The Power of Incremental Change

The Power of Incremental ChangeGretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project writes sometimes about things “I wish I could tell my younger self.” I am going to follow suit and write about one of the most important truths I have learned of late that I wish I had learned much, much earlier. And I am hoping this will strike a chord with some of you who are the age of “my younger self” when I could have really used this principle.

All or Nothing

I suppose I have always been an “all or nothing” kind of gal. There was rarely any in-between for me. In some ways, this quality is a good thing (my commitment to God, family, job, etc.), but in others it can be a real detriment. Because rarely are we in a position to give ALL to EVERYTHING that needs to be done. Sometimes, it’s a “here a little, there a little” kind of project.

Cleaning house is a good example. My younger self either cleaned the entire house or didn’t clean at all. After all, what good is a clean kitchen if you have to walk through a dirty living room to get to it? Right? At least that is the way I thought.

Exercising is another example. If I couldn’t walk my two-mile route, I wouldn’t walk at all. I definitely had not yet learned the impact of “baby steps” back then.

A final example regards writing. How I wish I had kept a journal back in the day! It makes me sad to think of all the rich, funny, precious material that has slipped my mind just because I didn’t take the time to record it–five minutes here, ten minutes there. No; because I couldn’t give an hour to writing (this is just an increment of a time that comes to mind; the real issue was that I didn’t think I could complete a writing project)–and I was sure that was what it would take–then I wouldn’t do it at all. For me, it wasn’t a matter of being lazy. It was a misconception that I couldn’t do a good job, and I definitely couldn’t complete the project at hand, in little short spurts of time; so I wouldn’t do it at all.

The Principle that Changed My Life

So what is it that I wish I could have told my younger self? I’m going to call this truth “The Power of Incremental Change.” The word “incremental” is defined as increasing gradually by regular degrees or additions.

You know how I learned this powerful lesson? Through running, of course! If you haven’t already read My Running Story, you must read it, as it perfectly illustrates the principle of Incremental Change. Starting to run in my fifties was a pivotal experience in my life, and so much of my blogging stems from the lessons I learned through that experience. And probably the most important one was what I am sharing in this post: incremental change.

My success in running (you’ll have to read My Running Story to understand how I define “success in running”) inspired me in all kinds of other areas of life–writing, blogging, cleaning, major projects, building relationships, etc. I tried to capture some of these thoughts in a previous post, Small Changes + Consistency + Perseverance = Changed Life.

Today I hope to inspire you to GET STARTED on some projects or goals that you have put off because you think you don’t have the time. What if you gave 5 minutes a day to that project? Or maybe 10 or 15 minutes? Maybe that sounds like a case study in “spinning your wheels” to you, but I remind you, my friends, that I went from not running AT ALL to running half-marathons (13.1 miles) in a relatively short period of time—by adding tiny distances incrementally—here a little, there a little.

How to Use the Principle

So, beyond running, how do I practice this amazing principle? The coy answer would be “Any way I choose.” I use it increase my physical capacity (push-ups, for instance), reading books (at least 5 pages), cleaning my closet (give at least 10 minutes), planning a menu (plan one day at a time; when it’s time to buy groceries next week, I’ll have the whole week already planned), etc.

The most inundating project I currently have going in which I am applying this principle is cleaning and organizing my office. This is not as “simple” as it may sound. It is more than just clearing off my desk and rearranging furniture. It will eventually involve cleaning out my file cabinets and—this is the HUGE part of the project—digitizing and organizing all my photos.

Two or three years back, I decided to attack the photo portion of this process. I bought a table dedicated for this project only, set it up in my office and gathered all the photo albums and boxes of loose photos and placed them on or near the table. Since I had not yet learned the power of incremental change at that time (or maybe I had just not thought of applying it to a project), those photos have sat there ever since. For years! The task was just too large. I never had the time that it was going to require.

Earlier this year, it occurred to me that this was a perfect project in which to apply The Power of Incremental Change. I simply set a goal to do something every day to move this project forward. I didn’t even set a bare minimum requirement; just “something.” Some days, I would spend a mere five minutes or so; but I acknowledged that I had, indeed, worked on my goal, and it kept me committed to the task. Other days, when I had more time, I might spend 20 minutes. Little by little, I started to see order being restored to my office—which inspired me to stay at it! Seeing some progress is so motivating!

I have now gone through the bookcases, put away file boxes of old records in the attic, gotten rid of old, outdated equipment, and I am now at the photo-scanning phase of the project—and I realize that this is going to be a VERY long-term process. It may take months. Possibly even a year.

However, when it is all said and done, my office will be clean, orderly and inviting; my file cabinets will be pared down, up to date and it will be easy to find what I need (and easier to shut the drawers, too!); and best of all, my old photos will be digitized, organized by year, and ready for sharing when one of my kids asks if I know where “that picture of me doing such-and-so is.” As I go through these pictures, I am even being inspired with other great ideas, which of course I will accomplish “someday” because I have learned that if I commit to the task, I can accomplish it little by little (The Power of Incremental Change).

A Timely Principle

I thought this might be a good time of year to write about this amazing little principle. As we approach the end of the year, it seems that we adopt an attitude of “winding down” and “checking out.” We start to focus only on the holidays, and for the most part, it’s as if really meaningful goals and dreams are put on hold. But if you put this simple principle into practice, you will be able to participate in all the holiday activities that you consider a priority and still continue to move forward in other worthwhile endeavors also. No need to put “real life” on hold! You can have your cake and eat it, too!

How Will You Use the Principle?

This principle can be applied to numerous areas of life. It works with money (increasing savings and reducing debt), weight loss (1 pound a week may not sound like much, but how about 8 pounds in two months?), building your stamina and strength (through specific exercises), increasing your running or walking distance, and, as with my example in this post, major projects.

I so wish “my younger self” knew and lived this principle consistently. But alas, I can only appreciate that I have learned it well now. It has changed my life!

Do you practice this principle, or will you? Will you share your example in the comments? It could provoke an aha! moment for someone else. I love hearing from you!

Photo compliments of Batara via Compfight

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7 Responses to The Power of Incremental Change

  1. Nikki Burton says:

    This post gives me vocabulary what God has been putting a focus on in my life! The way I had been describing it was learning to build a lifestyle that can be sustained over a long period of time. I, too, struggle with the all or nothing mentality. I have a tendency to start out with a particular goal with guns ablazin’, and lose steam very quickly, and then have to start all over again. This has become of particular focus because God has been identifying these patterns for me, and is requiring me to take small steps to success, to not view “one bad day” as failure and allow that to derail progress, and pick up again working hard on my goals the very next moment without hesitation.

    • Diane says:

      Oh, Nikki! You are talking my language! From “guns ablazin'” to “nothing.” I so understand! I think it stems from a perfectionistic mindset. Do you agree?
      Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Good blog- little steps turn into giant leaps!

  3. Jordan Boke says:

    I completely get this! Like Nikki even stated, it seems like God is putting his finger on the importance of goal-setting recently, and being ok with the one-step-after-another progression towards reaching that goal. Not allowing the chance of having a “down day” always forced me to restart whatever it was that I had once gone out “guns ablazin” with! I’m recognizing that the one-step approach is giving me more joy inside of the process as well – staying flexible, yet determined.

    Great post – thanks for sharing!

  4. Pingback: Strategies for Making and Achieving Goals This Year | My Pleasant Places

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