The saying “go big or go home” may have a nice motivational ring to it, but unfortunately, generally those who go big end up home. I think a better aphorism would be “small, incremental steps lead to massive gains.” It may not carry the same inspirational firepower, but it’s far more honest — and how most progress actually works.
Whether it’s in creative work, athletics, business, or academics, you’ve got to practice pacing. If you “go big” and over-exert yourself too early, you’re likely to end up in trouble; either in over your head, prematurely fatigued, or injured and burned out.
Small steps open up the door for compounding gains: each day you get a little bit better from the place you were the day before. On a day-to-day basis the gains may seem trivial — perhaps even too small to notice— but looking back over weeks, months, and years the gains can be enormous.
In endurance sports, it’s always the athletes who are most fired up and gung-ho on the start line who blow-up later on in the race. However, the athletes who go out conservatively and stay within themselves execute what is called a negative split: they get faster as the race goes on. They groove in, find a rhythm, and steadily build upon it, picking up momentum as they go.
The same theme holds true outside of sports. Those who build the highest quality businesses, professional and creative careers, and interpersonal relationships almost always start modestly and gradually pick up steam. They, too, negative split.
For example, research shows that if you want an emerging passion to occupy a larger part of your life, the best way to get there is to start small and progressively grow over time. In doing so, you maximize the chance that you’re moving forward more often than backward. This opens up the door for something called compounding gains: each day you get a little bit better from the place you were the day before. On a day-to-day basis the gains may seem trivial — perhaps even too small to notice— but looking back over weeks, months, and years the gains can be enormous.
Those who build the highest quality businesses, professional and creative careers, and interpersonal relationships almost always start modestly and gradually pick up steam.
The conundrum, of course, is that “going big” is so much more thrilling than going small and progressing incrementally. Going big feels great in the moment. But come mile 13 of lives’ respective marathons, when we realize we’ve still got 13 more miles to go, we often wish we would have gone out a bit more modestly. Taking the long view requires patience, purpose, and discipline. It’s about tempering one’s excitement and channeling it wisely, creating an upward spiral of compounding gains.No one day is heroic, but the accumulation of many is.
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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine.
Originally published at medium.com