The Power of Incremental Change Over Time

I have always been fascinated by the power of incremental change over time. Most people underestimate this. They think they have to take massive action to achieve anything significant.

Men's Hands Holding a Measuring Tape Against a Wall - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/michellegibson, Image #14720530

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/michellegibson

I am not opposed to massive action. I have used it myself to achieve certain results. But it causes most people give up before they ever start. They just don’t think they can make the investment.

For example:

  • I have a friend who needs to lose fifty pounds. He can’t seem to get started. Why? Because he thinks he will have to go on a radical, unsustainable diet.
  • I overheard a man at the coffee shop complaining to his friend that he hasn’t taken a family vacation in years. When his friend asked why, he said, “We just don’t have the money.”
  • One of the guys I mentor confessed that he had never read the Bible all the way through. When I asked why, he said, “You mean, other than the fact that it’s about 1200 pages long?”

What these people don’t realize is that they could make small, daily investments that would soon lead to big results. Here are seven examples to get your creativity flowing.

  1. Losing Weight. Earlier this year, I lost eleven pounds in six weeks. A friend of mine lost 83 pounds in a year. Both of us did it using LoseIt. We didn’t do much other than record what we ate daily. By becoming aware of what we were eating, we made healthier choices.
  2. Paying Off Debt. One of my friends paid of $15,000 in debt in less than a year. She didn’t do anything radical. She simply setup a budget, took opportunities to make extra income, and cut back on gourmet coffee and other non-essentials. She used Dave Ramsey’s “debt snowball” to pay off her smallest debts first, then the larger ones.
  3. Improving Profitability. In a publishing division I used to run, we decided to improve our margins by 2% over one year. We chunked it down to one-half percent per quarter. We focused on targeted price increases and expense control. It dropped over a million dollars to the bottom line that year.
  4. Writing a Book. I have used my blog to write several books. I mapped out the book and then wrote it one 500-word post at a time. Using this method, you can write a 50,000 word book in 100 days. At my pace of about five posts a week, that takes just twenty weeks. Plus, you get great feedback along the way.
  5. Running Long Distances. When I started running, I could barely walk a mile. Then I discovered Jeff Galloway. I started running for one minute and then walking for two. Gradually, I increased my distance and the time I was running. Within a year, I was able to run my first half marathon.
  6. Reading the Bible. The bible is a big book, no doubt. But in less than 15 minutes a day, you can read the entire Bible through in a year. Here’s an online plan I used for several years. Currently, I am reading through The NKJV Daily Bible (Thomas Nelson).
  7. Saving Your Marriage. I had another friend in a really bad marriage. On the advice of his mentor, he started practicing “5 for 5.” He simply walks in the house after work, moves within five feet of his wife, asks her about her day, and listens for five minutes. Though a small start, it has now grown to 30 minutes a day. Their relationship has reversed course.

I’m convinced you can do almost anything if you are willing to clarify your goals and then make the incremental investment over time to achieve them.

Question: What small steps could you take today to move you toward a big outcome? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://brandonweldy.wordpress.com Brandon Weldy

    I want to run a marathon. But I do realize I cannot get up one morning and just go run the 26.2 miles to finish. I started running just 2 miles everyday and after a week I slowly work my mileage up. 
    Another goal of mine is to build a sustainable youth ministry, one that would survive, even if I was to leave. I want to see parents involved, students inviting each other, volunteers taking over some bigger roles. But I cannot just spring this into action. I have started with having a weekly event that is a little more low key for newcomers, as well as a more intensive study time for those who desire to grow their faith. I am involving volunteers in small ways and will slowly  give out more responsibility. I talk with parents who come on Sunday morning and those who don’t get a letter. I will set up times to talk with the parents about their children and how we can work together to encourage their faith. That is the basic idea.

