What can you get done in a day?
How about a week, a year? What about 5 years?
Probably less than you want, right?
What’s up with this compulsion? We live in a world obsessed with “hacking” our productivity. We want to squeeze the most out of every moment. We’re terrified of the passing of time, so to compensate, we run hot and burn ourselves out.
Our need to hack our lives, to be productive at all costs, trains us to think near term. We ask ourselves, “what can I achieve this week? What can I achieve today? And we do so at asking ourselves what we can achieve over a year, a decade or a lifetime.
If we look deeply at why we want to achieve anything, it’s typically wrapped around a global shift in how we perceive ourselves. For example, you say you want to learn how to write twice as fast, but really you want is to be a writer! Following?
And while I don’t want to discount the importance of near term habit, it’s the aggregate of work across time that drives big goals.
Seth Godin has a great quote that I fully believe. He says, “The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track — this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.”
But I’ll go one step inward. This daily work is how we change. It’s how we become the person we want to be, not just the person we are doing something.
Today we’re going to talk about incremental progress.
I think it’s one of the most obvious steps in the transformation towards your creative self. And while it’s one of the simplest ideas to grasp, it’s one of the most difficult ones to execute.
What is Incremental Progress
Incremental progress is neither a difficult concept nor a new concept. Definitionally, it’s simple. It is the steady progress towards a goal. It’s building the castle, one brick at a time, day in and day out.
I’m certainly not the first person to talk about the power of incremental gains. I’m pretty sure James Clear has made a “habit” of discussing this process. That’s a pun for those not in the know. Check out his blog if you don’t get it.
Like Clear, most people discuss incremental gains in terms of process improvement. For Clear, that’s about developing better habits day-over-day as you drive towards self-actualization. In his book, Atomic Habits, he tells the story of the mid-1980s Los Angeles Lakers and how they focused on getting 1% better each day. Spoiler, they won the NBA Championship.
And that’s cool. The book is great, and you should read it.
But I’m not even going to get that deep. I’m not concerned with you improving. I’m only concerned with you achieving an outcome. For our purposes, incremental progress diverges from incremental gains by focusing on getting more done, not getting better.
That’s not to say that it won’t lead to improvement. We’ll cover that in a bit. That’s just not the primary purpose. The purpose is production.
Think of it this way. We’ll keep with the basketball analogy. Incremental gains are practicing shooting a basketball for 15 minutes every day. Each day you work on your form, your shot, your timing. After a year, you’re pretty good at shooting that basketball. Way better than you were before.
Incremental progress would be you buying a basketball and throwing into your backyard every afternoon. Well, after a year, you’d have a shit ton of basketballs in your backyard, right?
Incremental progress doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of work you perform. It’s more of the habit of working and building something over a period of time. In the case above, you built a backyard full of balls.
This is all about time putting work in, and in this instance, putting in a little at a time.
And don’t get me wrong. Improvement and quality are important, but we can only get to them after we get a handle on doing the actual work.
Why is this important?
For busy people with multiple interests, the only way to see real results is through the powers of incremental progress. There’s just not enough hours in the day. This is especially true for those interested in creative pursuits. These things can take a long time to reach fruition. For example, writing a novel.
Great, terms defined. Now let’s talk about why this easy concept is so damn hard.
The Flaw in the Plan
Incremental progress seems super easy, but it’s a very hard skill to execute and master.
Why? It bucks against our human nature. We like results, and we get frustrated when we don’t immediately see the fruits of our labor. I’ve talked about immediate gratification somewhere before. Certainly here. Check it out.
Let’s go back to our writer friend. It’s hard to tie together writing 500 words a day with the final product of a book or a successful blog. You get frustrated when you’re slogging away and you can’t see the big picture. It’s like the museum scene in Ferris Bueller when they do the cut by cut moving closer to the pointillist painting.
When you get close, all you see are dots. There’s no painting at all. The vantage point is what gives you the payoff of the full picture. We get frustrated when all we see are the dots!
But guess what, without the dots, there is no painting. And even that painting started with a single dot.
If you have real goals, and you want to get to them amid a busy life, you have to master making dots. A few now, a few later. Even when you can’t see the big beautiful picture yet.
Feast and Famine
We’re natural bingers. That’s the problem.
And the reason we’re natural bingers is that we get such a high out of immediate gratification. It fires all those dopamine receptors and makes us feel rewarded for our work.
