The Two Kinds of Incremental Progress

The kind that leads somewhere and the kind that doesn’t

I’ve been struggling to organize my home office for years. I’ve made a variety of resolutions to ‘finally’ buy the right chair or invent an organization scheme for my notes, tidy a little bit each evening — none of it stuck.

I did tidy in small increments as planned. But I ended up cleaning the same layer or clutter over and over as it built back up, never getting any closer to the comfortable, organized office I needed.

Taking a tiny step in a process that seems overwhelming is one of the best ways to start. However, all types of incremental change are not equally effective.

I’ve often come across this pattern of incremental changes that don’t add up to anything, on a small scale my own life, and also broadly in social groups, companies and society. It applies to nutrition, lifestyle, social change and technological change — any area where we apply effort, yet nothing seems to be happening and so our attempts fizzle out.

What do you need to make incremental change lead you where you want to go?

Increments of the right size and shape

Making changes to your behavior, however small, has costs in effort and discomfort. If you make a change so small that its effect is imperceptible, that effort and discomfort will appear to have been wasted.

If no perceptible change occurs over a period of time, you sap your motivation and train your brain to think that change is futile.

Sometimes, making a small change has a positive effect that is quickly reversed by the erosion of normal living. For example, taking 10 minutes a day for a hobby helps you de-stress, but the effect is quickly wiped out by the usual stresses of work life, now exacerbated by trying to add this time to your schedule. Finding the correct amount time for the hobby will ensure that the time spent has a net-positive effect, and counter-intuitively, this amount of time may be longer than the bare minimum. This is what I mean by choosing the ‘right size’ of increment.

By the right ‘shape’ of increment, I mean that the change might need to span several areas of your life to have a net positive effect. Changing just one area might cause problems in another area, so the incremental change might have to include two changes, one to counteract the problem caused by the other. An example of this is when your new hobby affects your sleep cycle, and so you have to modify your sleep habits in tandem.

Continuity

For incremental change to do any good, its effects have to accumulate over time. That can only happen if you do it often enough for the benefit of one action to carry over to the next.

Each time you take an action, there needs to be a next action in the pipeline. And it has to happen before the insight, motivation boost, or shrinking of the task from the previous action wears off.

You don’t necessarily need to work on the change every day, but there needs to be a clear trigger that will cause you to return to the task. It could be a calendar reminder, a milestone, or time of day that reminds you that you need to continue working toward the end goal.

It helps to keep a notebook or digital document where you write down your observations from each action, so that you can pick up where you left off.

Course corrections

Each increment gives new insights. It can be tempting to just ignore whether any of the actions are working and just keep doing the same thing, especially if the change isn’t your top priority.

However, continuing to take an action that has no perceivable benefit is counterproductive, because it’s demotivating. So the additional effort of diagnosing what’s not working and updating your plan will save effort in the long run. Just spinning your wheels for months is far worse than having to spend a few hours assessing progress.

Escalating commitment

Change has to start small because you don’t know the whole road map. So it makes sense to make things easy on yourself when you are just starting out and figuring things out.

However, once you get past that point, and the changes get bigger, the reaction force pushing you back to the old equilibrium gets stronger. As you make new activities a bigger part of your day, the disruption becomes uncomfortable. At this point, you can’t make the changes easy on yourself any more. You have to commit to working through the difficulty.

The same effect is noticeable on a broader scale in society, as recent events have shown. After makes progress, the from society grows and opposes the progress made. At that point, continuing to do what you have always done is not sufficient.

To keep from reversing the progress you made, you have to increase your commitment and effort the longer you go.

I eventually did break out of my home office organizing rut when I had a reason to spend some concentrated effort setting up — I moved to a new house. I finally tackled several interdependent issues at once: the lack of storage space, the lack of a scheme for organizing notes, and wrong-sized furniture. Beyond a point, I couldn’t tidy until I had places to put things, and I couldn’t buy shelving until I had an organizing scheme.

The change was still incremental, because I had to break it into several sessions, but the increments got bigger.

Each increment couldn’t be a bit of random rearranging. It had to be enough organizing to make an appreciable difference (the right size of increment), so that I’d experience the improvement and come back to it motivated. I had to revisit the process often enough to keep up with the clutter of daily use (continuity).

And when I identified issues in the setup, I had to figure what was wrong (course correction) and spend some concentrated effort doing the tiresome work of moving furniture around (escalating commitment), even though I’d much rather just try to work within the clutter.

There are two kinds of incremental progress. The kind that goes around in circles, re-treading the same ground until it dies out, and the kind that builds in momentum and grows in effect. To create the latter, you have to line up the increments just so. Haphazard plodding won’t do.

Even if you set up your changes to have all the factors I listed above, the initial feeling that nothing much is happening is common and likely. When you give yourself the best chance of success, you can wait out the slow start with optimism that all your effort will add up over the long run.

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