I always held a lot of stock in motivation as a catalyst for improvement in wushu. When I didn’t get my butt in gear to train I would blame it on a lack of motivation. And when my training was at it’s peak I would say I was totally motivated to improve.

But what I’ve found is that motivation is really worthless when it comes to my wushu development.

I can hear a bunch of you now:

What are you talking about Mark? You’re crazy! How else am I supposed to get myself up to speed with wushu if I’m not motivated to train?

Truth be told, I would have agreed with you a couple years ago.

But recently I’ve come to realize that, for myself, motivation means nothing in the grand scheme of things. It is not the method by which I can improve my wushu (or any skill, for that matter) and believing motivation to be the holy grail of wushu success is probably a large reason for why I’ve never truly fulfilled my potential with wushu.

Instead of just throwing around wild statements, let me back up and share with you why I’ve come to this epiphany and my reasons for thinking this way.

And it starts with a crucial question. One which I never really asked myself:

What is motivation?

I used to believe that motivation was a propeller of action. Motivation is what would get me out of bed and cause me to take action towards my goals.

And on the flip side of that, I used to believe that, unless I was motivated to take action, that I would not be able to improve and build my skills in wushu. I thought that my lack of improvement or my laziness was a result of not being motivated to train.

So, I would do what a lot of folks do.

I would spend a lot of time and energy figuring out the triggers that would cause my motivation to take hold.

I would play certain types of music. I would watch Jet Li and Jackie Chan movies to get excited. I would watch (hours and hours of) wushu videos on youtube (or my DVD/VHS player) to get stoked about training.

All of these triggers to get myself to take action ultimately ignored the nature of motivation, which is this:

It is an emotion

No duh,” you’re probably thinking. “We already know that. It is the emotion of motivation which we are trying to trigger!

But the reality of emotions is that, by their very nature, they are fleeting. They are temporary. Emotions are not constant. They are designed to come and go through our consciousness over the course of time.

When I would try to “feel motivated” I focused too much on the second word of that phrase, “motivated”, and not enough on the first: “feel”.

Motivation is a feeling and as a result, it isn’t reliable.

Motivation isn’t consistent. Motivation can’t be relied upon to cause a change because you can’t predict when it will come, and spending all your energy on triggering this emotion means you really aren’t focused on the true cause of improvement or skill development.

Because motivation doesn’t make your wushu improve.

Which of course begs the question, if motivation doesn’t make your wushu improve due to its ephemeral nature, then what is the most important element in improving wushu skill?

Well, let’s look at the question in a different way. What would you say if I asked you “How does wushu skill get better?

Take action

Well, that’s easy, right? Train and practice. If you don’t do something, how can you get better at it?

But what kind of training is the most effective? What type of action do you need to take to really improve in wushu?

If you look at the nature of an action, you have two approaches you can take: you can either do a lot, or you can do a little. Let’s look at each in turn.

A lot

If you want to improve your wushu and take action does it make sense to have a large scale flurry of intense activity? A huge, grand guesture of passion towards a specific goal? Will pushing super hard, all at once, during a practice help you make big leaps in wushu skill?

Well, no, not really.

Why? Because spurts of activity do not help you any more than cramming for a test will help you develop long term knowledge and understanding. (Sure, it might help you pass a test, but will you still have that knowledge 6 months down the line?)

Think of it this way: Are you practicing wushu so that you can use it today, or are you practicing wushu so that you can use it in the future?

I think most people would agree (at least I hope so) that wushu skill development is a long term process. You don’t go to a wushu guan, cram in 6 hours of training, and expect to be amazing the next day. It doesn’t work that way.

And a large spurt of activity when practicing sports or physical activities can actually cause injuries. Trust me … I’ve been there and done that. Its not fun to be sidelined by a big burst of motivation, activity and accidents.

So, this big flurry of activity approach doesn’t work. So, what about the other type of action? Instead of doing a lot, what about a different approach?

A little

Instead of training for 6 hours, what about training for 2 hours? Instead of working in every basic, combination and form you can, what about focusing energy on a specific part of wushu to develop that skill?

If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then doesn’t the journey of wushu skill development also require small steps be taken over a long period of time?

The truth is, true skill development requires a consistent focus of action and energy over weeks, months and years.

In fact, isn’t that the definition of kung fu? — A high level of skill that is developed over a period of time with consistent, deliberate focus? When you have good kung fu, isn’t that what people are talking about?

It isn’t the big actions that cause you to develop a strong, fundamental skill in wushu — it is the small, consistent actions over time.

The key is consistency

So, where does consistency come from?

Well, as we said before, emotions are by their nature impermanent. You don’t maintain passion indefinitely. You can’t stay motivated 24 hours a day any more than you can be excited 24 hours a day — or sad, or angry or joyous.

Emotional health requires balance and balance requires a give and take — a fairly random ebb and flow — which is the opposite of consistency.