We take this approach across our lives. If we have a cake, we’re going to eat the whole damn thing right now. If we exercise, we’ll run all the miles on Sunday. If we’re going to write a book, we’re going to write ALL THE WORDS TODAY. And if we can’t, we stall out and say we can’t do it. We’re not good enough. We don’t have the time.
There are lots of reasons for that. When time is ticking against you, it feels wasteful to work on a project so slowly. It’s like building a pyramid one piece of sand at a time.
It feels like you’re spinning your wheels because you don’t see progress fast enough.
You feel like you’ll never do this project justice since you can’t dedicate all the time you need to work on it today.
I catch myself falling into this trap ALL THE TIME. I’ll think about all the work I’ve put into the blog. Maybe the countless hours I’ve put into language learning. And I’ll wonder where I’m at. Shouldn’t there be more to show for all this?
This can be infinitely demoralizing.
This is a corrosive mindset. It’s fundamentally inaccurate and will lead to failure. It’s also painfully common.
Quantity vs quality
There is evidence that quantity drives quality.
Because creation takes practice, like everything else in the world.
It’s the same as an athlete. How many times do you think a professional quarterback throws a football in his lifetime?
Spoiler, It’s a lot.
The same goes for writing a book or a song. If you want to be a creator, you need to create a lot to fully understand what works and what doesn’t.
But we fall into traps, especially when we’re making art or craft. We believe that everything we produce has to be “quality.” This can be very frustrating.
If you read a lot or listen or listen to music, you probably know what quality is when we see it. When something resonates with you, you just get it.
When it feels like we can’t reproduce this quality, we struggle, and a lot of times quit.
But honestly, we have a hard time identifying what is good from a qualitative perspective. We can’t say, oh, good has traits A, B, & C. Instead, we “know it when we see it.” We can feel when it works.
Tying the understanding of good to the making of good comes from production. From working on things. From writing and rewriting. From time spent.
It comes from training our bodies and minds towards a goal.
And that comes from repetition.
The good news is, the more quantity you can pump out, the closer and closer you’ll get to quality.
This is where the feast or famine mentality shows its weakness.
If we binge, we might push out a pile of work in a short time. We might even be proud of our production. But we failed to give ourselves the consistent repetition of production and examination that leads to locating and replicating quality.
We wonder why we put all this work into something that isn’t working. We erroneously believe we worked towards something and failed.
But where we really failed was not understanding that we’re working within a process, not working towards a product or outcome.
The Value of Process in Incremental Progress
Incremental progress has everything to do with practice. Just as a karate student goes to the dojo 3 times a week, repetitive work is the practice of the form.
So too when we take on creative or thought-based work. We should let go of the idea of making something fantastic or beautiful our first go around. It is about developing our artistic senses. It’s about manifesting ourselves in its purest form.
Process allows us to accept that the work isn’t always about the work we’re doing right now. It’s about laying the groundwork of our artistic senses. It’s about mastering a skill set or craft. The work becomes a process of development. It becomes us becoming the person we want to be.
Viewing work this way frees us from the need to get everything done today. Or even to have a body of work to show for our efforts. Seeing it as a manifestation of ourselves relegates it to our other daily habits like showering or brushing our teeth.
It’s something we work on and perform regularly.
And in doing so, we push forward incrementally with each passing day, making progress.
Let’s say you’re a writer. You decide the best way is to write 500 words a day.
A good and normal goal.
So, you get going, and you knock out 2 weeks, and you’ve got 7,000 words. Then things happen, life gets hard, you stop. A year passes, and you have 7,000 words.
Well, what if you hadn’t stopped? What if instead, you wrote 100 words a day. Well at the end of that year you would have had over 43,000 words! Let’s say you only did 50 words; you’d have over 25,000. That’s a good amount of writing!
Sure, it’s not as much as you’d get from doing 500 a day for a year, but it’s way more than the 7,000 you got when you stopped. And if we track this over year. Those numbers skyrocket.
That’s the power of incremental progress.
But numbers are meaningless in a vacuum, and they elide the struggles of working towards a goal like this.
The creation of art or the learning of a skill is not a linear endeavor. Things fall off the rail, it gets tough.
If we can harness the skills of incremental progress, we guard ourselves against these pitfalls. We do so by separating the outcome from the practice. And in doing so, we get to plug away at our craft. Always getting better, always making more. And if you can master this skill, in no time, you’ll be able to reap the harvest of your work.