Magic of Incremental Change

When I lived in Las Vegas, I rode road bikes with a semi-competitive group. I remember when I first joined the group; it felt like a big victory if I could keep up with them for the first 15 minutes. After a while, that became the first half-hour. Then an hour. One day, almost without even noticing it, I was suddenly able to stick with the pack for the entire ride.

It felt sudden at the time, but, of course, it wasn’t. And although I was surprised, nobody else was because they had all seen it before with other riders or experienced it themselves.

This is the sneaky power of incremental change. Here’s how it works:

1- You make a slight improvement.
2- You get used to it as the new normal.
3- You make a slight improvement again.
4- That becomes the new normal again.
5- Repeat.

The result of incremental change is that we barely notice we are getting closer to our goal, and then (again, seemingly “all of a sudden”) we’re there!

I didn’t feel a lot faster because I wasn’t a lot faster… at least, not compared to yesterday or even last week. I was just a little faster than I was last month. But month after month, ride after ride, it all added up. All those little bits of “faster” started to compound on top of one another.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to riding bikes. I specifically recall one time when I was working remotely for a large company. I got very little feedback on my work and was largely left alone. I loved the independence, but I also struggled because I had no idea if the people I worked for valued what I was doing. I wondered if I was achieving anything at all.

To deal with this struggle, I reviewed each week and noted what I had done. It felt weird at first because I didn’t want it to be seen as taking credit for things, but as the weeks added up and the list got longer, it felt good. I was doing stuff, and that stuff was definitely making a difference.

No one else needed to see the list. It still felt good. It helped me see in real-time how incremental changes add up.

If you build a process of reflecting every month, quarter, and year, you’ll never feel like you’re not accomplishing anything again. And while that may spoil some of the surprises of suddenly and unexpectedly arriving at your goal one day, I promise it will be worth it to feel much better along the way.

Written by Carl Richards. With due credit for his work.

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