Well, it’s a new year, and that means men all over the world are setting goals to improve themselves over the next twelve months.
If you’re one of these men, here’s a useful mental model to keep in mind as you get cracking on your efforts: progress isn’t linear.
Instead, progress usually looks more like the chart above.
It took me a while to internalize this concept, but once I did, it significantly reduced the amount of frustration and angst I experienced as I worked on various personal goals.
Up until a few years ago, I had this notion that if I set a goal, planned meticulously, and executed it day in and day out, my progress towards that goal would be a straight line up and to the right on the line graph of life.
But inevitably, my abstract notion of how I thought progress would look clashed with the reality of how it did, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Or, at a minimum, feeling all dejected and put out for a day or two.
How Barbell Training Taught Me Not to Get Discouraged When Faced With Setbacks
The idea that progress isn’t linear really hit home thanks to the barbell training I’ve done for the past seven years. During the first few months of serious training, I did experience linear progress. With every workout, I was able to add weight to the bar. I loved it! It was so motivating to know going into each workout that I’d be hitting new personal records.
But then, about six months into my training, my linear progression stopped. Instead of hitting PRs every workout, I’d hit them once a week. Then after a few months of hitting PRs every week, I began to only hit them once a month. After a few months of hitting PRs monthly, they started to come once every three months, then once every six months, and then once a year.
When I first encountered this slowing progress, my coach had to let me in on a secret about weightlifting: as you get stronger and stronger, it takes longer and longer for your body to accumulate the stress it needs to elicit a strength adaptation. It might even take more than a year to hit a new PR.
In addition to my slowing progress caused by the law of diminishing returns, I’ve also faced a series of injuries during my lifting career — I’ve struggled with tendonitis in my biceps, hamstrings, and adductors — that set me back at various times. Those injuries derailed my progress for weeks and sometimes months.
To show how progress with my barbell training hasn’t been linear, let’s look at my deadlift.
In 2016, I pulled 500 lbs. It wasn’t until the end of 2018 that I pulled 605 lbs. That’s two years. That’s a long time before hitting another milestone. Along the way, I had workouts where I couldn’t even budge 405 off the floor and weeks where it just seemed like I had to keep lowering the weight to hit my reps. In short, the path to 600 certainly wasn’t a straight shot.
At the beginning of 2020, I hit another deadlift PR: 615. In other words, after a year of hard work, I added a measly ten pounds to my deadlift.
I’m amid a lull in my barbell training right now. For the past several months, I’ve been battling knee pain and tennis elbow that have made training impossible. I’m focusing on rehab and hopefully on the road to recovery. It’s taken a while, though. I hope to be back to serious training here in a few months. If all goes well, I may even hit a few new PRs in a year or so.
Progress with these injuries hasn’t been linear either. Some days I feel like I’m about to turn a corner with them, but then the very next day, the pain comes roaring back. But if I look at where I was four months ago with these injuries compared to where I am today, I’ve definitely made progress; it’s been up and down, but with a generally upwards trajectory. It’s progress, it’s just not linear.
Making Progress on Being a Mope Hasn’t Been Linear Either
Another area where I’ve seen progress, but not linearly, is my mood. I’m mercurial by nature. I’ve struggled with the black dog for most of my adult life. It’s something I’ve consciously been working on for the better part of 15 years. Overall, I think I’m in a better place now with my mood. Kate would affirm this. My temperamental troughs are less frequent than they were a decade ago, and when they do hit, they’re very