Steady, Incremental Improvement is a Myth

If you’re want to double your income from $4000 per month to $8000 over a year, what is more likely:

  1. Increasing your monthly income by $350 each month.
  2. Spending 11 months to go from $4000 per month to $4050, then getting to $8000 in the last month.

I’d say that the second, although it seems less likely, actually happens more often.  Successes are lumpy.  You can experience huge improvements over a few days, and then relatively little improvements for the next several months.

Unfortunately, predicting smooth, incremental success when reality actually offers lumpy success can lead to a lot of frustration.  I know I’ve spent time burning myself out to reach the next level in my business, fitness or another area seeing no results for months.  Then, a lucky break can create major change with little effort.

For months, this website was stalled at about 4000 readers.  Then over just a few weeks it bumped up to 6000.  I went from being able to run 5km to over 17km in just a few runs, after being stuck at the 5km.  This process can be frustrating, because it’s nicer to get smooth steady feedback showing you’re on the right direction.

Success is Lumpy

Expecting success to be lumpy is one of the best ways to avoid frustration.  If you know that your gains probably are going to come in large chunks, you won’t get stressed when you make little progress after some recent goals.

The best analogy I’ve heard from this is of the stonecutter from Harvey Mackay.  The stonecutter takes a large hammer and slams it against the granite boulder.  From that strike, he can’t even see a scratch in the surface.  But he hits the hammer again, and still not a mark.  Most people would get discouraged, but the stonecutter understands how the stone breaks.  He can hit it one hundred times without a mark, and on the one hundred and first, it splits in two.  The lack of feedback from the first strikes doesn’t discourage him, because he knows his persistence will pay off.

If you see your pursuits the same way: sudden splits after months without a scratch, it’s easier to work without getting frustrated.

Triggering Splits

I’ve found that the lumps of success tend to come when you make a sudden change.  It could be an external change, like moving to a new city or starting a new project.  Or it could be an internal change, such as setting new goals or finding a new source of motivation.  The sudden changes often trigger improvements.

Although the sudden changes may trigger a lump of success, they don’t cause it.  It is all the praiseless work you do beforehand that builds the pressure up.  The lessons you learn from failures and the skills you calibrate when you aren’t getting the results you want are really what build up the success.  The triggering event just rewarded you for the investment you already made.

Two years ago, my revenues saw a jump after I released my first product to the website.  Although creating it and publishing it didn’t take significant effort, that success was the result of all the other work I had put before it.  If I hadn’t spent time building up readership, or I hadn’t built skills from working on failed products, then nothing would have happened.

Watch the Investment, Not Just the Trigger

People like to talk about success stories.  A lot of focus is put on the triggering event, the moment that made that person successful.  The person who loses 100 lbs on a miracle diet.  The person who starts a blog and turns it into a financial success.  The people that think of an invention and turn it into a successful start-up.

Less attention is paid to the silent investments leading up to that success.  The years of practice, the failed attempts, the mistakes.  Success stories are written that these people succeeded in spite of their past blunders.  I say they succeeded because of them.

Luck certainly plays a role.  But, luck is a manageable risk.  You manage it by putting in work even if it doesn’t directly pay out results, but because it has the opportunity to pay out later.

Triggers are Sexy, The Investment is What Matters

Focusing on trigger events can mislead you.  Although success may be lumpy, and those lumps may trickle down because of a sudden change, the sudden change didn’t create the success.  If you focus too much on trigger events, you can jump between projects, people and pursuits, never getting anywhere.

The cause of improvements is the steady, boring investments you make every day, often without seeing any results.  Since those are the least interesting, they are the easiest to forget.  And, since they aren’t directly tied to successes, they are the easiest to dismiss.

Here are some examples of sexy trigger events versus boring investments:

  • Exercise – signing up with a new personal trainer versus showing up to the gym
  • Writing – getting your book published versus writing every day
  • Business – signing a big contract versus spending time understanding what your customer wants

Why Naively Using the 80/20 Rule Can Defeat You

People avoid boring investments, not just because they are boring.  The reason people avoid them is that they aren’t directly tied to success.

