Routine is the Enemy of Good

The Path Ahead.jpg

Success in life is largely a matter of being good at things. Being good at things is largely a matter of pushing yourself to the edge of your incompetence. Your strength improves most by lifting the weight you can barely lift, and that principle applies well beyond fitness.

What amazes me isn’t that this system works, but how difficult it is to apply.

Take writing, for example. I’d love to become a better writer. Knowing this, I should try to put myself on the edge of my incompetence frequently. Yet I fall into a comfortable routine. Once per week here, twice per month for the newsletter.

I know that routine alone won’t make me a better writer, yet I don’t push myself to the edge of my incompetence regularly. What’s the problem?

Skill Gravity, or What is Interesting Must Become Routine

It would be easy to just say I’m lazy. That if I really cared about improving my writing, I’d push past my routine and seek challenges. Perhaps that’s true, but I think blaming it on laziness doesn’t fix the problem. The reason growth is hard isn’t just because we’re lazy—the problem is deeper than that.

A better explanation of why it’s hard to improve is closer to gravity. People fall back to routine, because that’s the default state. If you stop throwing up the ball, it will fall back to the ground.

This means any plan you can imagine to improve will eventually fall back down. You may progress along the way, but even the most radical changes will eventually become routine once more.

Fitness is a great example. Start running and the first few weeks you get better with every run. Soon the improvement slows. A few months later it may stop altogether. Even if you don’t give up, your initial grand commitment becomes routine.

This isn’t to say routine is bad. It’s certainly a lot better than giving up. Indeed, even maintaining success will be impossible if you don’t show up every day. The fallacy is in assuming routine alone will get you to the next level.

The Chaotic Pursuit of Excellence

Becoming good at anything is often portrayed as a long, smooth gradient. You put in a few hours each week, and after several years you’re a master.

But the reality doesn’t look like that. Because of the constant gravitational pull towards routine, success is probably a series of stochastic jumps. Far from a smooth gradient, becoming good is probably more like chaotic hiccups, or quick bursts of improvement followed by long plateaus of zero growth.

Because becoming good is often seen as a gradient, it creates two problems:

  1. People don’t push themselves up for those bursts of improvement, believing growth will come slowly.
  2. People give up too frequently because they assume zero growth means they’ll never improve.

I fell into both of those traps when running this business over the last few years.

I fell for the first one by making linear estimates for improvement. I would make a four month growth chart with each getting a bit better than the month before it. A more likely model would have been no growth for three months and a larger growth in just one month (assuming I caught onto a key insight).

I also stumbled into the second trap, by beating myself up for having stagnant growth for a long period of time. Yes, sometimes a plateau is a sign of failure. But more often it’s simply a sign of the time between hiccups of success.

Taking on Interesting Missions and Always Staying in the Game

The first lesson is to take on more interesting missions. Since gravity and routine makes steady improvement unlikely, it’s helpful to focus more on the positive deviations from routine. The projects, tasks or missions that put you directly on the edge of your incompetence.

A mission isn’t routine. It’s also not a goal, which merely symbolizes a target. A mission embodies an interesting route, not just a destination. Ten percent improvement is a goal, a mission is an adventure.

Even a mission can become routine if it’s too long. A year ago I set the mission to learn French, but along the way I ended up having similar conversations and my improvement stopped. Smaller missions along the way were helpful because they positively disrupted my routine.

The second lesson is an important, but opposite one from the first. This is that it’s impossible to capitalize on the hiccups of improvement if you don’t stay in the game. That is, trying everything under the sun is worthless if every time you finish, your efforts scale back to zero.

Staying in the game means your first job is to show up, every day. Find a routine that puts you in contact with the skill even when you aren’t actively improving. I took plenty of missions with my writing on this blog, but I still wrote every week, otherwise I’d lose my gains.

The Tension Between Excellence and Stability

I see these two distinct lessons forming the background for the pursuit of the ideal life. On the one hand, you want life to be full of interesting, challenging missions that force you to learn, adapt and improve. On the other hand, you want a stable routine which ensures you don’t lose what you’ve gained.

The balance between these two concepts is crucial. You need to have one eye always on what new missions can be undertaken, trying to ensure you don’t burn yourself out. You need another eye on the routine itself, making sure it’s strong enough to maintain your skills, but light enough that gravity doesn’t completely take over.

Image thanks to CarbonNYC

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  • Mars Dorian

    Hey Scott, it is indeed a challenge – it can get very comfy to fall back to the default state, even though you know that this is a dangerous place to be in.

    For me, it’s all about momentum and keeping the ball rolling. Once you stop long enough, it’s so hard to keep the energy moving so you just have to keep on it !

  • iair

    What I can really see over and over again is your ability to rethink about everything. Now you`ve said Routine is not what we have thought even from what you´ve written before.
    Thank you.

  • Adam

    It’s takes a great amount of energy to create change so it’s no wonder as appealing as it sounds, it’s hard to execute. Everyone has busy lives. Who needs more! Breaking the change down into the smallest possible tasks really helps, too. Great article.

  • Seth M. Baker

    Hey Scott,
    Cool post. I’m a musician, and I’ve come to a similar conclusion. If you only play the same songs over and over, you get really good at playing those songs…with only hiccups of improvement here and there. You only grow and improve when you take on the more challenging pieces.

