The Power of Incremental Change
You may have read my recent article, “Why You Need a System”, if not, give it a read after this and, spoiler alert, I cover why it’s vital you have a system in place to act as an engine of improvement, driving you towards your goals. For those who’ve read it, I’ve hopefully convinced you about the ‘why’, but the ‘how’ is a little trickier. Well, don’t worry, I’m here to add tools to your toolkit and make you an unstoppable locomotive towards a better life you’ve curated for yourself.
The first tool being, you guessed it, incremental change.
Lower Your Expectations
There are two big mistakes I see when people create goals, one is they have good long-term goals but no daily or even weekly action they can take to drive them towards that goal. The second is expecting too much of themselves. Don’t get me wrong its good to set lofty goals, I’m all for it, but if the translation of those goals to daily actions is you need to spend 4 hours making sales calls, and you currently spend 0, its going to be tough to make that happen. Too many goals can have the same effect of make things too complex too fast and requiring too much of you.
Lets take Sally who is 20kg over her healthy weight and she sets the goal of dropping back down to a healthier weight zone, she is even smart enough to break this goal down and wants to lose 5kg of fat per month so she’s ready for summer. Without boring you with the maths and factoring in that she currently overeats by 1500kcal per week (that is how she got to 20kg overweight after all) this equates to a total calorie reduction vs her current routine of 540kcal per day.
In real world terms, that’s roughly the number of calories in someone’s lunch i.e. an entire meal, or a 1hr run at 8kph. Sally has to either cut out a meal or do that run daily. Ignoring the health implications of stripping weight that quickly, it’s fairly easy to predict that Sally won’t be able to fit in a 1hr run every day and is unlikely to stick to a diet that cuts out an entire meal especially as she currently does none of that and has built up no healthy habits. Depending on her motivation, she’ll quit and be in a food coma surrounded by pizza boxes within weeks. Even if she succeeds in dropping the weight in 4 months, she’s likely to put most of it back on (see this study) when she’s allowed to “eat normally” again.
So, what’s she to do? What if Sally had aimed to reduce her daily calorie intake by 200kcal? That’s roughly a 30-minute walk or cutting out a snack. That’s much more achievable. After a month of cutting out her 200kcal bedtime snack, she adds in a walk 3 times a week, then four, then 3 walks and a tennis lesson, etc. Sure, she might not lose 20kg in 4 months, but she could lose 5kg and will Sally look and feel better for it? You betcha! The kicker? It was as easy as cutting out an evening snack and going on a couple of walks! It’s much more sustainable and she’s more likely to keep those healthy habits going and reach her target weight, and then keep it off, thanks to the sustainable habits she’s built up. As her walking and eating habits become virtually automatic, she can slowly improve on them and she’ll actually be creating a bigger difference over time. It’s very likely by next New Years she’s either met or is very close to her 20kg weight loss target.
It’s hard when we’re motivated to tell ourselves to slow down and keep it simple. We want to grab life by the balls and seize the day! Perhaps it’s this so-called maturity realising you’re simply not going to do 1,000 press-ups every day. It can feel a little lacklustre going for a 30 minute walk, but set the goal to do it every day no matter what and perhaps you’ll find it’s not so easy to hit 100% attendance. A meal with friends comes up, or it was a long day at work. Of course, if you’ve already built up some habits it might be a little easier for you, for others it’ll be very difficult. The key take away is you don’t have to run a veritable marathon every day to lose weight, and that is analogous to any goals you might have. Stop trying to sprint out of the gate. Simple, sustainable changes and habits are all you need.
Let’s Do the Maths
How do we know what’s achievable? When I say people expect too much of themselves its often because folks have set their goals based off other people’s baselines that are different to our own.
How many Instagram challenges do you see for press ups, squats or whatever, where within 30 days, after already exhausting your muscles, you’re expected to do 100 squats? Typically, the people posting these things are already fit and healthy and can do 100 squats, or close to it. However, poor old you can only do 10 at the start, so for you that’s a 900% improvement in just a month. It’s unsurprising that although they hook people in with day 1 = 1 squat (“I can do that!”) people who can’t keep up generally fizzle out towards the end and don’t find those challenges the least bit helpful. What’s worse, is we can become demoralised when we see the fit, healthy, SOB who posted the thing smugly completing the challenge. You wouldn’t be alone in feeling inadequate in that moment, but they didn’t have the mountain to climb you did. They didn’t have to improve by 900%; you’re holding yourself to a much higher, nigh impossible, standard than the poster.
What if instead we just tried to be 1% better every week. Just 1%, that’s it and most importantly it’s based off your own baseline. You’re being just 1% better than yourself last week. Doesn’t that sound very doable? Of course, the 1% depends on what you’re doing, it may be too small or large an increment, for now we’re going to consider being 1% better per week as I find that covers most things quite nicely.
