Brick by brick a mason builds a wall. A sculptor chips away at a slab of marble for months until the final product begins to take shape.
Small consistent actions over long periods of time are what breed improvement and unbelievable transformations.
The process is difficult for those in the middle of it because they adapt to the small changes quickly. As the marginal improvements become your new “normal”, it feels like no progress is being made.
To an outsider with less exposure, the steady progress looks like rapid improvement because they don’t see the in-between stages.
The truth is, progress is ugly but predictable.
The pursuit of any goal will always be a difficult and challenging process. Often times things get worse before they get better. However, within each pursuit, there are deliberate actions that will guarantee improvement when done consistently.
As an avid runner and triathlete, fitness has been an excellent metaphor for pursuing growth in all areas of life. I’ve come to appreciate the daily grind of trivial improvement and self-doubt that comes on the path to progress.
For years, my approach to running was similar to anything else. I would just do it.
I didn’t have a plan or do any prior research, but I still hoped to get faster. Without any specific intentions, I would run at full speed until I could no longer breathe or the pain in my lower back forced me to stop. After years of doing this without improvement, I finally educated myself.
Turns our running at full speed over and over again is not a good way to build endurance. The opposite, slow steady runs with minimal exertion, build aerobic efficiency which is the foundation for endurance training.
Once my actions become deliberate, progress ensued.
However, my running got a lot slower before it got faster. I went from running around an 8:00/mile pace to a 10:30/mile pace. It was excruciating. It felt like I would have been moving faster if I was crawling, but the first week I changed my training I completed my longest run ever. A whopping 5 miles.
The next week I was down to a 10:00/mile pace while maintaining the same heart rate and perceived effort. Over the next year, the pace for my easy runs got down to a 7:35/mile pace and I was able to run 15+ miles, log a personal best 5k, and complete a Half Ironman Triathlon.
I thought progress would look like this, however, it was the farthest thing from linear I could have imagined.
In reality, I was constantly improving, but my progress was anything but consistent.
I had good days and bad days. I had weeks where I trained every day and weeks where I didn’t train at all. Sometimes I was eating clean and other times I let myself slide. Even when everything I could control went well, there were factors outside of my control that impacted my performance.
The keys to constant improvement are consistent action and patience. Consistent action breeds progress, and patience is required to weather the everyday doubts, frustrations, and variations in performance.
Progress in the real world looks like this:
Improvement is constant in the long term, but fluctuations in day-to-day performance are far from linear or predictable.
Stringing together consistent deliberate action is the only path to progress.
There are no quick fixes or secrets.
The process isn’t pretty, but you have to trust that doing the work each day will pull your baseline higher. When we notice improvement, achieve a goal, or hit a personal best, it’s important to remember we will inevitably regress back towards the mean.
The most important thing is not our day-to-day performance, but our pursuit of progress.
As time goes on, sustained efforts towards a goal will always trend towards improvement. Sometimes there will be plateaus (or like me, you need to do more research and become deliberate with your actions), but when these come and progress stalls, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Re-evaluate your goals and inputs.
What got you to your current position may not be what gets you to where you want to be in the future.
We are all striving to become the best version of ourselves, but it’s a goal we’ll never achieve. The goalposts are always moving and the inputs required are constantly changing.
We strive to become 100% content with who we are and what we’ve accomplished. But every time we reach a new high, there is something else that could be better or needs improvement.
In a study from the University of Ottawa on Olympic gold medal winners, almost all the athletes wanted to top their previous performance immediately after winning a gold medal. One athlete in the study said,
After I won my first medal I wanted to be the first person to win three medals in the same Olympics.
Even after being labeled the best in the world, athletes can’t resist setting bigger and better goals. It’s human nature.
This natural drive applies to every piece of our lives, not just athletics. When relationships reach their strongest point, we crave an even deeper connection. When we’ve made more money than we could spend in a lifetime, we invest it so our wealth continues to grow.
No one will ever achieve perfection, but fighting to get better every day will foster amazing growth over time.
Progress won’t be easy. There will be plateaus, setbacks, and collapses, but consistent deliberate action compounded over weeks, months, and years is guaranteed to move you closer towards the best version of yourself.
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