  • http://www.spencermcdonald.net Spencer McDonald

    Today I could invest 30 minutes in creating my “Slump Buster” seminar and set a small goal to do this over the next 5 days. At the end of that time I will have 150 minutes of energy directed at helping my dream come true.

  • http://twitter.com/1WeeSpark OneWeeSpark

    This was very inspirational…especially since I work for free, and I do something that I am unaware of anyone else doing. I’m a SAHM and I often find myself feeling as though my days aren’t productive enough. This encourages me to look at small increments and to press on. Thanks!

  • Rob Sorbo

    Great stuff Michael. 

    I will definitely check out some of the resources you mentioned, specifically Loseit and Jeff Galloway. I’ve been using the One Year Bible website this year, and it has made such a huge difference. This will be the first year in my life (I’m 27) that I read the Bible the whole way through.

    I recently competed in the alumni rugby game at my alma mater’s last homecoming. I intended on starting a fitness plan months ago, but got overwhelmed by all of the massive changes I would need to make to be fit enough to play rugby. The end result is that I didn’t really try and I was so unfit at the alumni game that I could barely play.

  • http://www.cathrynhasek.com Cathryn Hasek

    My bible study group has been working through Romans 12 via a bible study by Chip Ingram.  I have found myself so moved by the calling to be “all in” with Christ.  Chip Ingram does an amazing job of explaining that to be “all in” is a process.  You must study yourself and discover where you are needing a change, needing to give up an addiction or negative activity in your life, and then overcome it enough to give it to God.  

    I have been doing some serious self-evaluation and little by little, in small increments, I am overcoming some major obstacles that are blocking my path to be “all in” with Christ.  It is amazing what Christ can do in your life if you trust Him with the worldly things you “think” are what you need and in giving them up, allow Him to give you the Fatherly things that really work and bless you.

    I will eventually be “all in.”  It’s an attainable goal, but one that happens in small steps.

  • http://www.shoutsfromthewilderness.com Cody Kimmel

    Thanks so much for this post! There seems to be a fascination with instant success in this culturem, but it is a success that doesn’t last.

  • Prem

    Hello Micheal,
    Absoultely great points. Most people (me included) wait to do something ‘big’ in order for ourselves to recognize it as being significant. When i was a kid, i was taught to respect and learn from the work ethics of ants..building an empire of colony from small incremental but consistent effort. This, i believe most people who also be aware of. However, as we grow up, we lose sight of this important lesson.
    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!
    Prem – Malaysia

  • http://www.charlesspecht.com Charles Specht

    Michael, this is the best article I have read on your blog yet…and there have been some really good ones.  Thank you!

  • http://www.betterhealthtoday.co Kay Wilson

    Michael, great post for me, I am definitely sharing it!  I am in Wellness Industry and I also have free website,  http://www.ichange.com/group/kays-nutrition-group  that anyone can join. Free to track their calories, carbs, protein and exercise.  Stats show journalling their progress is most successful to lose those extra pounds and maintain the loss forever.

  • http://www.patrickruggeri.com Patrick Ruggeri

    Great post Michael!  As a ‘big goal, big dream’ person, it is so refreshing to be reminded “What these people don’t realize is that they could make small, daily investments that would soon lead to big results.”

    In my own life, I have been trying to take small steps in nearly every area.  In taking smaller steps, I have learned to make every one more intentional.  A smaller more intentional step is more effective than larger more generic steps.  This concept/principle helps me believe that I have accomplished something, pushes me forward and encourages me to keep the ultimate goal in mind. 

    I too have had several victories this year by losing 42 pounds, developing and living on a budget and revitalizing my professional work ethic and creativity.

    Thank you again for your refreshing post and God Bless!

  • http://twitter.com/terrymorgan11 Terry Morgan

    Excellent encouragement! Thanks for continuing to motivate us. I too lost weight this last year with loseit.com – 20 pounds – and never really felt like I was missing out.  Also increased my running.  Last year – 50 – had run 1 mile as a goal.  This year, I want to do 10 – and I should make it. Small daily discipline makes all the difference!

