to encourage us instead of being honest.

There is a fine line between motivation and honesty.

Every now and then, you find a true critic, somebody with no empathy, a cold-hearted robot that tells you like it is. No ornaments. No BS. For a moment you think he is right, but then your self-defense mechanism kicks in and you go back to the old narrative.

It’s in these moments when we realize there is no progress without pain.

What was the last time you felt physical and mental pain?

That was the last time you learnt something.

Embrace the pain

If you are not prepared to suffer, you are not prepared to learn.

You can’t learn anything inside your comfort zone.

When I was learning English 20 years ago, I remember having practice conversations that felt like hell. The amount of brainpower I had to use to produce a few broken sentences left me drained. It was painful but that is the only way to grow.

After a while, it wasn’t painful anymore because I reached my plateau and I coast along and stopped learning. When the situation asked for a challenging sentence I always found a way around it.

Cutting corners stops you from learning.

Now, I’m trying to become a writer and that struggle has come back — I look at words with new eyes. I analyze patterns and use unfamiliar structures. But one day I will become proficient and therefore complacent. I will become predictable and comfortable. Until somebody gives me a kick in the nuts and I push myself again to the next level.

The metrics fallacy

Just because we can measure something it doesn’t mean there is real progress. Numbers are deceiving.

Input doesn’t equal output.

The time you put in, your productivity rate, your personal best, the number of words written, all these, are easy to measure, to compare and to analyze but they don’t always tell the whole story.

Real progress is not measurable, it’s not about quantity it’s about quality. It’s not about what, it’s about how. Van goth is not 13.5% better than Picasso. Bean counters don’t understand excellence.

Don’t fool yourself with all these metrics. It’s better to do 1 thing perfect than a hundred sloppily.


The reason we lie to ourselves and fall into the illusion of progress is motivation.

If we didn’t think that way, we’ll quit. The ego needs to be fed, if we manage to convince ourselves that we are moving forward, that’ll keep us going.

The trick is to find the balance between the rosy world of motivation (you’re doing great, keep it up!) and brutal honesty (Come on man, you are shit)

For that, you have to love the activity so much, that you are prepared to embrace the pain.

When I want to improve, pain is the only measure of progress. Everything else is narrative.


It’s not what you want to hear but, when you are having fun you are not learning.

The illusion of progress is not progress, you have to choose between struggling or just coasting along.

Learning is not for everyone, most people stop learning at 22. If you are one of the chosen few, be aware that you could be pretending to improve when in reality you are worsening.

It’s a tough cookie but, there is some beauty in the struggle. Learn to appreciate the pain of growing and you’ll be unstoppable.

Student of life. Trying to make sense of it all, be happy and help others achieve their dreams. Join me at: albertotheauthor@gmail.com

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