(from Carl Richards blog posted 7/15/2021. You can find the original post and subscribe to his weekly newsletter here. Carl Richards is a Certified Financial Planner®, New York Times columnist and best-selling author. Two of his books are “The One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money” & “The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.” Hundreds of his sketches about investing, money and behavior are archived on the “Your Money” page of the New York Times. Follow Carl on Twitter @behaviorgap.)
Greetings, Carl here.
Back when I lived in Las Vegas, I used to ride road bikes with a semi-competitive group. I remember when I first joined the group, it felt like a big victory if I could just 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 small improvement.
2- That becomes the new normal, and you get used to it.
3- You make a small improvement again.
4- That becomes the new normal again.
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. In fact, 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 what I was doing was valued by the people I worked for. I wondered if I was achieving anything at all.
To deal with this struggle, I started reviewing each week and noting 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 making a difference, for sure.
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 quarter, month, and year, you’ll never feel like you’re not accomplishing anything again. And while that may spoil some of the surprise of suddenly and unexpectedly arriving at your goal one day, I promise it will be worth it to feel much better along the way.