You’re working on a long, complex project with a lot of people involved and mini-projects to complete. It will take months or years to fully realize the final outcome. You might be tackling something especially difficult like transforming an enterprise or a traditional industry. You might feel like you’re playing a long game of whack-a-mole, tackling one problem just to see another one pop up somewhere else. It might feel like you take two steps forward and one step back (or the other way around).
The changemakers I’ve met and read about all live with some form of this mantra, which I like to phrase “be impatiently patient.”
- Stay calm and don’t complain (even when obstacles appear or the situation takes a turn for the worse)
- Don’t act like they deserve something, even if they were hoping or expecting to get it at that time
- Don’t shift direction impulsively based on current emotions
The dark side of being patient all of the time:
- Automatically assuming projects will take a long time to complete, therefore overlooking opportunities for fast progress
- Tolerating unnecessary delays
- Letting work expand to fill the time allotted
- Feel restless, anxious, or frustrated when they encounter delays or obstacles
- Have a strong desire to change their current state
- Are heavily motivated by receiving feedback that they’re making progress
The dark side of being impatient all of the time:
- Giving up or pivoting direction too early
- Exuding negative energy, leading other people to conclude that the final outcome will never be reached (or that it’s not worth waiting)
- Causing yourself unhealthy stress worrying about things outside of your direct control
What should we do?Be impatient with your daily to-do list and patient with the long-term outcomes of your workClick To Tweet
All too often we approach life the other way around. We’re impatient for the long-term goal. The product release, the promotion, an industry-leading business, the nice house, the New York Times bestseller, all of the outcomes we want in life. The anxiety of not having that outcome right now impacts how we feel today. But that gap is so large that it doesn’t always lead to productive action, only pity, worry, or more dreaming.
In contrast, our daily lives are filled with reacting to others. Spending time on activities that don’t matter or help achieve those longer-term goals. We stay patient in the day-to-day, accommodate interruptions, and allow important tasks to slip until tomorrow or next week.
Let’s flip that around. What if we lived each day with urgency and a small level of anxiety about getting our to-do list done. Not any to-do list but a list of action steps and habits that we know will eventually lead to the ultimate outcome we’re hoping for. What if we built in productive rewards and dopamine hits every single day.
What if we viewed our potential future with calmness and serenity. We can visualize it, we can sense what it will feel like to be there, but we can refer to it every day as a source of inspiration and not stress. We decouple our current happiness from this image.
Balancing patience and impatience can be very difficult, especially when our culture, media, and technology conspires against it. Companies hire data scientists and behavioral specialists to make you crave their products. The American culture thrives on showcasing measures of external achievement, often minimizing the struggle behind it. As soon as you hit a milestone, people start asking when you’ll reach the next one.
In light of the forces against us, what can we do to balance patience and impatience to thrive in long, complex projects? Here are some actionable tips:
1. Treat gap analysis like a puzzle, not a reflection of your worth
In any change initiative, whether you’re designing a technical system, an organization, or yourself, you want to start by comparing where you are and where you want to be. The danger is if you fall into the pit of despair after realizing how far there is to go. That pit comes with thoughts like,
- “We’re so far behind!”
- “It will take forever to get there”
- “I should just quit and join a winning team/more successful company instead”
Do you start a puzzle or a hike with the expectation that you’ll finish it right away or get airlifted to the top of the mountain? Of course not, and you’d probably be disappointed if that happened. Plotting out and experiencing the journey is a reward in itself, the destination is another nice treat at the end. You can challenge yourself to find faster or more interesting paths to the finish line but your progress along that path has nothing to do with your worth. You chose a different path, starting point, and ending point than others did anyway.
2. Be really clear on why you’re doing this
I judge whether it’s time to leave a project based on the impact I can provide vs. the effort it will require. High effort for low payoff is sometimes necessary at the beginning or to navigate a challenge. But after a few months or years, if you project out and the effort is too high for the impact in will create in the world, it may be time to move on. High-value changes often require high effort. It might mean a lot of work in the short term or less work over a long time (or a lot of work, over a long time period).
Don’t fill your days with disposable, easy tasks in an attempt to feel better in the short term because by the end, the same amount of time will have passed and you’ll have less to show for it. If you’re really clear on why you’re fighting for the vision, it will be easier to tell when the value you’re providing (and getting) has hit that tipping point.
3. Have a place to track all of your project ideas and action steps
A key for staying impatiently patient is to connect those long-term goals and projects to action steps you can take. Keeping a document or list somewhere of those ideas can help you quickly shift between your long-term vision and the deliberate action you can take each day. It can help satisfy the patient dreamer in you, while also making sure that the impatient side has marching orders.