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    In one of your recent posts (by a guest writer, I believe), someone suggested instead of carving out 2 hours on a Saturday to write to pare that down to 30 minutes daily. That creates a daily habit rather than a weekend hobby. I use the stove-top timer to help divide up my day into writing, reading, and learning chunks.

    By the way, you offered seven exceptional and crystal clear examples. I lost over 20 pounds thanks to your recommendation of LoseIt last winter. Along with losing weight, I think it also improved my outside jump shot on the basketball court.

  • http://bethmckamy.tumblr.com BethMcKamy

    Great post Michael, but I find that if I break down things into small steps or time increments that I end up not following through. It still takes much discipline and I find I can handle for maybe a week, but then I forget or find other things I need to do. It’s almost as if I need to do it all in one day and be able to see the finished product. Unfortunately, nothing I need to do can be done in one day!

    Thanks always for your great post!

  • http://joshuamhood.com Josh Hood

    I’ve been thinking about this principle a lot lately, and believe it is far more powerful than any of us realize. I even wrote about it recently. (“How Great Things Happen” http://joshuamhood.com/how-great-things-happen/) 

    Greatness is a process.

    Results are generated by activities. Manage your activities and the results you want will occur. 

  • Kay Day

    This is great! 
    Being a right-brained global thinker I always see the Whole Big Thing and it doesn’t come naturally for me to see the parts. I have to be intentional about breaking things into smaller, manageable steps. I’m still figuring this out and need all the reminders I can get!

  • http://angieward.wordpress.com Angie Ward

    This was a great reminder to get back to the little things that make a difference over time. For me, blogging each day has become a great daily discipline to improve as a writer and to clarify my thoughts, my purpose and my platform. 

    I am curious, do you still use the Galloway method when you run? I finished a half marathon using 5/1 run/walk intervals last February but for now use it only for my longer runs.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I still use it.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post! I lost 24 lbs in 3 months because I did exactly what you mentioned. I logged everything I ate and became conscious about the incremental changes.   Love the 5×5 idea too!

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Jason, the 5X5 idea is great. Now that Michael shared it with us, I’m thinking of implementing it.

  • Melindatoad

    Fantastic advice! I love the examples you give. Baby steps add up. I wonder why we as humans are so quick to try to do it all at once or not at all and then beat ourselves up when we fail. I have also lost 11 pounds in a few months because I was watching my portions and intake but also working my tail off at our new home.

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great input!  My big ones are already outlined in your post:  weight loss/healthy eating/exercise, and writing.

    Measurable, sustainable progress over time is great.  But it also requires discipline.  That’s the hardest part for me.  Knoing that I shouldn’t have a Snickers is one thing.  Actually doing it is another thing totally. 

    Thanks for the great advice!

  • http://www.kennishahill.com Kennisha Hill

    This was great for me, Michael, because I know I’m guilty of feeling the urge to do big things quickly instead of small gradual steps. For example, I wanted to maintain a healthy diet after I struggled with post partum high blood pressure. But, instead of making small changes first, I was ready to do big drastic changes– that I never really stuck with anyway. Once I realized I needed to slow down, examine my diet and make small adjustments, it worked out better for me and my family. It was a huge lesson I’ve learned over the years. 

    This is definitely one I can use for writing as well! Thanks for sharing!!! 

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Thanks to your blog, I’ve implemented some of the small changes and have seen a huge change. I joined loseit.com and have lost 44 pounds in the last 7 months. Using LoseIt, I’ve also increased my physical activity gradually. In fact, I’m days away from running in my first official 5K.

    As for reading your Bible, I seen a great tool at Catalyst. It’s setup to read the Bible in just 90 days. The creator of the program happened to be an atheist/agnostic who wanted to read the Bible. He had friends who told him he couldn’t do it in 90 days and he decided that he would. He found out it only required reading 12 pages a day. It’s something that changed his life and he is now a believer.

