Old (and not very funny) joke:
Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.
Here is a word I’ve been contemplating recently: incremental
Incremental [in-cre-men-tal] adjective: of, relating to, being, or occurring in especially small amounts or degrees; from the Latin incrementum meaning “growth, increase; an addition”.
The concept of taking small steps leading to small, steady progress and improvement has its basis in the word incremental. The concept is one of accrual — small gains lead, over time, to major growth and development.
Small gains. Walking 10 more steps today than you did yesterday. Eating 1 more serving of vegetables and 1 less of sugary, processed foods. Saving $1.00 instead of spending it. Writing 50 words in your novel. Expressing silent gratitude for 1 blessing. None of these endeavors by itself will have a big impact, but built upon over time, any one of them can be life-changing. The keys are incremental growth and consistency.
Robert Maurer tells us in One Small Step Can Change Your Life why small, incremental improvements are more effective in making lasting changes than a major innovation, or radical reform. His method is based on the Japanese word kaizen. Kaizen means “improvement” or “change for better”. In the manufacturing sector, it has come to mean “continuous improvement” based on making many small changes.
But kaizen isn’t limited to industry. It also has a useful place in personal growth and improvement. Dr. Maurer says: “Change is frightening. . . This fear of change is rooted in the brain’s physiology, and when fear takes hold, it can prevent creativity, change, and success.” And “All changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.” [Maurer]
Taking one small step, in and of itself, will not make any difference. The change must be incremental – small increases over time, and consistent – done every day. Consistency is key. “Character”, says Hyrum W. Smith in The 3 Gaps, “simply stated, is doing what you say you are going to do.” You are not only making small improvements in your life, you are building your character.
Incremental change bypasses the brain’s fear response, and consistency actually changes the structure of the brain by adding to the growth of the myelin sheath around nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted. “With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow — incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional
practice forces your brain to play catch-up. Or, as the music education pioneer Shinichi Suzuki puts it, ‘Practice on the days that you eat.’ . . . The other advantage of practicing daily is that it becomes a habit. The act of practicing — making time to do it, doing it well — can be thought of as a skill in itself, perhaps the most important skill of all. Give it time. According to research, establishing a new habit takes about thirty days.” [Coyle]
Focus on you. Consider your BIG – Bold, Important, Gratifying – goal. Don’t have a BIG goal? Consider creating one. If you have a BIG goal, and you’ve already broken it down into smaller, incremental steps or goals, consider your next step. Now, what is the next action you must do to accomplish this step? Break that action down to the smallest component you can think of. Then do the action. Do it again. Do it again. Keep at it, day by day. Once you’ve become comfortable with that, slightly increase the intensity or the duration or the frequency or, if appropriate, move to the next small step.
For example, Dr. Maurer tells of the overweight, stressed-out single mom who was suffering from high blood pressure and exhaustion. He knew of a cheap, proven method to help her . . . exercise. He also knew it would be futile to suggest she find 30 minutes to engage in an exercise program when she had no time for herself, other than a few minutes a day when she collapsed on the sofa in front of the TV. So Dr. Maurer asked her this: “How about if you just march in place in front of the television, for one minute?” The patient thought she could do that. And the next time she came in, she had been so successful that she asked, “What else can I do for 1 minute?” Eventually, she was eagerly enjoying a full exercise program. [Maurer]
If you are stuck in place, making no progress, or can’t even get started, forget innovation – making a huge, drastic lifestyle change. Instead, consider incremental and consistent — take a tiny, seemingly insignificant, step. Then take it again. And again. And again.
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
Thus the little minutes,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
~ Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney
Incremental and consistent – that’s embracing the Excelerated Life™!
Excelerated Self-discipline™ — doing what you say you will do — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Read more about the Excelerated Life™.
Coyle, Daniel. The Little Book Of Talent. New York: Random House, Inc., 2012
Maurer, Ph.D., Robert. One Small Step Can Change Your Life. New York: Workman Publishing, 2004
Smith, Hyrum W. and Richard L. Godfrey. The 3 Gaps – Are You Making A Difference? 2015
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