Incremental Change

Radical Effort vs. Incremental Change

If you are interested in self improvement (otherwise, why would you be reading this blog…), I’m sure you have experienced the following process: You come across a certain idea that completely sets you on fire. Maybe it’s working out to become more muscular or maybe it’s starting your own location independent business or maybe even learning how to talk to girls. Regardless, you get really excited about it. Then suddenly there seems to be a whole new realm of possibilities and you throw yourself into it. You read anything you can get your hands on about the subject. You start talking to friends about it. You join a gym / you start a website / you go out on the streets and talk to strangers. You go full force and give it everything you have. And the world seems great, because you are actually doing it! You are going after what you truly want and that feels liberating and inspiring.

This lasts for about two months or so…

…then reality kicks in. You are not yet obtaining the results you dreamed about. You are not big and muscular yet. You still have to work your 9-5 job. You’re still not banging porn stars. Frustration sets in because after all the energy, action and thought you put into this endeavor, you feel you should be seeing some results. However, if you are honest with yourself you have hardly moved. And ever so slowly, you start to doubt what you are doing. Maybe you should be performing a different workout regimen. Maybe you should be doing more SEO instead of content building. Maybe you should try online dating instead of live approaches.

So you change your method and you go through the whole process again, with almost as much energy as the first time around. This time, you are positive it will work!

One or two months later, you are still nowhere near where you want to be. You are getting REALLY frustrated. Such a fucking waste of energy! Maybe you find another method and give it another run. Or you just give up, relax and treat yourself to some ice cream / some colleague bashing / a hooker.

This scenario describes the “Cycle of Radical Effort.” When I was still working as a pick up coach, I observed this process so many times, it started to hurt. People would get extremely excited about the possibility of finally meeting hot girls but only a few months later, their initial enthusiasm had burned out. And this process always played out in the way I described above. The most interesting observation to me was: There seemed to be a correlation between the initial amount of energy and effort invested and the feeling of burnout in the end. Stated differently: The more people got excited and put effort into it initially, the more disappointment and lack of results occurred in the end.

I observed this so often that I eventually started musing: What would happen, if you did the complete opposite? Thus the concept of “Incremental Change” was born.

This is based on the idea of reversing all critical elements of the cycle of radical effort.

  1. Instead of putting ALL your energy and effort into a passion (Radical Effort), you identify the absolute minimum requirement for progress and stick with that (Incremental Change);
  2. Instead of shooting for success within a short time frame (Radical Effort), you assume that sustainable progress with complex tasks can only be achieved over time (Incremental Change);
  3. Instead of hyping yourself up psychologically (Radical Effort), you make a very conscious effort to stay grounded, to not burnout in a short amount of time (Incremental Change).

Let’s compare Radical Effort and Incremental Change by looking at some concrete examples:

Working Out

Radical Effort:

Every 6-12 months, you start a new effort to work out. You get really motivated, going to the gym 3-4 times a week for 3 months religiously, working out really hard every single time until you finally break down because this kind of intense training cannot be kept up with all the other things going on in your life, once the initial motivation has burned off.

Incremental Change:

Five years ago, you decided your minimum requirement for working out was one set of pull ups per day. You might ask, “Why pull ups? Isn’t that a very one dimensional workout?” Yes, it is. But you happen to like pull ups, unlike deadlifts or squats, for example. So you are actually more likely to stick with your pull up routine than with a deadlift routine, because you cannot work against pleasure. Therefore you got a pull up bar installed in your home and for the last ten years, you have been doing one set of pull ups per day to muscle failure. Sometimes, when you felt like it, you did some other exercises as well to complement your workout, namely when you had some excess energy. But if you were tired, sick or just not in the mood (and that happened A LOT), you just stuck to your one set of pull ups. Now, five years later, you are able to do 25 strict pull ups. You have the back, shoulders and arms of a professional athlete. When you wear a shirt, girls oogle your v-shaped upper body because they can’t help it. And your typical workout time still consists of 2 minutes a day.

Starting a Location Independent Business

Radical Effort:

Five years ago, you read “The 4 Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. You got so excited that the next day, you went online to Elance and hired your own personal assistant from India, to help you with all online aspects. You also came up with an idea for a T-Shirt Business and found someone else on Elance to program a website for you. As soon as that was complete, you created a Google Adwords campaign. A few weeks later, you were down a couple hundred bucks, but none the wiser: Traffic on your website was slow, to put it mildly, and you had yet to make a single sale. Also, your assistant from India, a nice enough guy, was not really helping the business become more productive. Yes, it was a cool feeling to be able to just hand off tasks, but if you didn’t write him long, specific and time consuming instructions, the results were pretty useless most of the time. Dealing with a non-native speaker was definitely a problem too. So in the end, you decided to handle your online to-dos yourself again and get rid of the website and the business that never made you any money.