    At the same time, I still play the same scales I learned ten years ago. Why? Because they keep my chops up. They keep my skills from deteriorating. Running these familiar, comfortable scales means I’m showing up and staying in the game.

    You’ve got to challenge yourself, but having a routine allows you to keep your baseline skills fresh. The trick, as you said, is consistently pushing past the boundaries of the routine.

  • Al fred Hung

    good idea……

    but may still need more guideline to judge when is right time to balance routine vs edge of incompetent in terms of proportion, timing, other signals to swap forth & back, criteria of selection of challenge so as to increase change of success of new challenge……etc.

  • Andrew Ramirez


    This post really resonates with me. I’ve worked for a Fortune 500 company now for 15 years. At the very beginning I was a “grunt”. I was a technician working in the mud, rain, under houses, etc.

    I knew then that I didn’t want to do that forever. I made it my mission to move up the ranks. So I pushed for bursts of improvement. Within a short time I was promoted 2 times and earned myself a “respectable” profession.

    Then something happened. I got complacent again in my routine. I lost visibility of growth in my efforts. This may have been the plateau in between hiccups or perhaps I hit the roof of my (then) paradigm and lost the desire to grow.

    Sad thing…It took me almost 8 years to realize that I had lost my fire and failed to grow.

    Then one day I woke up and got that old fire back. I’m now on my way again.

    Some things I learned along the way (as they apply to your post)…

    1. Everything has a gestation period. We must allow appropriate time to see the fruits of our labor. Too often we pull up the roots of our goal and dreams before we’ve given them a chance to sprout.

    2. We have to get beyond our limiting beliefs. I’ve passed up opportunity many times because of a faulty belief system. Many others fall into the same category.

    3. If we want big results, we have to dream big dreams. Like for like.

    4. Success is a journey not a destination. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. I finally understood what it means. I always tried to “get somewhere” and failed to see the fun, excitement and growth along the way. As such, I was never happy because I was never “there”. I now enjoy every moment and know that every step I take (whether good, bad or indifferent) is a success.

    5. Learning (reading, seminars, coaching, etc…) is about 10-20% of the battle. Its application or action that really makes the difference.

    I hope your readers really take your message(s) to heart and learn and APPLY something that will change their life.

    You provide a great resource.

    With gratitude.


  • Tony

    Thx, Scott!

    You opened up my eyes. Last years i came to understand the importance of learning to have a simple routine and repeating it over and over again. I discovered that if i commited i could make some nice results. Be it learning a language, talking to stangers, weigthlifting. I noticed in the first few months if you repeat it, you can see some nice results. However then after a while the inevitable plateau or stalling began and this proves to be a more difficult part (even when i enjoy the routine). Now i understand that i have to mix in some “missions” to keep things interesting and engaging. I did this in one area of my life (where i have been working for about 2 years on) but didnt gave it a thought. Now i see how this can be applied for any goal i am working on so to ensure that i keep growing. I can use my improved cooking skills to organize a large dinner for a group. I can test out my 1 rep max weights for my lifts or attend a local weightlifting championchip to learn something. I can join a Spanish speaking club. For toastmasters i can volunteer more speaking for organizations (did this once already for a non-profit)…
    stellar post next to the lateral/vertical growth post for me 🙂

  • Peter G. James Sinclair

    Thanks Scott

    Can I take your excellent article even a little further…

    It really does comes down to whether we want the good or the best that life has to offer us.

    To experience the best we must take the leap of faith, for faith will be our greatest companion when we step out from the ‘good’ in search of the ‘best’. This will include our faith in God, faith in our self, faith in our dreams, faith in our passion, and faith in our ability to adapt with every change or challenge that we are bound to face along the way.

    So let’s not put up with the ‘good’ in our life – like the bulk of humanity who fail to reach their full potential – and pursue the best – a life of fulfillment, purpose, passion, destiny and great satisfaction.

  • Steven

    Scott, very powerful stuff here. I think we should never get too comfortable with one routine, even if we think that routine is beneficial, only because real growth comes from exploring our boundaries.

  • Jonny Gibaud

    Actually Dr No is the enemy of good…or is that bond?

  • Brian

    Nice article, this quote came to mind which may somehow apply:
    “Sow an act…reap a habit; Sow a habit…reap a character; Sow a character…reap a destiny.” — George Dana Boardman I just discovered your blog site and am enjoying your articles and the discussions and comments, – thanks!

  • Erin

    I agree. In order to improve, we have to apply deliberate practice, which may not always be comfortable or pleasant. It pushes you beyond the comfort zone and break out of the daily routine. All of the skills I’ve acquired in my life are a result of trying out new things and pushing myself to be good at it.

  • Travis Webster-Booth

    Thoughtful article.

    This is refreshing to read, as I used to hold the belief that ordinary effort, when consistent, could still yield extraordinary results. Write for 30 minutes a day, and in 5 years, you’ll be a significantly better writer.

    But it’s clear from reading this article that this notion of consistent work=extraordinary results only covers the TIME factor. As for what you DO with that time- that’s another matter. That’s where routine sucks.

    Thanks for helping me see the distinction.

  • shreevidya

    small issue , but such a big impact, u hav presented the term “routine” so differently, liked it!

  • Vaughan

    I can’t find a proper way to tell what this blog has done for me…
    So all I am going to day is thank you.
    You have made a difference in my life.