Incremental Improvement and the Power of No More Zero Days
Doubling your productivity may seem impossible. If your productivity is 100 today, it won’t be 200 tomorrow. But what about increasing your productivity by just 1 percent? What about going from 100 to 101? That seems doable. So why not do that a hundred times?
Big changes rarely happen instantly. There are very few things that can actually cause your output to significantly increase. There is, however, a plethora of things that can increase your output by an amount that may seem insignificant at first. There are many, many things that can increase your output by one or two percent, and your time is better spent searching for those. Because in the time it might take you to find one thing that increases your productivity by twenty percent, you might find ten things that increase your productivity by three percent.
Discovering something that doubles your efficiency is a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime event — otherwise, older people would be orders of magnitude more efficient than younger people — while these small, incremental improvements come up every day.
This is augmented by the notion that productivity, in my experience, has momentum. Imagine two people riding on a bicycle. (Note: they both have their own bike, they’re not riding a tandem. If you’re imagining them on a tandem the analogy won’t work.) One of them kicks their pedals at full strength once, and the other one continuously pushes their pedals with 50% of their power. Which one will go faster? The second one, obviously. Your productivity is that bike. Trying to instantly go from standing still to full speed is simply impossible, you have to gradually go faster and faster.
Much like a bicycle, your productivity can also lose momentum. If you don’t do anything, your bike will slow down, and eventually stop. Anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle knows going from no speed to some speed is the most exhaustive part of cycling. Maintaining a steady speed costs almost no energy, but accelerating from no speed to a reasonable speed can make your legs hurt. This is why it’s important to never completely stop. You can occasionally go a bit slower, but never completely stop. Always do something, never have a zero day.
No More Zero Days
We’ve all had days in which we got done nothing that wasn’t mandatory (like going to work or school). Days in which our free time was entirely spent browsing social media, playing video games, and watching Netflix. Such days are called zero days. The reason why these days are so dangerous — why you should avoid them at any cost — is that it rarely stays just one zero day. You’ll get stuck in a rut, and before you know it you don’t have a zero day, you have a zero week, or even a zero month. The days fly by when you don’t do anything new. You switch over to autopilot and before you know it, a month has passed and you’re still exactly where you were before.
You don’t have to work at 200% speed every single day. It’s fine to have days in which you slow down a bit. But never completely stop. Do something every day. It doesn’t have to be much: just tidying your desk, archiving read e-mails, or going for a 15-minute run is enough. Just do something.
Just by doing something, no matter how small, you remind your brain that you still want to go forward. And you’ll probably find that once you’ve started, you won’t want to stop. When I’m not writing, I often don’t want to start writing. But the moment I’ve written my first paragraph, I can no longer quit. I’ve gotten into the rhythm, and I want to keep going. What I planned to be a quick 30-minute writing session in which I write a few paragraphs turns into a writing day in which I complete a whole article.
In conclusion, you don’t need groundbreaking and earth-shattering improvements. Progress is a marathon, not a sprint —and a marathon is run one step at a time. Just make sure to take at least one step every day, and to never completely stop.