Making Progress a Little at a Time

We live in a world where most things are more easily accessible to us than they were in the past. And we have been turned into people who, when we want something, we want it now. An unspoken “do something, see quick reward” expectation is a fallacy many of us share in one form or another: When a summer trip to the beach is approaching, we want to quickly get into shape. When an exam is just around the corner, we scramble to prepare for it, hoping for a good outcome. When retirement nears, we look for short term investment options, hoping to squeeze out a few more dollars in the time that we have.

These examples share a common thread of seeking instant reward. But is this really the way life really works? Can someone learn how to play guitar after a few months of practicing? Does a student understanding computer circuits after a single college course? Does a few weeks on a basketball court give someone the skills they need to perform on a team?

While it’s easy to look for instant rewards while working towards any goal, approaching longer term goals from this perspective is not the best approach for a successful outcome. What is worse is that our desire to seek instant reward while tackling our goals can be damaging: Someone learning to play guitar may be tempted to give up when, after a few weeks, their fingertips have yet to build resistance to the strings. Someone trying to lose weight may diet too intensely, eating too little too frequently, causing an unhealthy binge rebound. A young author attempting to write a book may struggle for months and months, trying to get everything “just right” that first time, only to find they went “all in” at a bad time, and must revert back to an 8 to 5 job, causing them to give up on writing all together.

Alternatively, large tasks or life goals that are approached consistently and a little at a time are more likely to show visible results over a longer time period, eventually reaching the intended outcome, all while instilling good habits.

For example:

  • An email inbox that you’ve been using for ten years may have thousands of messages in it. Organizing it overnight is probably an impossible task. But, if you file ten emails a day you will eventually sift through them all.
  • If you are trying to become stronger, starting out attempting to bench-press twice your weight probably does not make sense. Starting by pressing a weight that your strength can handle, and adding fives pounds every few weeks would be more reasonable. Over time you will build to your goal.
  • Writing a book in a couple months on a topic that means a lot to you may take more time than you are able to invest with the other things going on in your life. But, writing an article a week on the topic will eventually lead to a catalog of writings from which you can select your top pieces to be edited into chapters of a book.
  • A massive debt of thousands of dollars isn’t something you can pay off in a few weeks. But, if you set aside a fixed amount from every paycheck, you will slowly pay off the debt while being able to live a reasonable life in the meantime.

Are you going to a reach a point in life where you want something instantly, or worse — need something instantly? Will you be able to achieve what you need at that point in time, or will you regret not having been working towards that need over the years leading up to when it finally surfaced? What longer term goals do you have?

Building towards any rewarding goal is going to take time. Think of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. “Slow and steady wins the race”, they say. Approach daunting tasks a little at a time, but approach them consistently. Log your progress. Look back on what you have done every few weeks, and every few months you will see improvement. Practice your instrument when you have nothing to play. When you can’t save a dollar, save a dime. Write when you have nothing to write about.