As a blogger, I know many people that chase after links from huge publications or major social networking exposure.  And, as someone who has experienced that, I can say it results in a lot of success.  Writing less headline-grabbing posts on a regular basis seems like a waste of energy if it doesn’t lead to those big hits.

But, naively eliminating those investments is a self-sabotage.  Although my biggest successes in blogging have come from trigger events, they are difficult to engineer.  Writing quality content, over time, is the surest way to have those trigger events happen.

The same thing is true of your health.  You may find you suddenly drop a lot of weight when you switch to a new diet.  But constantly switching between diets isn’t going to lead to long-term health the same way that habitually exercising and eating healthy foods will.

Applying the 80/20 Rule is the process of eliminating the events that contribute least to the results.  But you need to do it intelligently.  If you eliminate the boring actions that only indirectly contribute to your results, you may eliminate your results all together.  The 80/20 Rule should be applied to eliminate the things that aren’t core to your success.

Living in a Lumpy World

Steady improvement is a myth.  It’s more likely that it will come in lumps.  That can be frustrating, because there isn’t always a direct connection between the lumps and the actions that caused them.  Avoid getting caught by flashy, trigger events and focus on the core investments that make those lumps possible.

  • Aatash

    I agree. I’ve noticed as well, that when you close your eyes put in that long period of hard work, while getting little praise or visible results in return, at some point that trigger pulls itself and gives you that lump of success. Sometimes you just gotta trust that that it will happen, and not give up too early.

  • J.D. Meier

    I think it’s a numbers game.

    You stay in the game of incremental improvement and periodically you hit the jackpot. It’s unpredictable, but the part you control is showing up and consistently taking action.

    There’s a big difference between sitting idle, waiting for your big break, and taking action, hoping for your big break. I like the saying, luck is when skill and opportunity come together.

  • Lee Stranahan

    Great post – I did a little riff on it, aimed at artists here –

  • Chris

    I agree with you Scott.

    I’ve been trying to improve my communication skills and so far its been a slow process. I can go a while without feeling like I’m learning anything and then it will click. It’s a slow process. I’ve read your articles on communication and I’ve always been wanting for more. Your site is really usefull – you write good articles.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments,

    Chris – I tend to write whenever I have ideas. I get more productivity ideas than communication ideas, but I try to write about it as much as I can.


  • Joe Lofshult

    Thanks for the post. Nice to have a little reminder that I need to keep putting in the day to day work on my blogs, my job, and my business even if I don’t see progress right away.

    The idea that progress is lumpy, not steady, reminds of the book Mastery by George Leonard. In it he described improvement as a stair step. Months of laboring with no signs of improvement and then, all of a sudden, a change occurs and you notice improvement. Then maybe months more before the next improvement. But without the investment over those months you never would have gotten anywhere.

  • Dr Paradise

    It is amazing that all the best advice in the world will not work with everyone. You have a great site and an admirable mission. Humans being what they are, are prone to certain self degrading acts that seem to creep into a lifestyle and become hard to dislodge. Good advice, and a great web page, I can see you have a great future in the motivating and inspiring of people. The great thing is that you will get better as you go along and hone your skills. You will find the going tough and human resistance hard to overcome, but I am sure you will do it. Thanks. I enjoyed my visit.

  • Loren

    I agree with some of this. Yes, success is lumpy, and it can be very random. But I also believe you can achieve success in gradual
    incrments as well. An example would be working on my own home based business, while still retaining my day job. I am incrementally increasing my earnings and bank deposits. Then, we get our tax return from having stayed with our day jobs all year and there’s a little bonus money that is a lump sum. You could also use the example of selling junk on ebay to increase your earnings (incremental) and then the government sends you a stimulus check (lump). One more…Say you work out with weights every day and you see yourself getting fit and muscular, at a gradual rate (incremental) then one day while working out on the punching bag, you hit it so hard that the bag flys off the support beam. (lump) I believe you have to MAKE your own success, by working at it every day, AND accepting trigger dividends that come along now and again randomly.

    “People only see the “LUCKY” guy in his sailboat cutting through the waters with wind in his sails. What they don’t see is the other 364 days he’s out there working at it.”