The Iterative, Incremental Method for Improvement
When you look at yourself and your life, where are the pain points? What stresses you? What problems are there that you might be able to fix?
When I was adjusting to life in North Idaho, post-PhD and cuddling a new baby, I was also searching for a balance. I was in the midst of a reconfiguration, a recalibration. I needed a change … but I didn't know exactly what I was searching for. I just knew I was searching.
Some of the changes worked great. Some didn't. So I iterated, dropping activities that added stress, adjusting, tweaking, until the balance was better.
The iterative, incremental method for improvement
I was using an iterative, incremental approach to improve my situation. This approach aligns with design thinking (which permeated the MIT Media Lab while I was there), agile software development, and other buzzwords all snaked around the same concept: tweak stuff, observe the results, repeat.
Observe: Decide what to change first. Where are the pain points in your life? What stresses you? What problem are you trying to fix? Perhaps you feel unfulfilled, hate constantly dashing from activity to activity, or are overwhelmed by clutter.
Act: Come up with possible solutions to the problem. Perhaps you need a new hobby, an adjusted routine, or repairs to your house or yard. Brainstorm. Don't discount any ideas immediately; explore your options. Find something relatively small you could start with that might help solve your problem. Do that thing.
Evaluate: What happened? How did your situation change as a result of the small thing you tried? Did you solve the problem? Is the problem different now?
Iterate: What else could you try to solve the problem, or improve your situation? Observe, create, evaluate. Make another small change and see what happens. You'll move closer to something better.
The key to using this approach in your daily life is to start small. When you look at your life, you might see big problems. Big problems need drastic solutions, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes small, incremental actions make a big difference.
In addition, sometimes we like the idea of big changes, but the effort required to implement those changes is overwhelming, so we never actually make the change. Taking incremental actions is a way of encouraging you to actually get around to taking those actions. It decreases the activation energy required, it decreases the startup costs, it makes it easier to change.
Making a small change is doable. Goals are more achievable and tasks more achievable when broken into small, bite-size chunks. Making one small, incremental change can help you see that you can make improvements, which can increase your motivation to continue improving.
The incremental, iterative method works so well because if your actions help, there's a positive payoff, but if they don't, there's relatively little downside. It's an antifragile way to make changes.
There's a certain conceit in assuming that you can top-down plan everything. That you can look at your life and see exactly what ought to change and how to change it. That you can foresee all the possible consequences and interactions that your small change might affect.
The iterative approach by nature acknowledges that the world is complex, you are fallible, there are factors you cannot account for, and consequences you cannot foresee. Built into this approach is the acknowledgment that you will have to continue tweaking, repairing, and adjusting until you get a solution that works, and that at some point later on, your solution will fail because the world is complex and something else changed.
When doesn't this method work?
Sometimes, the iterative, incremental method won't work. Sometimes you do need to take a big, drastic action—quitting a job, switching jobs, moving states, leaving a boyfriend, pulling a kid out of school, and so on. Those are big changes. They will shake up a lot of your life. They have the potential for a big payout if you're right, but also the potential for a big loss if you're wrong.
Take your time with big changes. Think them through carefully. Talk with your spouse and friends at length about your concerns and ideas. Try out some little changes, and see if your situation is better, and if after a while you find there's no improvement, maybe a bigger change is what you need.
Examples of this method at work in the world
The iterative, incremental method for improvement can be applied to almost any problem you want to solve, in your personal life, in your career, or in the wider community. I previously wrote about how my husband and I use this method to plan our lives.
This method is similar to the agile, iterative process of improving one's family and home life that Bruce Feiler advocates for in his book The Secrets of Happy Families.
In his book Strong Towns (read about it!), Charles Marohn argues that we can make our towns better places to live by making little bets—i.e., by doing small actions right now that don't necessarily require investing a lot of resources or capital. These small actions might involve fixing a broken window, re-painting a house, planting flowers, or testing out a new bike lane by creating it temporarily with chalk paint. If the idea works, keep it; if it doesn't, try something else.
Bill Burnett and Dave Evans recommend an iterative approach to life and career improvement in their book Designing Your Life (read my review). They share practical exercises for observation, evaluation, and iteration related to career changes and engagement in your daily work life.
In his book The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander tells us that we can repair and improve the places we live through incremental changes. We can make our places more whole, more useful, and more beautiful. He writes:
"In this sense, the idea of repair is creative, dynamic, open. It assumes that we are constantly led to the creation of new wholes, by paying attention to the defects in the existing wholes, and trying to repair them." – The Timeless Way of Building, p485
The idea of iterative, incremental improvement is, in a sense, the same as Alexander's idea of repair. We are looking for a better way of living; we can create wholeness in our lives by paying attention to the defects and trying to repair them.