May 26, 2020

The Incremental Approach: Win Big By Acting Small

Magic bullets are scarce but consistency is abundant.

We all have goals we want to achieve, and that desire can make us impatient when it comes to getting results. But life has a habit of not giving us what we wish for overnight, and that’s okay. Patience is a virtue, after all.

Taking an incremental approach to our goals (i.e., little and often) can get us significant results without ever feeling like we have had to do a mammoth amount of work. The key word here is often, not little. It is by repeatedly showing up, sitting down, and doing the work that you get your end result. This is how weightlifters get strong. A single gym session won’t make much difference on its own — it is the cumulative effect of showing up regularly that brings about their gains.

Working on a project for two hours a day, Monday to Friday feels like less of a slog than putting in one ten-hour session. It will also give you time to reflect along the way and end up with better work as a result.

Writing a book may seem like a huge task, and it is certainly a commendable achievement. But if you break it down incrementally, it suddenly becomes a realistic goal. If you wrote 1,000 words a night (approximately an hour’s work), you would have a first draft ready in two months. And you would never have worked more than an hour a day at it. See how powerful the incremental approach is?

In the design world, there is something called the MAYA principle. MAYA stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

The idea behind it is that people like a mixture of familiarity and novelty. If something seems too familiar, it is perceived as being old, so it gets overlooked. But if something new is too novel and hard to understand, it seems alien, so people avoid it.

Many great products have failed because they were too far ahead of their time, and the world wasn’t ready for them. The Microsoft tablet is a good example. Sure, it wasn’t as slick as an iPad, but it was available to buy a full decade earlier, yet it flopped.

Raymond Loewy, the highly successful designer responsible for the classic Coca-Cola bottle, the UPS and Greyhound bus logos, and many other famous bits of cultural property, followed this principle. His philosophy was; “design for the future but deliver it gradually.”

This is why progress usually comes from an incremental approach rather than a step-change or paradigm shift. Something that already exists gets given a new feature or spin. Because the product is still familiar, people quickly adopt it and benefit from the new features. This process means that progress looks a lot like evolution.

The same pattern is apparent in personal development. Coaching is a question-led learning process. New coaches (and coachees, for that matter) often expect there will be a dramatic, “aha” moment where one magical question creates a transformative breakthrough for the client. These moments rarely occur, even though coaching has proven to be highly effective.

As I’m fond of saying, the only places magic bullets exist is in comic books and movies. Coaching breakthroughs come from the cumulative impact of many seemingly mundane questions over multiple sessions. The real magic comes from the coach’s skill in using an incremental approach to ask the right questions, not from any single question that they ask.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that if you were to get 1% better at something every day, you would be 37 times better at it in a year. No radical step-changes, just slow and steady incremental improvements, but amazing results.

There’s an old showbiz joke that overnight success only takes about ten years. It may seem like the hot new celebrity has just burst onto the scene out of nowhere, but it’s a sure bet that they were working away hard behind the scenes for years before they got their big break.

And that’s the counter-intuitive thing about extraordinary results. They usually come from fairly mundane inputs. The most significant factor that determines a winner is the persistence to stay in the game long enough for your hard work to pay off.

Paradoxically, failure often comes from trying to seek out magic bullets. Radical changes, born of impatience, tend to take you off course at the expense of focusing on what matters most; consistent, incremental progress. It may not be sexy or exciting, but it’s true. After all, in Easop’s fable, it was the tortoise, not the hare, who won the race.