This morning, I rolled out of bed, took a shower, meditated, and then flopped on the ground and did 80 consecutive pushups. It was the 365th day in a row that I’ve done pushups. Whether I was on vacation in China or hungover after the prior night’s regrettable shot of Malort or my country had just elected a reality TV persona, I did pushups. No days off.
By the end of my 80 reps, I was breathing a little hard and the last 5–10 were a touch difficult. But all things considered, it was pretty easy. A year ago I would have struggled to do half that many. And while I probably could have pushed myself to grind through another 10 reps today, I deliberately stopped at 80 – just as my precise schedule dictates. You see, each week, I add one more pushup to my number of daily reps. No more, no less. This is tiny gains in action.
A little over a year ago I read an article by James Clear about something called “tiny gains.” The concept is simple: consistently making very small improvements beats inconsistently seeking large improvements. This isn’t a new concept – we’re all familiar with the fable of the tortoise and the hare – but there was something about the way James presented the idea that hit home.
In another of his posts on the subject, he writes:
Almost every habit that you have – good or bad – is the result of many small decisions over time.
It’s so obvious, and yet it was an unfamiliar way of looking at the world for me. As I’ve written previously on this website, I’m an impatient person. I think the standard pace is for chumps. And yet, there are areas of my life in which my default approach of taking stairs two at a time hasn’t worked out so well. Three of these areas are fitness/strength (once I stopped playing athletics competitively), diet/nutrition, and personal developmental projects.
In all three cases, I’ve oscillated between a short-term passion for the subjects and long stretches of feeling nothing but dread and psychic angst when they come to mind. I’ll read a book about fitness and get really inspired. Then I design an optimal workout plan that will produce massive gains in a short time period. It’ll work! And then I’ll get completely burned out and stop working out altogether. A couple months later, I’m back to square one.
The problem is that these areas of my life aren’t lasting passions. At this point in my life, working out and deciding what to eat feel more like distractions to my life than life itself. So I can’t rely on my interest in or passion for these subjects to overpower periodic laziness and keep me progressing. Instead, I have to find ways to trick myself into doing the right thing.
For a long time, I didn’t realize this. But after reading James’s articles on the subject, something clicked. Since then, I’ve read The Power of Habit and How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big (which, among other things, discusses how Scott Adams uses “systems thinking” to his advantage). Now I’m finding ways to build habits and systems into my life that allow me to make progress while on autopilot and not waste precious resources like willpower. And the concept of tiny gains is at the core of nearly all of these habits and systems.
The “gains” part of tiny gains is pretty obvious, but the importance of the “tiny” part is more nuanced. We tend to think that we should push ourselves beyond what we think we can do, and in approaching our lives in this way we’ll accomplish more than we otherwise would. “Shoot for the moon – Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” sort of an idea. I think this can work extremely well, but only if the risk of burning out is very low. For example, if you’re incredibly passionate about something, you can push yourself to the limit and you’ll be ready to go again after a good night’s rest. Or if you have some sort of structure in place to make you follow through (e.g., a friend who you work out with, a bet with some friends, etc.), that might be enough to overpower the tendency to burn out.
If you don’t have a fiery passion for a subject, and there aren’t any sustainable structures that you can use to your advantage, pushing yourself to the limit will almost certainly fail. This is where tiny gains has the advantage. When I started applying tiny gains to pushups, I started with a very easy 15 pushups each day. After the first week, I increased that daily count to 16. That tiny increase didn’t provide a noticeable change to the difficulty. And in that way, I slowly built a habit without ever feeling like I was working to build that habit. A little over a year later, I’m doing 80 every day without much difficulty.
I’ve slowly been incorporating this concept into other areas of my life over the past year, and I couldn’t be happier with the impact it’s had. From the slow-carb diet (which sacrifices efficiency in favor of improving the probability of compliance) to combining the “do something” principle with pomodoros in my work, I’ve found ways to start small and slowly, almost magically, produce meaningful returns in areas of my life that I’ve long been stagnant.
So tomorrow, for the 366th day in a row, I’ll roll out of bed, take a shower, meditate, and then flop on the ground and do pushups. Here’s to another year of tiny gains! 🙂