Consistency, with regards to action, comes from the formation of habits. Because a habit, by definition, is essentially some action that you take on a consistent basis.

Your habit of brushing your teeth is something you do consistently. Washing your hands after you go to the bathroom is a consistent habit (you do wash your hands after using the bathroom, right?)

But even bad habits are developed through consistent repetition. If you sit on your butt in front of the TV with a bag of Doritos and ranch dip every evening, it is because you have formed that habit through consistent behaviors and actions.

So, if consistency is the key, then the formation of specific habits — or actions — is what actually causes the development and improvement of skill over time, right?

But, of course we all know that already. If you want to get good at something you have to make it a habit. You can’t cram in the gym or wushu guan. Cramming in general is really ineffective. Habits are the key.

But habits can take many shapes and forms. And how we approach the creation of habits is also a big part in determining the success or failure of creating long-term consistent action.

So, then the next question becomes, what type of habits are the best to form? Again, we can look at it the same way we looked at the types of actions we can take. Big habits or small habits?

Big Habits

What exactly is a big habit? Well, the way I define it is a habit (i.e. a consistent action) that we want to develop which is significantly outside of our normal, already-established, habits.

For example, if I normally wake up in the morning and spend a few hours putzing around the house or laying in bed reading a book, then changing that habit to one where I get up, go for a 10 mile run and then do an hour of wushu basics at the park is a pretty big change. In fact, it is completely unrelated to whatever habits I had already established during that time of day.

The interesting thing is that I used to try to create these types of “big habits” all the time before. I’d “get motivated” and decide that I was going to go for a run every morning and stretch for 30 minutes before doing strength training. Or I would stay up an hour later to put in 60 minutes of intense flash card work to learn some Chinese characters. Or I would … well, you get the picture. I had big dreams.

And the funny thing is that, the bigger the new habit I wanted to form, the less likely it was that I would do anything longer than a week. (Coincidentally, that is usually just about how long my motivation lasts before it makes way for some other emotional state, like apathy or boredom.)

I used to think that perhaps it was a lack of proper planning. So I became really, REALLY good at making super intricate training plans. Down to the specific minute, hour and decimal point.

But in the end all I ended up with was a really detailed and organized plan that I never followed.

So, trying to form “big habits” has never really worked for me. As they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. But I would probably change that to, “The bigger the habit, the harder they FAIL.”

Small Habits

As we can see, large scale habits, by their nature, are not something you can develop effectively because they require a strong will and never ending motivation to accomplish. And, as we said before, motivation is something that you can’t rely on due to it’s impermanent nature.

B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., a researcher who teaches at Stanford University and specializes in the formation of habits, has come to the same conclusion that I ended up with (although he explains things much more academically than I do): successfully forming habits relies on tackling smaller, easier tasks — not the big, huge endeavors that a lot of us attempt.

According to Professor Fogg, forming small, enjoyable — even “fun” — habits can create a lasting change that you will be able to build upon over time.

And that makes sense if you think about it. If forming huge habits is intrinsically problematic and difficult, then forming small, tiny habits would be, by it’s nature, easier and less prone to failure.

Think of it this way: if you created a habit where every time you tied your shoes you also did 3 toe touch stretches, do you think that is a habit you would have a hard time maintaining over time? Certainly not. In fact, I would say that is almost an enjoyable habit that, after just a few days, you could turn in to a truly habitual action that you do, almost without trying or thinking.

And isn’t it those types of habits that we are ultimately trying to form? The ones that we don’t even have to think about or try to remember — they just happen.

Now, doing 3 toe touches probably doesn’t seem like the path to high level wushu skill, but that is really just the beginning of this process. Because developing tiny habits is not a one-time thing or an end unto itself.

You can build upon the habits you already created to increase the scale and scope of the activity. But this is only possible if you create the foundation in the first place.

Building on the Foundation

So, if you have been able to create these small habits, how do you build on them? How do you create larger habits?

Well, the same way you built the small ones of course! Now that you have created a foundational habit — let’s say you now touch your toes 3 times — the next week (or whatever cycle of time works for you to develop these small habits) work on increasing the scale — but only slightly.

Again, if we try to go overboard we’re going to end up with the same problems that these large scale “big habits” end up causing.

Continuing with this example of toe touches, I might then increase it to 5, and a week later I might add 2 lunge stretches too. And then a week later I might also do two hip circles.

They key is to make the changes small enough that you can enjoy the modifications, but have them be actions which build upon the foundation you have already developed.

Before you know it, you will have created a habit that integrates an entire sequence of movements, motions and actions that will result in some pretty significant changes.

Of course, this shoe tying example is just that — an example. But the important thing (verified by Professor Fogg) is that you anchor your new habit upon an already-existing habit that you have a very strong foundation with.

Anchoring that habit is where the power comes from. And with each successive anchor, the newly formed “small habit” is really only as strong as the anchor with which you attach it to your behavioral matrix.