Incremental Change:

Five years ago, you read “The 4 Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. You decided that in order to stick with the most interesting idea of the book (location independent living), you would have to develop a marketable online skillset parallel to your regular job. Unfortunately, you were not a tech person, so programming and the like were out of the question. But you always had an interest in writing, so you set up a profile on Elance for freelance copywriting. On a regular basis, you would take on little side gigs as a copywriter, usually taking up 3-4 hours per week. Initially, your writing sucked, more than you originally thought. But you kept practicing, and after 6 months you had your first return customer. And then another. You started to enjoy this so much that you would also sometimes write a little bit more on the weekends. Your online recommendations from customers started to pile up. Eventually, you decided to take a leap of faith and work only part-time at your regular job, in order to take more copywriting jobs. You received bigger and bigger projects and more professional clients. Now, after 5 years of sticking with it, you were able to quit your job for good and just make a living from copywriting. Customers now sometimes approach you out of the blue based on recommendations from other people. And the best thing: This January, when it was freezing in Ohio, you were able to go to Chiang Mai in Thailand for 3 months, working and living there, experiencing a new culture and way too much great food. You cannot wait to do this again, next year, but this time for 6 months. Your friends envy your courage but tell you they could never do this, because they don’t possess your “natural” talent for writing.

Talking to Girls

Radical Effort:

You heard about these pick up artists on the internet. You ordered “The Game” and read it in one night. You can’t believe how lucky you are to have come across this. You suddenly feel like a kid in a candy store. So you find a wingman online and vow to each other that from now on, every weekend you will hit the clubs and you will hit them hard. Neither of you will go home before each of you gets 5 new numbers, just like the guys in the book. You start doing that. It feels horrible; the approach anxiety is almost killing you. Eventually, you get over it and approach a few girls. You get rejected so much, you feel like being 10 years old again. You are completely out of your waters. Your ego takes one harsh blow after another. In the end, you decide that this is not working. You will not continue doing this and you sell your pick up books on eBay.

Incremental Change:

5 years ago, you heard about these pick up artists and decided you would turn this into a habit. You identified one approach a day as your minimum requirement per day, which you would perform every day on your way to work in the morning. You realistically set your expectations very low: You expected to be rejected almost every time because you sucked at this. So you knew you’d have to take this blow every day and then learn to laugh it off. And for the first 3 months, this is exactly how it went. You could not wait to get it done with, to be over with it for the day. But ever so slowly you grew somewhat immune to the rejections and they didn’t affect you personally anymore. And then every once in a while, you would actually have a longer conversation. And pretty girls would laugh at you. And then one day, you met this cute little Italian girl who laughed more than normal about your stupid jokes. You got her number, you met up for dinner, and afterwards the two of you hooked up. When you guys were done, she told you with a smile that she doesn’t really have time for dating right now because of her university career but she likes sex, so why not do this again some time? You couldn’t believe your luck. The next morning, you did three approaches on your way to work, getting another new number.

Now 5 years later, you have done a little bit over 2000 approaches. On some days, when you felt especially good (=excess energy), you would do more than one. On most days, when you were in hurry, when you had approach anxiety or when you had only slept 5 hours you would stick to your minimum requirement of one. As a result, you have dated and slept with numerous beautiful women. Actually, you have slept with more beautiful women than any of your friends or anyone else you personally know. You have several girls in your phone that regularly call YOU up for sex when they feel horny. Male friends of yours always come to you with girl problems, because you actually know what you are talking about. But still, occasionally, you look at yourself and you just can’t believe all of this is really happening. It feels almost too good to be true.

What are all of these examples supposed to show you? Ultimately, “radical effort vs. getting better over time” comes down to a question of energy management (again). You can hype yourself up, get as motivated as you have ever been before and feel inspired to the point of bursting. And then you let it all out in one giant rush to accomplish your goals until you burn out. This happens really quickly because you build up so much pressure first, that it can’t wait to come out and then there is no energy left. Or, after you found a new, inspiring project, you can consciously reign yourself back in because you know the dynamics of energy management: How you get nowhere with the over-excitement approach, how that always leads to burnout and abandoning the project. Therefore on purpose, you define the minimum amount of work necessary to accomplish your goals over an extended period of time. You artificially restrict yourself to just the bare essentials. In this way, your Incremental Change approach actually becomes sustainable. You can fulfill your minimum quota of work on any given day, not matter how down or tired you feel, because it requires so little energy. And thus your minimum amount of daily work needed to accomplish a certain goal becomes a habit over time. And habits have the great feature of requiring even less personal energy to maintain making the whole process even more sustainable. And in the end, after an extended period of time, you actually REACH your goal. You drop those 50 pounds and you actually keep them off for good. You write that fantasy novel you always wanted to write. You become a professional comedian and a good one at that. And this achievement is what counts – not the quick emotional rush you get from reading a self help book that leads to one burst of radical effort that in turn leads nowhere. People are addicted to that rush. Don’t be that person. Opt for Incremental Change.

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