    We’ve also started to pay down our house loan. This is one that will take some time but pay off in the long run. We’re throwing a few extra dollars a month at it and we’re excited to see the results.

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  • http://specializingintheimpossible.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

    Fantastic read! One of the ways my brain works is automatically being able to see the value in the little things because of the payoff in the end.
    Do you mind if I reference this post in my next post?
    Thanks for sharing!! :)

  • http://ericspeir.com/ Eric

    This was some great advice. Many of these I can implement in my life. I’m looking for more ways to write and you’ve offered some great advice on doing it incrementally. This definitely offers some good ways to start somewhere. The biggest obstacle to success is starting!

  • Jennifer Scoggins

    So, so, so, so true!  I needed this reminder today – thanks!

  • http://talesofwork.com kimanzi constable

    Awesome post Michael. Last year I lost 132 pounds but I did it in a “radically” way as you said. I would only eat one meal a day and do four hours of cardio a day. Yes I did lose the weight but I was always cranky and tired, and since I didn’t learn from the process I gained it all back. Now I’m on a journey to lose the weight gradually with the right amount of excersie. This time I my wife will be able to tolerate me (lol). A great blog that deals with everything that your talking about is http://zenhabits.net/. Learning a lot from there as well.

  • http://www.gailsangle.com Gail

    One of my favourite blogs is http://www.365lessthings.com/ because it’s all about decluttering her house at the rate of 1 thing per day. Her followers are her “accountability partners.”

    I recently discovered that I have no Execution Strengths and while my Activator Strength makes me brilliant at getting things started, I’m not so good at finishing things. That’s why I like 365lessthings. It inspires me to keep doing those 1 things in my life to that will lead me to reaching my own goals.

  • http://www.rondowning.com Ron Downing

    Michael, this post could not have been more timely for me. Thank you.

  • H. Renee

    This is absolutely true, and it resonates with me.  I’ve lost 70lbs in the last year due to slow changes I’ve made in my diet to weed out wheat, something I have a terrible allergy to.

    I’ve also written a novel in the last year, some chunks done rapidly during NaNoWriMo and the rest in slow, steady increments, even on days that I’m convinced I hate writing.

    Part of succeeding is NOT punishing yourself for days you slip up!  If I miss a day or make a mistake, I shrug and keep trying.  I don’t have to be perfect all the time… just perfect enough of the time!  Punishing myself just makes the effort a negative experience which makes me more likely to quit.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I love your last paragraph. I agree. Congratulations on the changes you’ve made!

  • Anonymous

    This is such an important thing to remember. A great book that really nailed this topic down for me was “The Slight Edge.” I also believe it’s a great way to see long term results. Great post! 

  • Julianna Wu

    Hi Michael, thanks for the post!
    I agree with your suggestion of making changes incrementally. I find when it comes to things that I THINK will take a long time, I end up not bother with them at all. 

  • Mark Butler

    I heard Jim Collins speak at Catalyst last week on the “Power of Incremental Change Over Time.” His “20 mile march” concept is extremely powerful.

    A great tool for setting and tracking incremental goals can be found at http://www.irunurun.com – the world’s first “greatness app.” I’ve used irunurun for over a year now and it helps me prioritize actions over intentions.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Mark, I agree. Jim’s speech regarding the 20 mile march was very inspiring. My wife and I were stunned to hear how setting that type of goal saved the lives of the men on that march and how the other group perished because they had no set distance goal. It really drives home the fact that the ones who are steady and consistent normally come out okay in the end.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I didn’t hear Jim’s speech, but I’ll try to get a copy.

      I agree: IRUNURUN is a terrific app.

  • http://www.bigb94.wordpress.com Brandon

    Awesome! This is so true!

  • Liz

    What a great post!  I forwarded this (I get it in email form) to about 40 people that I know who would really appreciate it.  I got back 7 heartfelt responses about how much they agree, appreciate, and are encouraged to remember this.