For those who failed/forgot their maths, quickly, to get 90% of something you times it by 0.9, therefore to see a 1% improvement, i.e, 101%, you times it by 1.01. Got it? Now, what if every week we multiplied something by 1.01 52 times, because there are 52 weeks in the year? We would get:
i.e. over a year, if you got 1% better each week you would see a total 68% improvement at the end of that year. That’s nuts right? For those freelancers/side hustlers out there, if you’re currently making £500/week (£26k yearly) and you focused on increasing that by 1% per week, so next week you focused on selling something for an additional £5 and so on, do you know how much you’d be earning after one year? You’d be on £840/week (£43,680 yearly), that’s a massive difference! Life changing for some people. You can sell a piece of junk from the back of your wardrobe for a fiver. As time goes by maybe you get good at selling junk and people start sending you their junk to sell. Perhaps instead you make something and sell that, that’s doable, right? You just have to convince a single person to buy something that makes you five pounds. Then over time you have a store of ten, twenty, fifty products that you can make and sell. It actually starts to get a little easier as you get better at pitching your doohickey, you build a reputation, get reviews and word of mouth spreads your name. Suddenly you have a reasonably sustainable supplement to your income. Grafting for that little extra money goes a long way in the end.
This goes for any goal. With weights training it is called progressive overload. Every week you increase the difficultly by a small percentage. For those gym rats out there, what would happen if you increased your lifts by 1% each week? By the end of the year, a modest 100kg deadlift turns into a meatier 168kg deadlift. Suddenly sticking those tiny 1.25kg plates on the end of your stacked bar might actually have some value after all. In fact, it’s even easier than that, 1% is only 1kg more the first week, you’d need to find 0.5kg plates to stick on. (Yes, yes plateaus are a thing and there are limits but let’s not get into the specifics of strength and conditioning for now, in theory the principle still stands, particularly with beginners).
You’ve Had Some Carrot Now Here’s The Stick!
What happens if we do the opposite and get worse by 1% every week?
As we can see if we get 1% worse every week, we see a whopping 41% regression. So, as we’re lounging around barely noticing we’re getting 1% worse every day, spread over one year the difference suddenly becomes very stark.
I like to describe this as the New Year’s Resolution cycle. We start the year with our ambitious resolutions, we exercise every day, start a ridiculous diet, pledge to do better at work etc. 90% have given up by February. Then over the remaining 48 weeks, we get a little more sluggish, we work a little less, or we sleep a little more. Trust me, as someone who has personally experienced getting slowly fatter over a period of two years, it’s barely noticeable on a day-to-day basis. That is until you’re triggered by a photo on social media or not fitting into a suit that used to be too big. 1% is barely noticeable until it compounds to a 41% regression and then it slaps you in the face with the full force of a wet salmon.
Then, naturally, we make more resolutions, we tell ourselves this time we’ll be motivated but wind up failing anyway and through the cycle we go until we become increasingly cynical about the whole thing. You can likely think of a person who’s a tad overly cynical about resolutions, goal setting and any form of self-improvement. Maybe that person is you? This is the danger zone and this is where we lose our grip on personal responsibility and personal agency. Here we’re in danger of letting things go completely, blaming others and ultimately, especially when it relates to health, dying before our time without having achieved what we wanted out of this one precious life we get.
After that bleak image to flip this back into the positive, it’s also a barely noticeable increase when we’re trying to get better and the resolutions cycle is easy broken. All we have to do is manage our expectations, set our targets off our own baseline and be kinder to ourselves. Then we can improve slowly but inexorably towards our goals, like some kind of titanium tortoise. How’s that for an analogy, eh? (Calling the name Titanium Tortoise as the name of my band).
Break it Down
It’s good, important even, that we start with a vision of where we want our life to be. Whether you want a fast car, a successful business, good health or a happy marriage (it requires work people, you need to set goals for that) then it’s vital you lay down your vision for that and what exactly you need to do to reach it. Once we have that we need to work towards it with achievable milestones and being realistic about our own current baseline. We now know just being 1% better than last week corresponds to a 68% improvement over one year. By the way, a slightly more ambitious 2% better compounds to a 180% improvement.
The beauty of the 1% improvement is it simultaneously helps to break down our goals into bite-size chunks, it makes them very real, very achievable and very specific. You know what you need to achieve on a daily basis and can therefore build habits that you can track and measure. I can increase my running distance by 1% each time, no sweat. Can I write 1% more per day than last week? Painless. It’s very easy, but you still need a smidge of discipline to make sure you meet your 1% each week. Knowing what you’re supposed to be doing is half the battle, you can keep track of that progress, be aware of when you’re slipping and keep the course steady. Before we know it, it’s the end of the year and we’re smashing life! We have mostly good things to reflect on during our New Years and we’ve measurably improved upon last year, making us much more optimistic about the years to come.
What else is possible if we can just improve it by 1% per week? Could you be earning more? Setting up that business? Writing that novel? Be getting closer to those Efron abs? The possibilities are literally endless and eminently personal. It’s perhaps not as exciting being a titanium tortoise, but it’s a damn sight more effective and more attainable.
This article was written by Cameron Readman. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!