But slow and boring have their place. In fact, slow and boring are often some of the most reliable ways of doing anything. Whether you’re building a house, growing your wealth, or just trying to get fitter – slow and steady wins the race.
This is an idea that has been around for eons. “Slow and steady” comes from one of the oldest fables ever – “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
“Easy come, easy go” is another well-worn phrase. We’ve all see those neighborhoods that pop up, seemingly, overnight. I once had a plumber tell me that the most recent development, where houses go up in just a few weeks, would start providing food for his family in about five years!
But despite all these signals, we still love a good get rich quick story. We love hearing about people winning the lottery but we often forget the harrowing tales of lottery winners seeing their lives implode.
Today, I’m going to make a clear case for slow and steady:
Table of Contents
Sustainable Small Improvements Over a Longer Period = Win
It wins for three reasons:
- Math. Compounding is powerful.
- Less likely to burn out.
- Develops good habits.
We don’t need to talk about compounding – it’s been covered everywhere and if you don’t believe it, then you don’t believe math and should probably go for a walk outside.
The more important point is that you’re less likely to burn out when you focus on small incremental improvements over time. If you’ve ever tried to pick up a new physical activity, like running or lifting weights, you’ll recognize that your body needs to ease into it. You can’t just start lifting heavy weights or running for long periods. You’ll end up sore and, most likely, injured. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments need to adapt to the new demands.
Derek Sivers has a great story about how you can relax for the same result illustrating this with a short story.
If you want to get stronger, it’s generally not the maximum weight you can move for a few repetitions. It’s often the total weight you’re moving during a workout. Moving a 100-pound weight ten times is generally more beneficial than moving a 200-pound weight once. (there are caveats, as always, but in general this is true)
And you are less likely to hurt yourself with the smaller weight. Injury means you can’t do any of the work.
Another key is that you want to survive. Have you heard of survivorship bias? It’s the idea that when people analyze successful people or companies, they often forget that they only analyze the ones that have survived up to that point. There’s a bias there that makes the analysis weaker because it doesn’t consider companies that may not have made it that far. And it’s a legitimate bias.
But when people talk about survivorship bias, all I think about is that the key to success is surviving.
You don’t need to finish first, you just need to make sure you finish.
Lastly, when you focus on small improvements, it makes it easier to cement the habit. Instead of dreading a multi-mile run, just tell yourself you’ll go for a relaxing jog and enjoy the experience. If you start and feel good, you may want to push yourself. If you start and feel terrible, just take it easy.
Jerry Seinfeld calls this the “Don’t Break the Chain” strategy. He makes himself write every day and when he does, he puts a big red X in a calendar. Do it for long enough and sometimes you sit yourself down to do the work so you don’t break the chain. You can’t argue with Seinfeld’s success. 🙂
The goal is to just get out there and that will help ingrain that habit.
Evidence for Small Gains is Compelling
It’s easy to accept that taking things slowly is the key to small gains.
It’s harder to accept that small gains is enough. We love breakthroughs and logarithmic growth, not incremental gains.
But this story about the British Cycling team offers a compelling look at what happens when you improve by just 1%. It’s from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, and tells the story of the team’s hiring of a new performance director, Dave Brailsford, and how he found 1% improvements in “overlooked and unexpected areas.” The cumulative effect of these 1% improvements over 5 years was winning 60% of the gold medals in road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympics.
1% improvement each day results in a 37.78x gain over the course of a year.
It’s like watching your kids grow. Each day, your kid gets a little bigger and you barely notice. Then one day Google Photos or Facebook shows you a photo from last year and you’re like “what? where did the time go?” As they say, the days are long but the years are short.
Finally, in The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas Stanley highlighted the idea that most wealthy Americans did so very quietly, incrementally, and modestly. These are stories like Robert Morin, a librarian at the University of New Hampshire’s Dimond Library from 1965 to 2014, who would go on to donate $4 million to the university. He didn’t win the lottery, start a business, or do something “big.” He lived a modest life and left his estate to the university.
Those stories don’t get the press (unless there’s a reason, in Morin’s case there was a scandal about the use of some of those funds on the football scoreboard) but they’re far more common than flashier ones.
Breaks are Good, Vacations are Better
Hopefully I’ve now convinced you that small gains are better, here’s where I try to convince you that you need to take breaks between those efforts.