    Thanks for these thoughts!!!

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    I have experienced greater change while running Long Distances and reading the Bible.

  • http://www.OurStoriesGodsGlory.blogspot.com Elise Daly Parker

    Just love this…so encouraging!

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  • http://www.irunurun.com Travis Dommert

    So so true.  So how do you stick with incremental change?

    1. Align DO goals with BE goals  (power your goal with purpose!)
    2. Prioritize your incremental actions (no excuses, keep taking baby steps)
    3. Balance stress w/ recovery (remember faith, family, fitness, and fun!)
    4. Set up a routine that is appropriate to where you are (small wins)
    5. Periodically change things up (at least every 90-180 days)
    6. Recruit some help: a coach, accountability partners, and fans

    Another great Collin’s quote from Catalyst: “The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Love the Collins quote!

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  • http://www.foresthost.com/ Pitch Arunsuwannakorn

    Amazing…

  • Patrick Braswell

    Michael, great points!  I use a simple tool to track my changes.   It’s called irunurun – http://www.irunurun.com.  It tracks my daily activity from work to personal things, and keeps me accountable by allowing my co-workers to see my progress.

  • http://darensirboughblog.wordpress.com Daren Sirbough

    In terms of songwriting. Beginning to write and then edit phrases and music perhaps for 5-10 minutes a day. There are many small projects that I can begin and I believe once momentum takes over, it will be easier.

  • Cyndi Culpepper

    Excellent post, Michael. I’ve always been really good at making goals but struggled with implementing them. When faced with a particularly overwhelming task, I can usually find dozens of perfectly justifiable reasons why I can’t complete it. Obviously, this type of thinking was seriously impeding my progress! I ultimately realized that I had to focus more on the process than the result. When tackling something as large (pun intended) as losing over 100 pounds, I had to constantly remind myself that I didn’t put all that weight on in one month so it’s certainly not going to come off that quickly. I rewarded myself regularly — not for my results but for my faithfulness. I got up, I worked out, I ate consciously, and then I did it again the next day. I saw results most of the time, but on the days/weeks that I didn’t, I focused on how what I was doing was making me a stronger, better person.

    Twenty months, 120 pounds, and 8 sizes later, I can say without reservation that it was totally worth it. In less than 2 years I have completely changed my life. That one change encouraged me to pursue other dreams I’ve harbored but have been too intimidated to reach for. I went back to college, found a new career, started writing again, and now reside in a city I’ve always dreamed of living in.

    Change is hard. It forces us to constantly examine our choices and our values. But a life without change closes us off to all the opportunities the universe has to offer. Anyone who knows me knows –  I don’t want to miss a thing. :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I am so proud of you, Cyndi. Really awesome story! Thanks. (Please greet Martin for me.)

  • Canderson

    I completely agree with these statements. The marketing team I’m on, we always talk about taking the smallest possible first step. And I think the danger for people and organizations is getting stuck in a mindset of incrementalism and completely missing some of the more disruptive changes in society, technology, etc. Neat video here, talks about it at 1:08. But, as you said, many fail in attempts at major change. I would take incremental improvement over none at all.

    Leading The World’s Largest Company

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  • http://barrypearman.blogspot.com/ Barry Pearman

    Millimetre ministry. 

    I have a calling to provide pastoral support for people with Major Mental Illness. 

    In training others I point to the fact that this is Millimetre Ministry. Things aren’t going to change over night, but little by little, peoples lives change, and they do. 
    When we change our expectations to ones that are realistic for all involved it takes the pressure off. It creates freedom for change to happen that is appropriate for the person. People come and want to change the world, but first we need to change ourselves, drop the big expectations and aim for incremental millimetre ministry. 

    Interesting that God also works incrementally.

    The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. Deut. 7:22

    thanks for the post Michael, good stuff!

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