Psychological momentum leverages performance, motivation, attention, and confidence for sustained change. Harnessing it and leveraging it effectively is a way to improve outcomes. and impact.
If you’ve ever seen a team on a hot streak, you know about the power of momentum. Psychological momentum takes the idea first formed in physics and applies it to how we think, act, and align our nervous system to produce sustained high performance. This is about doing something great multiple times over in sequence, not just
To start the second season of our innovation podcast, we outline what it means to have psychological momentum. It turns out most of what gives us that extra push is a combination of most of what we spoke of in Season 1. It’s building a string of successes by repeating what goes well. The more successful you are in an attempt to do something, the more likely you will succeed next time.
At the core of psychological momentum is a model that suggests that being good at something once improves the likelihood of success the next time if done in close proximity.
In a recent study on psychological momentum, Seppo Iso-Ahola and Charles Dotson looked at what leads people to sustain high performance over time. Their model, illustrated below, shows a spark from that initial success that connects to other factors to improve a person’s belief and expectation of success.
In simple terms, initial success amplifies our sense of accomplishment and confidence, reinforces our skills, and teaches (or reinforces) our ability to do something successfully. As they have shown in other work, success breeds success.
When we try something new, aligning our nervous system, perception, and motivation takes a lot of energy. Each time we do something successfully, we lower the amount of energy it takes to do it. We can start relying on more automatic or subconscious thinking as our brain and nervous system neurons ‘fire’ repeatedly.
For this to work, you need to repeat the task or activity in close succession. For basketball players, this might be making a free throw shot and then having multiple times to do it again soon after. To keep the momentum going, that basketball player might want to practice those shots again the next day and maybe every day. This is how Steph Curry became the best three-point shooter in basketball: repetition + success.
Beyond 10,000 Hours
This is not just the same 10,000 rule that has become a myth. You know, the idea that if you put in 10,000 hours of practice, you’ll become an expert — something that is only partly true. The whole truth is that we need to put in deliberative practice. For psychological momentum to kick in, we must pair this deliberative practice with repeated behaviour in close succession. This also needs to be done consistently and persistently. It’s why a team might go on a hot streak in sports like baseball, hockey or basketball, where there are many repeated actions within a game and on consecutive days.
This works for non-athletes, too. For example, if you want to get great at presenting or teaching, try to do it often and together. Do a series of lectures or workshops. If you want to be exceptional at sales, develop a strategy (this is the complicated part and might take a long time) and find a moment when it works well. Repeat it repeatedly to see if you’re getting the same result.
This needs to be given more attention in the model on psychological momentum: evaluation. These feedback mechanisms allow you to correct and learn from what you do. Evaluation teaches you something is performing well and can help identify the levers for positive and negative performance. As organizations, we want to put that into our work. As individuals, it means engaging in reflective practice and taking note of what kind of adjustments we make, the outcomes we have, and the conditions in which we perform best.
Nothing succeeds like success (done often, repeatedly and consistently). There’s a myth that failure is our best teacher: success can be just as instructive. Don’t let your victories be one-offs: leverage the power of reflection, learning and repeated attempts to get better at being your best.
Subscribe and listen to Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.