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Have you ever started a project only to give up on it a couple of weeks, or maybe months down the road? In this post, I will cover the importance of incremental progress and how you can close those projects that you start but never finish.

Our fascination for big leaps

We tend to give bigger deference to the outcome of a herculean effort with little thought of the steps to get there. Moreover, we assume that the work to get there was always forward progress. Think of the lunar landing, sending rovers to mars, developing the iPhone, creating a multi-billion-dollar tech company. All those events are huge, awe-inspiring outcomes that each of us envies to some degree or other. All of us want to achieve something meaningful in our lives. The bigger the result, the better; that is what gets our attention.

But what we always miss is the struggle and the work that takes to get that big result. It’s the journey that really matters. The real test of accomplishment is showing up and putting in the work.

Retraining for incremental value

Since we value the big outcomes, we tend to want to see big outcomes during our work on a project. Large projects contain equally large milestones. However, a personal or team project entangles itself in the details quickly. Without an emphasis on incremental progress, you or your team goes from putting out value to putting in time.

Emphasis on incremental progress means that you encourage even the smallest development. This requires a shift from thinking that value can only exists on large milestones, but rather on a weekly or daily basis. Instead of saying what makes this project valuable at the end of all the work, think about what has value now or in the short term. Can you increment towards that goal? Focusing on near term value enhances the probability of realizing the long-term outcome.

Keeping motivation and dedication

In the digital age, we yearn for robotic-like progress. Today should be better than yesterday. This month is greater than last month. But this expectation conflicts with reality. Life is a bell-curve of mostly mediocre days with a sparse smattering of great and horrible times at either end of the spectrum. Finding motivation in the sparse great days is easy. Working through the extremely hard days requires grit, but most of us quit in the abundance of mediocre days.

Instead of measuring how far off you are from your grand release or huge goal, taking an incremental approach can give you the motivation you need to get through the doldrums of a project or effort that matters to you. Let me show you what that looks like:

A common example

Many of us set a goal to be healthier at the beginning of the year. Often that includes going to the gym or doing something that we are not initially up for. The typical goal is “I want to lose x amount of weight”. That’s the large outcome, but it isn’t incremental. It sets you up for failure.

Rather, an incremental goal, for someone just starting out, would be to say “I’m going to do x activity every morning for ten minutes.” That’s better. In this scenario, your chances of losing x amount of weight is much better. However, it doesn’t stop there.

The final incremental step

Even by setting a more incremental goal to establish progress, we still face times where we just aren’t feeling it. In those cases, you break things down even further. You find your minimum viable progress. In the above example, regarding doing a healthy activity everyday for 10 minutes, maybe it is doing that activity for 2.

Is 2 minutes going to make a difference in your health? No, but it will make a difference in your habits. That is what makes the difference. Showing up.

Trend lines, not headlines

Again, we are not robots. We will not follow a linear path to becoming better, working better, or releasing something great day in and day out. Rather, there will be great improvements with great failures. In between will be minute changes. Headlines are the outcomes we tell others about, or the failures we try to hide and forget about. In other words, headlines just highlight the distance changed in one direction or the other. It doesn’t consider the aggregate total of your actions.

Ideal progression vs. incremental progressionWe can’t make linear progress. It’s a myth.

Focusing on headlines will distract and deter you from your goal. What you really want to pay attention to is the trend line. You only establish a trend line by showing up and making incremental progress day in and day out. Even if you drop in performance, if you consistently work at it, you will have a positive trend line.

Conclusion

Much of the inspiration from this post comes from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. You can read more about that book and concept on his blog here. But the conclusions drawn here are primarily from my own experience on various projects and efforts that I have been engaged in over time. I’ve found that when I shift from the big end outcome to an incremental approach to moving forward, I find the effort much more sustainable.

If you found this helpful, please share with your colleagues, friends, boss, etc. Also, feel free to start reading my Agile Laws series here.

Thanks for reading!

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David Bjarnson

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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