The Incremental Method to Achieving Long-term Goals and Getting Things Done
I recently hit day 500 of writing a minimum of 200 words a day! (Read about the first six months!)
How? I use an incremental method for getting things done. This method has worked exceedingly well for me.
The method is:
- Pick an activity I want to do more. E.g., write, read, exercise.
- Set a small, achievable daily goal. E.g., write 200 words a day. Read 10 minutes a day. Exercise 15 minutes a day.
- Do it. Do it every day. It's a small, achievable amount, so there are no excuses! Build the habit.
- Okay, so there are excuses. If you find yourself frequently missing a daily goal, make the goal smaller. It's easy to be too ambitious. That's okay! But start smaller. Try reading 5 minutes instead of 10; exercise for 10 minutes instead of 15. Make it small enough that it's easy.
- Increase the amount slowly over time. Build the habit first, then increase the amount. If you want to be reading 40 minutes a day, start with 10 minutes. Add 5 minutes of reading each week until you're there.
The secret sauce is that you start with small steps. You build the habit of working toward your goals. Then, if you want, you can increase the amount you do. For instance, after I landed a book deal, I increased my daily writing.
This approach works for any kind of long-term project or goal—anything that takes, at a minimum, several hours to accomplish. Writing, exercising, reading, praying, doing art, making healthier food, etc. It works especially well for nebulous long-term goals, like "exercise more" and "write more."
What have I accomplished with this method?Using this approach, I have, for example:
- Written over 120,000 words on blog posts and article drafts
- Completed my PhD dissertation
- Written a book
- Read 43 books last year; on track to read even more this year
Why does the incremental method work?
The reason the incremental method works is simple: To accomplish long-term projects and reach distant goals, you need to work towards them.
One problem with long projects is the middle, as Ayelet Fishbach explained in her book Get It Done. Everyone's more enthusiastic at the beginning or end of pursuing a goal. Motivation dips in the middle. If you're in the habit of making consistent, steady progress, the middle is less of a problem.
Another problem is getting started at all. Big projects are intimidating. Creating—and achieving—a small, doable, daily milestone can show you that you can make progress toward your goals.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, argued that you should measure progress toward big goals in time, not milestones. Every day you work, you probably aren't checking off a major component, but you can say you put in time. Time adds up.
Seeing your progress increases your motivation to work. Make the work you care about a habit.