Here's How to Embrace—and Get Through—the 'Messy Middle'
August 29, 2018
We hear it all the time, from our mothers, trainers, and Instagram motivational memes: Starting is the hardest part.
But sometimes, that’s not the case. Sure, diving into a big project, new job, or even a workweek, can take some courage. But once you’re in it, you have to swim—and that can take more effort than anticipated.
There are waves.
A current drags you in an unexpected direction.
Other swimmers bump into you and convince you to take another path.
It’s why we so often start projects and abandon them halfway through—what was supposed to be the easy part, sandwiched between the herculean tasks of starting and finishing, suddenly doesn’t seem like such a breeze.
Meet the 'Messy Middle'
Coined by entrepreneur Scott Belsky (and detailed in his upcoming book, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture), the messy middle is that part of a project when things start to feel a little scrambled. Maybe a side hustle is going a little differently than you’d anticipated, or maybe you can’t seem to remember why you thought this was such a good idea in the first place. Perhaps it’s the end you’ve lost sight of, and now your task feels like it might drag on forever.
Part of the problem is that we assume that by gritting our teeth and beginning, the hard part is over. But that’s often not true. In his newsletter, Belsky writes, “In reality, the middle is extremely volatile—a continuous sequence of ups and downs, expansions and contractions. Once the honeymoon period of starting a new journey dissipates, reality hits you. Hard. You’ll feel lost and then you’ll find a new direction; you’ll make progress and then you’ll stumble.”
As an entrepreneur, Belsky’s “middle” can last years. But the middle of anything—a work task; cleaning your apartment—can seem impossible a few hours in. Success lies in getting through the mess of the middle. Here, how to do it.
1. Map out the Mess
Real talk: Things often seem messier in your mind than they do on paper.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by the state of your project, or what you have to do next, try writing it down. Map out the things you’ve done, what you’re working on now, and next steps. Get creative with different colored markers, or create a middle-school-style flowchart.
Just be sure to write down your end goal as well—research has shown that putting your goals down on paper makes us more likely to remember them, even when the going gets tough.
2. Recognize the Small Wins
The finish line can seem far away when you’re stuck in the middle. So instead of racing toward one big endpoint, break your project into chunks to help you recognize the smaller “ends” along the way. That might just look like creating a to-do list broken down to the micro level, then checking off each accomplishment, or it might mean treating yourself to a reward after a day’s work.
Studies have found that when we achieve—and acknowledge—small goals, the brain releases a hit of the feel-good chemical dopamine, which both boosts concentration and triggers us to want to experience that same sensation again (aka complete another task). That means that those small wins can snowball into a rush of motivation, driving you to your larger goal.
3. Get Comfy With Changing Course
By now, we’ve all seen enough motivational doodles on Instagram to know that success doesn’t always look like a straight line—usually, that line goes up, down, left and right before it finally meets the end of its journey. But when it’s your line and not just a meme, that uncertainty can be a little harder to stomach.
Remind yourself that it’s impossible to really know your path until you’ve embarked on it, and that changing course is a necessary step toward success. For more tips on embracing change, read this.
4. Call for Backup
You know those friends of yours? Those coworkers you see every day? That guy who handles all your FedEx shipments? Use them. Tell them what you’re doing and why, and ask them to hold you accountable by checking in on your progress.
A handful of studies have found that gentle peer pressure can actually be a good thing, forcing you to hold yourself to a higher standard because you know others are watching.
5. Remind Yourself Why You Started
It’s easy to lose your mojo once you hit the middle. When you start to feel a little lost, take a moment to remember why you began. You can even say it out loud: What did you hope to (or need to) accomplish? Why did you start? What’s the end result?
Checking in on your motivation—and verbalizing it—can bring you back to those early feelings of excitement that you’d lost along the way.