So, where are we now? We know what it takes to form habits. But what happens when life interferes? What happens when we have a plan or a habit that we usually do, but “things” get in the way?

Well, this is when we talk about another important aspect of developing consistency in our behaviors and training:

Schedule and Scope

A few months ago I listened to an interview with James Clear where he discussed his approach to forming habits.  One of the things he said really stuck out to me — that the scale of your endeavor, tiny or large, is actually even less important than maintaining the schedule of the habitual action.

In other words, whether or not you do something is actually more important than how much of that thing you do.

In simpler terms: consistency is more important than the specific actions themselves.

Here’s an example …

Perhaps you have a goal to get up every morning and go for a 30 minute walk. That’s great. But what happens if you’re really busy one morning and you only have 5 minutes to spare? What would you do?

Well, a fair number of us would say “I promised myself I’d do 20 minutes, and since I don’t have enough time I’ll try to do it another time instead — maybe tonight“. Of course, time goes by and you might miss the nighttime practice too.

A few more of these missed opportunities and eventually the habit goes by the way-side and you are back where you started before this habit was first attempted.

Instead, what seems to work better is to maintain the consistent schedule of practice, even if you have to reduce the scope.

You can’t do 20 minutes? That’s fine. Just do 10 minutes. Can’t do 10? That’s okay — just go through the motions of getting ready for your walk, put on your shoes, and walk around the outside of your house for 60 seconds.

It is the consistent, habitual act of taking that action, even if it isn’t in the same scope which you originally planned, that will create a long-lasting, continual habit.

Hearing this idea (and realizing that it was something I sort of knew, but never really consciously thought about) put a shift in my mindset with regards to wushu training.

No longer would I freak out if I couldn’t do all of the basics training I had planned to do.

I wouldn’t beat myself up if I didn’t have enough time to do all of the wind sprints or stretching exercises.

The most important thing is to just get outside and do something — anything — to impress upon my brain the habit of taking that consistent action.

I may have a plan to get out to the track and run a couple miles, but even if I get out there and just end up walking once around the track and then heading home, that consistent habit of going out there is putting me on the path to progress.

I realize that sounds kind of strange. And before you say anything, I’m not advocating being lazy.

You should try, as best you can, to fulfill your obligations and plans. But in those instances where the scope of what you planned to do isn’t possible, then it is better to take ANY action, than no action at all, even if it is a considerably reduced action to what you originally planned.

The boil down

So, what have we covered so far?

First, I talked about how motivation, as a result of it’s emotional nature, is not reliable. It can’t be trusted as an agent of change and progress.

Does that mean it can’t help? Of course not. But I wouldn’t bet the house on my motivation. Use it — but don’t rely on it.

Second, if you want to take action, then big spurts of action are not as effective as smaller actions taken over time.

Does that mean you should never take big actions? Of course not. But make sure it is part of a program where you are using it to stimulate an already established path of smaller actions and development.

Third, that consistency of action is the key to long term growth, and that requires the formation of habits. And that smaller habits are much more effective than larger habits.

Does that mean you should never attempt to make big changes in your life? Of course not. But make sure that you are making those changes in an intelligent way, and that you have established a foundation of habits that can be relied upon.

And finally, it is more powerful to maintain your schedule of newly formed habits than it is to only do it exactly the way you had planned.

Does this mean you can be lazy and do things half-assed because “doing anything is more important than doing it right”? Of course not. Work hard and put in the time you need to put in. But in those off-chances when you can’t do the whole habit, it is better to maintain your practice schedule, than brush it off and lose the consistency.

So, what this all boils down to is this:

If you really want to improve your wushu, then the key is to maintain a consistent course of action, regardless of the scope.

In the end, keeping those self-promises is how you create a path to success.

Because relying on motivation means you are subject to waves of emotion and have to keep “tricking” yourself into “feeling” like you want to train.

And here’s the kicker

Not every time you step in to the wushu guan is going to be an amazing session of wushu. You are going to have some really crappy days of training — where you just don’t feel the groove or you can’t push through the wall of hurt and frustration.

And that is perfectly okay.

If you are consistent in your practice, and at least show up for each practice session, then your odds of having those amazing training sessions — the ones where you make huge progress or come to a new understanding of wushu — are much more likely to happen.

It’s a simple numbers game. The more often you go, the more likely you will enjoy those types of days.

Yes, you will have horrible ones too. Guaranteed. In fact, the number of yucky sessions will increase plenty if you increase your frequency of training.

But that’s okay. In fact, that is part of the process too.

The key is to just show up. Even if you can’t do all you planned. Even if you are late to class or have to leave early. Even if you forgot your wushu shoes at home or don’t remember where you put your broadsword.

Because if you want to know the key to really improving your wushu, it isn’t being motivated.

It isn’t passion. It isn’t energy. It isn’t excitement or friendship or drive.

If you want to get to that next level, there is just one thing you really need to do:

Just. show. up.

And if you do THAT, then everything else will fall in to place.