The “power of tiny gains” rule, aka “1% better everyday”, is not only impossible to keep up, it can negatively impact the stories we tell ourselves because of unrealistic expectations. Lets add some nuance to that rule.
The problem with improving yourself 1% everyday
It is no secret that I have a hate (80%) / love (20%) relationship with the self-improvement genre.
On the “love” side: there are a few rare resonant gems hidden in some of those books that click and stick immediately. Those can have a profound impact on how you view yourself and the world around you.
The “hate” surfaces when excellent marketing, social media hype spread catchy oneliner quotes and formulas that promise outsized gains in whatever personal improvement endeavor we embark on.
One that has been coming up a lot lately again in conversations I have, is the “1 percent better every day” rule, or the “power of tiny gains”, made popular by James Clear in his bestseller book “Atomic Habits“.
The idea of that rule is that if you improve anything by 1% everyday, you would be 37 times better at it after one year.
Sounds good. Catchy. The math is pretty simple (1.01^365), and the expectation of outsized results can be summarized in one simple sentence.
Except, you would be 1427 times better after two years. After year 3, you would be 54000 times more betterder.
The promise of “Exponential growth” as a carrot on a stick
The promise for “exponential growth”, aka “the hockey stick graph”, aka the “compounding effect” is everywhere.
The idea being that if you do not see current results, it must mean you are on the left side of the that curve. You should keep at it, because eventually you will hit the right half of that curve. Results will shoot up and then you will be golden.
But the truth is that exponential growth is not guaranteed and oftentimes simply not possible. Even lineair growth in self-improvement, is just about impossible.
Running a personal best every time
Years ago, I had a discussion with my brother-in-law. He was running ultramarathons at the time and I was training for a 10k run. Not having run for a few years, I was starting from scratch. Although I had not heard about the 1% better rule at the time, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the fact that for weeks I was “stuck” at running the same times over and over, even though I was very strict in my training schedule.
His one remark, opened my mind: “If you would be improving every run, you would be running personal records everytime you put on your running shoes”.
That may be possible at the very beginning (though not recommended because of the risk of injuries), but it is not something you can keep up for very long.
Measuring habit improvement
Improving yourself 1% everyday is very hard to measure. Especially in the context of habit formation and personal skill development.
What would improving “brushing my teeth every day” look like?
How do you measure improving non-competitive skill development? Playing the piano, writing, reading more? Even if it is required for your profession?
These things just don’t make sense.
Let alone that improvement should be an objectively measurable goal when learning to play the piano, make a podcast, write a blog post, etc.
Finding joy in doing the activity is a completely valid reason to keep doing it. If you keep doing it, it is likely that you will get better at it, whatever “better” is.
If not “1% better”, what about striving for continuous self-improvement then?
Nope. Forget it. Not possible, not even diserable if you ask me.
Because outsized results, require outsized efforts.
In order to keep improving, you need to keep putting in more effort. By the time you are 37 times better then you were a year ago, the effort required to improve another 1% is a lot higher. Not sure if it is 37 times higher, but a lot higher for sure.
That means, that the desire to keep improving ourselves increases the (mental) strain we put on ourselves. That strain multiplies if we decide to take on several (seemingly tiny) changes at the same time.
When surrounded by people or a (company) culture that pushes the continuous self-improvement narrative, the stress on some individuals can become crippling. That is why I am not a big fan of SMART goal setting. Many of the self-improvement goals, are not objectively measurable or if they are, it is not what they are about.
Top athletes put in tremendous effort for marginal gains. Top professional musicians practicing hours a day, just to stay at their level of performance.
Craftsmen and -women keep honing their skills, but are they objectively getting better every time?
At increasing levels of performance, increasing amounts of effort are required to even stay at that level of performance. Top performers are at the top of their game, because they have made that performance goal their singular point of focus.
Be kind to yourself
All is not lost. I am not advocating to be a couch potato because there is no hope.
Just don’t burden yourself with the expectation that you should continually pile stuff onto your plate and expect positive, lasting change to occur.
Don’t burn yourself out.
Don’t spread yourself too thin.
Don’t tell yourself to feel guilty because you cannot do it all, all the time
Realise that you have had 24 hours in a day, every day since you were born. So far, you were always able to fill those hours, day in, day out.
If you keep piling up stuff to do, there comes a point where you can’t keep up. Makes perfect sense, except that is when many people I talk to, start looking at their efforts as “failures”. The “joy of doing the thing”, has been replaced by “joy can only be had if certain criteria are met”.
I catch myself doing that every now and then. Don’t let self-reflection turn into rumination.
A reasonable way to look at improvement
If you entertain the desire to improve an aspect of your life, big or small, realise that it takes time and effort. We just established you are already getting through 24 hours a day without this extra thing. Therefore, putting in time and effort to improve something, will have to come at the expense of something else.
Realising that before you set a new goal will help you increase your chances for improvement, while being kind to yourself.
What’s in it for
Another way to look at your desired change or improvement, is to ask the question “what is in it for others”?
How will those around you, benefit from the improvement you want to make? Think about the ones you love. The ones that love you. Think about your friends, customers, clients, etc.
Sitting with that question for a while, helps you to relate your desired improvement to your core values. Consider meditating on it, journalling about it, but try to find a way to relate your change to the rest of the world you live in.
Next, focus your mind on effort instead of outcome, and pick the best day to start your change and you are doing yourself a favor.