Heather Weidner is a professional climber living in Boulder, Colorado. On June 25th, 2016 she redpointed China Doll, a 5.14 traditional route near Boulder, becoming one of only a few women to climb that grade on traditional routes. The ascent took about 70 visits. Occasionally Heather wondered if she was making progress. After one visit she said: “I’d think I was making progress one day and the next [day] I couldn’t do the moves.”

We all want to know we’re progressing, that our efforts are producing tangible results. We usually measure progress in a quantitive way: achieving a redpoint ascent, climbing a harder grade, or achieving an intermediate goal such as doing a crux sequence. Intermediate goals lead us to our final goal of a redpoint ascent.

We can feel like we’re not making progress if we don’t make quantitive improvements. Sometimes we can’t do a single move of a crux sequence. This can cause frustration and loss of motivation.

Initially, Heather had difficulty knowing she was progressing on China Doll. She set intermediate goals like climbing through the 5.13c crux. Below are her observations during the first four days on the route:

  • Day 1: “I feel like I have never rock climbed in my life. Feet skating, no hand holds— don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
  • Day 2: “I have concepts of what to do but still have no real idea. The crux is ridiculous. I’m too short and weak.”
  • Day 3: “I’ve tried the crux for hours with no success, however I did half of one of the moves—progress.”
  • Day 4: “Big breakthrough day. Made it through the crux of the 13c for the first time.”

We can see that Heather made quantitive progress during these four days. On the first day she couldn’t even do the moves; on the fourth day she made it through the 5.13c crux. But, there was almost no quantitive progress during the first three days, only “half of one of the moves.” The quantitive progress occurred on the fourth day: making it through the 5.13c crux.

This is typical for all of us. If we put in the effort, eventually we’ll produce some quantitive results. Heather achieved her intermediate goal, yet she felt self-doubt and frustration until she achieved it. We’ve all felt this way when our progress falls short of our expectations. What could Heather, and the rest of us, focus on to reduce self-doubt and frustration so we stay motivated even when we’re not making quantitive progress?

We can change how we measure progress. Instead of just measuring progress with quantitive end results, we can also measure qualitative processes. Processes, however, are more subtle than end results. It’s easy to measure an end result, such as a 5.13c crux or even being able to make one move; it’s not easy to measure a process, such as moving efficiently, resting effectively, or thinking in helpful ways. Processes are more subtle and require us to pay attention, to know if we’re progressing.

We do several processes while climbing, processes such as: moving, resting, and thinking. Moving engages the body, but how we engage it determines the quality of how we use our energy. Resting is important, but how we rest and the quality of the rest positions determines how effectively we recover our energy. Thinking is necessary, but how we think determines actions we take.

Processes emphasize how we do something. Focusing our attention on quality becomes more important than quantity. We measure progress with processes by focusing on the quality of doing them.

Improving movement can be measured by how we engage the body. Are we climbing too slowly, making only one move at a time, and tense? Or, are we climbing continuously, connecting individual moves to create flow, and staying as relaxed as possible? The latter creates a heightened quality experience for engaging the body when moving.

Improving resting can be measured by how we engage the body. Are we over-gripping, rising up on our toes, and breathing shallowly? Or, are we relaxing our grip, lowering our heels, and breathing more deeply? The latter creates a heightened quality experience for recovering energy.

Improving our thinking can be measured by how we think. Our commitment to action is diminished if we’re thinking negatively. Dissecting our thinking process is subtle. We tend to think we need to change negative thinking into positive thinking. Yet, positive thinking tends to conflict with reality because of expectations we create. What we need is clarity: seeing a situation as it is. We do this with neutral thinking; we describe a situation objectively, seek the real information that’s there, without coloring it in a negative or positive way. Neutral thinking helps us focus on what’s possible, given our skills and the real situation we want to engage.

There are many benefits for focusing on improving processes. End results occur in the future, while processes occur in the present moment. We can’t control the achievement of a future goal. We can control processes we do in the present moment. These processes will lead us toward future goals we want to achieve.

Focusing on processes helps us be aware of subtleties we need to change. We become aware of how to grab a certain hold more reliably, find a slightly better foot placement, or notice feeling slightly stronger on a move. These are all processes that add up to quantifiable end results, albeit small. Yet, these small, subtle gains add up. It’s important to stay motivated by improving these subtle processes. If we keep our attention on the quality of how we move the body, how we rest the body, and how we think, then we’ll make quantitive progress.

Also, we enjoy the experience more completely, with less frustration, and consistent motivation, by focusing on processes. We don’t just enjoy the achievement; we enjoy the struggles, the subtle things we learn along the way. We measure both qualitative processes and quantitive end results, but it’s important to focus on the qualitative processes because that’s what we can control. We stay engaged—motivated—even when we’re not making quantitive progress. Including processes in measuring progress brings quality to how we climb, how we deal with challenges, and how we live our lives.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Greg Leach

    Spot on. Thank you Arno. Travel well

  2. Chaoqing

    Thank you Arno for another great lesson. This one resonates with me well as I just had the following experience: a few days I ago I sent my first 10d at Gunks. I wasn’t too excited about achieving a higher grade, but I felt content with how I stayed unaffected by others opinion, how I broke down the route by visualizing and verbalizing the details, how I took the time to find better rest and better gear and how I executed clear transition between thinking and moving.

    It is simple, but it is not easy. Many times, I have seen others and myself give in to ego, whether it is showing off or getting frustrated. Then after the climb, we rushed to celebrate successes or brush off failures, without taking a moment to think about the subtle elements in the process.

    But as I reflect on this experience, I know that focusing on the qualitative progress and process goals makes climbing more rewarding and I am able to take the learning to other parts of life more effectively.

    Awareness, practice, attention, discipline, retrospection…these are all important. How do we get started? A few things come to mind:

    1. Identify a few process goals – reflect and ask ourselves what motivates us to climb. Then set goals that correspond to them. Not too many, maybe 3 to 5. Start small, so it is easier to get started. Write them down, be specific and refine them over time.
    2. Use these goals as a guideline to choose what routes to climb – ask “what challenges and learning opportunities am I seeking in regards to my goals?” vs. “I will climb this route because it is 5.9 and my friend told me the gear is good”
    3. Pay attention to how the performance on each climb aligns with the goals – we naturally focus more on the harder routes and overlook the easier ones. However they are great for practice. Instead of letting our mind to wander away, focus on how to refine movements, gear placement, etc.

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