4. Create roadmaps and what-if scenarios
Studies about patience have focused on the concept of applying willpower to sidestep instant gratification and stay focused on long-term outcomes. A recent study by Adrianna Jenkins and Ming Hsu at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business suggested that imagining the outcomes of decisions can also help people stay patient. They asked participants to make the same choice, but phrased it two different ways:
- Receive $100 tomorrow or $120 in 30 days.
- Receive $100 tomorrow and no money in 30 days or no money tomorrow and $120 in 30 days.
They found that with the second framing, focused on the consequences of each choice, participants that were more patient tended to apply imagination rather than willpower. Imagining the future outcomes helped them make a long-term decision. Students that made the patient choice with the first framing relied more on willpower.
Large, long projects can be huge drains of willpower. You can’t do everything at once and looking at your backlog can feel like the first framing. I can either get this feature in now or later. I can go through some effort or pain now or in the future. Since we tend to focus on near-term value and effort, we usually need to apply willpower to defer gratification. However, roadmaps, what-if scenarios, and vision documents can help people imagine what the consequences will be and what the future could look like after making different choices. By applying imagination to figure out how to sequence actions, we can reserve our willpower for other tasks, like avoiding social media or steering clear of the office donuts.
5. Set themes and metrics for smaller time increments
If you’re not seeing progress on yearly goals (a challenge for resolution setters and enterprises alike), then break them down into goals that you can track on a quarterly, monthly or weekly basis. With faster feedback you can see if you need to adjust something sooner. Setting a theme for the smaller increment of time helps you and your team stay focused while leaving some flexibility around exactly which action steps you take.
6. Plan each day and week deliberately
Back when I ran track, we used to train by running between telephone poles in a nearby neighborhood. Sprint to the first pole, jog to the next, and so on. It provided a visual target, a way to track progress, a smaller increment to focus on, and an opportunity to recover after every interval so you slowly got stronger.
Being productively impatient instead of just impatient means intentionally choosing action steps each day. An unplanned day can mean that you default to what others are asking of you or what feels good at the time. I like how “The 12 Week Year” amps up focus with 3-month increments for setting and pursuing goals. The Scaled Agile Framework is also a great tool for enterprises trying to execute on larger projects while gathering rapid feedback. Pick your posts to run to and sprint with urgency.
7. Track what you’ve done
The funny thing about transformations is that the bar keeps moving. You tackle one round of problems and another becomes visible. So you take on those and then find more. In the day to day it can feel like things haven’t changed much. Tracking what you’ve done and referring back to that list periodically can help remind you how far you’ve already come. You might be farther along in the journey to the end state than it feels like.
8. Celebrate small victories
Many of the people who have achieved impressive things have said that the celebration and happiness at the final milestone wears off quickly. A more sustainable approach is to find daily rewards. The endorphin high, the dopamine hit from seeing feedback, the seratonin from connecting with others. Connecting rewards to your daily and weekly plans either through the joy of the tasks themselves or a mini bribe, helps to keep the grind more fun.
9. Reflect on what’s working and what’s not
Patient people don’t get irritated when they experience delays or obstacles. Productively patient people try to understand why those issues occurred so they can be prepared for them or avoid them in the future. Regular reflections on what you encountered, what you tried, what worked, what didn’t, and why can help you refine your daily plan to account for these obstacles.
10. Keep work in perspective
This long project is just one part of the rest of your life. I find that spending time outside, volunteering, traveling, sharing your story, learning about others, or working on other projects are great ways to put your struggle into perspective. And to find some more calmness and objectivity around it.
11. Think like a teacher
Learning isn’t instantaneous. We spend 13 years in school just to get to a baseline high school education. Then four years in college and longer if we stay on for another degree. We intern or apprentice, moving up the ranks. Expecting someone to read something or hear it and then apply it is unrealistic and unfair. Many changemakers don’t account for the time it takes someone to absorb and apply concepts. That doesn’t mean that you’re failing. In fact, the more people internalize the change, the longer it might take but the better it will stick.
Teachers push you just beyond what you already know, connect it to your past knowledge, and test you along the way to make sure you’re on track. They prepare the curriculum not expecting you to ace everything after one day, but so you’ll have the tools and experience to apply the content later on. Your legacy is not only the final product, deliverable, or business you create, it’s also the people you impact along the way.
Balancing patience and impatience is hard, but with a few practices and mindset shifts, you can take advantage of the positive sides of both while minimizing the negative.
Are you impatiently patient? Which side do you struggle with more?