Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ian Newby-Clark (Habit Guy) of My Bad Habits.
If you read Zen Habits with any regularity—and shame on you if you don’t—one thing should be perfectly clear: There are no quick fixes. Making change in your life takes time.
When you work at something day in and day out, you achieve huge positive change in your life. If you don’t stick to it, your results can be disappointing. No amount of “blitzing” a series of workouts, “cramming” for exams, or “crash dieting” will get you the results that the Power of Gradual can.
Try this as an experiment. Make a tap leak ever so slightly—maybe a drop every half minute or so. Put an empty bucket below it. Now, go on with your day. Forget about the tap. Actually, I don’t need to tell you to forget the tap. You just will. Sometime later, stroll by the bucket. Holy heck! There’s a lot of water in there. It might even be overflowing (the author will not be held responsible …). That’s the Power of Gradual. It’s the effect of a small thing happening over and over (and over) again.
Compound interest is all about the Power of Gradual. It turns out that there is a fairly easy way to accumulate a comparatively large amount of money. It’s slow, but it works. Put as much money as you can manage into a compound interest account. The earlier the better, so do it right now. Make regular deposits into the account. Don’t look at the account. Make the deposits automatic so you don’t have to think about it. Before you know it, it’s time to retire. Look at the account balance. Holy guacamole, you’re rich!
I see the Power of Gradual in my writing too. I write every working day for two hours or so. Sometimes, especially when I’m writing a first draft, the two hours feels wasted because I’ve been doing the literary equivalent of babbling. I return to the piece the next day and rework it. I rework it the next day. Sometimes I don’t even know where it’s going for a few days. All of “sudden”, it comes together. Of course, there’s no “sudden” about it. It’s the Power of Gradual.
The Power of Gradual works because, quite simply, little things add up to a big thing if you have enough little things. Given enough time, the steady drip-drop of water becomes an ocean. Given enough time, small regular deposits become a small fortune. Given enough time, steady work at my awful first drafts yields a passable final draft.
But here’s the thing. We tend to be surprised by the Power of Gradual. We’re shocked at the amount of water in the bucket, at the size of our bank account, at the beauty of our writing.
That’s because we pay a lot of attention to the immediate, the big, the splashy. Examples abound. We notice the person on television who apparently lost thirty pounds in three weeks. We pay less attention to our next-door neighbor. She’s been steadily losing three pounds per month for the last year and a half (54 pounds!). We weep at the death of our favorite actor or a recent airplane crash, but we are casually indifferent to the increasingly worrying news about the AIDS pandemic in Africa. We admire a beautiful sentence and forget the hours of slogging it took to get it just-so.
Let us be mindful of this tendency of ours. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by the immediate, big, and splashy, we’ll forget about the Power of Gradual. We’ll cram for the exam the night before instead of reading the text for an hour every day. We’ll go for a big run every week instead of three or four small runs throughout the week. We’ll forget about the effects of eating the same fatty breakfast sandwich every morning …
Remember the Power of Gradual. Remember it in your dark moments when the weight isn’t coming off, when you’re poor, or when you can’t think of a way to write something down. Relax. Keep going. It will come.