The Goldilocks Rule

How do you stay motivated to stick with something?

I’m on day 10 of writing every day for the month of November. I’m still here, still standing, still writing, but I must confess… it is a battle to get to the page — or the keyboard, rather — every single day.

In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear shares that scientists studying how humans maintain motivation have consistently found one of the keys is to aim for tasks of “just manageable difficulty.” He calls this the “Goldilocks Rule”:

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

-James Clear, Atomic Habits
Pick your porridge, and your difficulty level, like Goldilocks would.

Furthermore, as Clear describes it, getting into that “Goldilocks Zone” of “just right” is the key to achieving “flow state,” also known as being “in the zone.”

I’m trying to get better at getting in the zone, so I can stay there longer, write more, and work towards a more ambitious writing goal.

What I really want is to write a book. I’ve tried several times. I’ve written several outlines. Multiple versions of the introduction. An entire wall of my writing space is dedicated to post-its of ideas and thoughts and quotes for The Book. The trouble is, as I’ve come to realize, the goal is a bit too far outside of the manageable difficulty zone.

So rather than get overwhelmed and avoid it (too easy) or beat myself up over not having done it (too hard) I’ve decided to take a new approach… move the difficulty zone closer to the goal.

That’s why this daily writing commitment, for me, is more about establishing a routine, setting a new rhythm, building the habit of writing back into my life, than it is about the words itself. Writing a book? Too difficult. Beating myself up over not having done it yet? Too easy. Writing just f*cking something every day? Just right.


Simply believing in the reason for the commitment to the new habit, though, doesn’t mean motivation is always going to be there for me. As Clear writes,

“I can guarantee that if you manage to start a habit and keep sticking to it, there will be days when you feel like quitting…. When it’s time to write, there will be days that you don’t feel like typing. But stepping up when it’s annoying or painful or draining to do so, that’s what makes the difference.”

So this is me, stepping up. And when James Clear’s very rational and scientifically-backed wisdom isn’t enough, there’s always Anna Delvey.

Ever since watching Inventing Anna on Netflix, I’ve had her words rolling around in my head: “The reason you haven’t done it yet, is because you haven’t f*cking done it.”

Julia Garner as Anna Delvey/Sorokin in Inventing Anna

“If it’s important enough, we do the things we want to do.”

-Anna Delvey (Inventing Anna)

Of course, this isn’t universally applicable. Not everything is in the realm of possibility for every person. I want to be a tour guide in space, but I can’t just call up Jeff Bezos and ask for a job giving astronomical commentary to his passengers on his next shuttle to the stratosphere. (Or can I?)

Writing The Book though? That is within my realm of possibility. It’s not too easy. Right now, it’s still too difficult. But if I keep pushing those edges of my current abilities, keep challenging myself to grow in ability and capacity to write, I may soon get to the place where it is just right.

Day 10 of Nano Poblano! Click on the pepper to cheer on my team.

4 thoughts on “The Goldilocks Rule

  1. When working on big writing projects, I try to write 4 pages a day. Some days, I can do lots more, but that is the goal – 4 pages. And it worked! So you are right to get into a routine.

  2. You’re on the right track! This: ‘building the habit of writing back into my life’ is exactly the way to go about it. And once you’ve got the habit built up, you’ll find it surprisingly hard to break.

  3. Personally, I’ve always found it easier to get myself into a writing rhythm when my writing partner Matticus is involved in some way. When we’re writing something together, I’m more likely to find the time to write because I don’t like the feeling of having someone waiting on me. Even when we’re not writing something together, we find ways to motivate each other. We haven’t done it in a while, but we used to have contests to see who could write the most words in a day on our respective solo projects.

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