When I started Bargaineering in 2005, it was a hobby and I worked on the site before and after work (mostly after). I was spending 8-10 hours at work and then working on the blog. It was a hobby so it wasn’t a big deal that I was spending my 9th – 11th productive hour on this fun hobby. Eventually, the site got bigger (earned money too) and I had no choice but to quit my job to work on it.
Why did I have to quit?
I was going to burn out. I enjoyed my day job. I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I had no complaints. I left because I had no white space. I had no breaks.
One of the big myths in work is that you can power through things. If you just “grin and bear it,” you can succeed.
Maybe. But that’s only because we don’t approach mental health in the same way we approach physical health.
If you injure yourself in the gym, can you power through? If you break a bone, can you “grin and bear it?” Maybe if you hurt yourself in a game, you can grin and bear it for the game… but you may risk permanent damage.
Breaks and vacations are good because it allows your brain to relax, process, and re-engage. Every night, your brain does this when you sleep. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re not as fresh and able to tackle the next day.
All-nighters are stupid. They rob your brain of the critical time it needs to process everything.
Weekends are good too. It gives you the time to explore other hobbies, ideas, etc. It stretches other areas of your mind and, hopefully, your body too.
Reassess and Reevaluate Everything
When you are busy doing the work, it’s hard to think about how you are doing it. If you’re pushing hard, you focus on the pushing and less on how you are pushing or what you are pushing.
This can be disastrous if you, at some point down the road, realize you’ve been doing the wrong thing. When you go fast, you have very little time to figure out whether it’s the right direction.
When you do this slowly and deliberately, you have the opportunity to reassess and reevaluate your approach while you’re in the process. You can also do this when you step back and take those breaks.
If you run a business, this is especially important because running a business requires you to take on two distinct roles:
- CEO – This is where you think about the strategy of the company, the direction it goes, and “what” you are doing
- Worker – This is where you execute the strategy and do the work. You may have employees but you often have to roll up your sleeves and do the work.
It’s very easy, especially in a high pressure, hard charging environment; to get stuck in worker mode. You start doing and doing and doing and forget the 30,000 foot view. It’s hard to pull yourself out, especially if you are managing a challenging situation.
Going a bit slower and taking breaks gives you a chance to think big picture so you ensure Worker You is doing the right thing.
Don’t Work Hard, Play Hard
You’ve heard the phrase – “I work hard, but I play hard too.”
That’s fine. Sometimes this is part of one’s identity – “I’m a hard worker!” feels better to say than “I just do my job!” or “I get the job done without sacrificing myself or my family!” (ok, maybe not the last one!)
Just work like a normal person. You can go above and beyond but you don’t have to be putting in 18 hour days to achieve good results. There may be sprints at times but if you subscribe to the belief that you have to basically kill yourself to get ahead, all you’ll succeed at is killing yourself.
One of the big lessons from working for myself is that the amount of work you do doesn’t always correlate to the results. Breakthroughs can happen at any moment and they rarely happen in the 18th hour of a work session.
And playing hard can have the opposite effect of a break – especially if your idea of playing hard involves consuming copious amounts of anything that you wouldn’t normally be consuming at that time. 🙂
It’s Hard to Downshift
OK let’s say you believe me, or you want to believe me, but you don’t think it’s possible to slow down. You’re afraid slowing down will be trouble.
If you’re used to going 120 miles an hour, it’s hard to think that going 60 miles an hour is going to work. I know this because I believed this myself. I’m the child of first-generation immigrants and many of us learn that we have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition and rewards.
When you’ve become accustomed to the results when you go 120 miles an hour, it’s very hard to believe you can get similar results by going 60. You begin to believe that the only way to succeed is to push as hard as you can. Go big or go home!
But the reality is that by going slower, you can often get 90% of the results by going at 50% of the speed. That last 10% is brutal.
It’s what separates really good (90%) from world-class (98%) and world-class from the best in the world (1%).
Unless it’s for the Olympics, you don’t need to be world-class. You can do quite well being really good at one thing and still live a balanced life. You just need to show up every day, do the work, and survive.
So, if you find it hard to downshift, I would just suggest one idea – give the slower speed a try.
Tell yourself that it won’t be forever, just for a week or two so you can see how it feels.
You can always speed back up.