The Myth of “One Percent Better Every Day”

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Every year around January first, a popular notion of getting just a percent or two better every day spreads far and wide. It sounds great, but it’s often unrealistic, especially if you are already skilled to begin with.

For example, try telling these people to get just a percent or two better every day:

  • Someone who deadlifts 500lbs.
  • Someone who runs a 2:10 marathon.
  • Someone who writes beautiful essays.
  • Someone who develops impeccable code.

Not gonna happen.

A more accurate description of progress looks something like this: When you are brand new to an activity, you might get 100 percent better every day. As your skill level increases, the gains will become more incremental—ten percent, five percent, one percent, half a percent, a quarter of a percent, and so on. Eventually, the gains will be so small you can’t even observe them. At this point, you might find yourself on a plateau for a few days, weeks, maybe even months. And then suddenly, you breakthrough.

In other words, progress is non-linear.

The implication of this truth is both simple and significant: If you are addicted to visible progress you will not last very long in whatever pursuit you do. This is a big reason so many people burnout after the honeymoon phase of trying something new.

A better approach for sustainable progress looks something like this: Frame the work as an ongoing practice; measure and judge the process; and let progress be a byproduct of that.

The more skilled you get at a given pursuit the more important it becomes to release from attachment to acute progress. It also becomes increasingly important to find joy in the work itself, and the community in which you do it. That’s the stuff that will keep you coming back for more over the long haul, providing nourishment and motivation to show up when you are stuck and providing gravity to keep you grounded when you succeed.

Keep pounding the stone. Some days nothing happens, some days it cracks open.

Brad

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3 comments

  • Jesse Thomas: “People often see the relationship between hard work and success as linear: the more you put in, the more you get out. But to get to the next level, you need to realize that the curve goes down at a certain point, and with more work, your performance suffers because you’re limiting yourself. Once I found balance, I had so much more success.”

  • “Progress is nonlinear. Keep pounding the stone. Some days nothing happens, some days it cracks open.”

    Beautifully put.

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