I’m not sure about you, but I despised writing essays when I was in college.
They were long, tedious, and hard to write. Because of this, I (and plenty of my fellow students) would leave everything to the last minute.
The night before the essay was due, we’d all camp out in the library with a ton of coffee and snacks while we tried to smash out the 3,000-odd words needed to pass.
Don’t get me wrong—this was really fun. Plenty of friendships were forged over those late nights when the words started to blur together, and we asked each other to read over sentences to see if our academic prose still made sense at 1 a.m.
But it was stressful to no end, and I’d emerge looking a little bit like this:
In my second year, I took on an internship and a second job. I was flat out, which meant I couldn’t afford to be as liberal with my time. I couldn’t just stay up and work on an essay the night before it was due because that would leave me exhausted during my next shift.
I was forced to make a change
A month before the essay was due, I would start researching and typing notes. It was nothing drastic—I’d spend maybe an hour a day at the library on my lunch break—but I was consistent. Then, depending on how many words the essay needed to be, I would work backward from the due date and set a goal to write 200 words a day. If it was a 2,000-word essay, I would start 10 days before the submission deadline.
Most importantly, I promised myself that the words didn’t have to be perfect.
“Just write 200 words every day. Any words. You can tidy it up later—the importance is writing them.”
I’d repeat this every day when I got stuck on which words to use or tried to convince myself that I could take a break and just do 400 words the next day.
The night before my essay was due, I opened it up to prepare for the final sprint. But I realized no sprint was necessary. Everything was done, and all I needed to do was proofread what I had already written. What’s more, even though I felt like I was writing garbage most days, it turned out to be fairly decent. It was definitely better than what my highly caffeinated, stressed-out self could write the day before the essay was due.
That was when I truly discovered the power of small steps to make a huge difference. Over time, this evolved as I tried to apply a similar process to other aspects of my life: a process known as incremental change.
What is incremental change?
Incremental change is all about gradual improvements over time. Rather than jumping in guns blazing and trying to change everything all at once, this mindset favors little adjustments—all of which add up to big changes.
Imagine two scenarios where you want to exercise more.
In the first scenario, you jump in with a new routine from day one. You lift weights for an hour, followed by a spin class. After a week of this, you feel tired. Maybe you drop down to weights for an hour every day. Then, slowly but surely, every day becomes every second day. Then every third day. And so on, until you’re only training once a week (and feeling guilty for it).
In the second, you start with a 30-minute run three times a week. After the first few weeks, you feel good and add a weightlifting session. Another month goes by, and you add another day of strength training, bringing your total to five days a week. It feels effortless and becomes a habit.
The former scenario is the way we approach most things: headfirst. We dive in with all the best intentions, only to get burned out because it’s such a huge shock to the system. In the latter, we do things gradually, building upon them to create meaningful change that lasts.
That’s an incremental change.
Why is incremental change so effective?
You know the saying “the sum is greater than the parts”? That describes the power of incremental change perfectly.
It’s powerful because the adjustments are so gradual you might not even notice them happening. However, over time, these little changes stack on each other to create seismic shifts in your life.
It all comes down to three things.
It’s less overwhelming
If you’ve ever watched Friends, chances are you remember this scene:
What Ross does at the end of this clip is the perfect example of incremental change. Chandler is freaking out about getting married. Instead of telling Chandler to go do it, Ross breaks down the big task into several smaller ones.
Turning one big idea into bite-sized chunks lets you get things done one step at a time. This makes the final goal seem less daunting while still moving you closer to the end result.
You build momentum
I’m going to use a cliche here and talk about the snowball effect.
A snowball starts with just a few pieces of snow. But when you roll it down a hill, it picks up more snow until it becomes a huge, unstoppable force.
This is what incremental change amounts to.
All of those little shifts you’re making? They build upon themselves and grow into a significant change. As you make one adjustment, you gain the confidence to make another. And another. And another.
Balancing long-term thinking with short-term gains
We live in a world that prioritizes quick wins and fast payoffs. However, a lot of changes don’t take place that quickly. They occur over weeks, months, or even years—and it’s tough to work towards an end goal if you’re not seeing immediate results.
Incremental change is a helpful way to bridge the gap between short-term gains and long-term success. When you break things down, you get quick wins on a regular basis, all while knowing that these small victories are driving you towards the ultimate goal.
James Dyson: the poster child for incremental change
This concept of little adjustments made over time isn’t just useful for personal goals, like waking up earlier or doing more exercise. Entrepreneurs have famously used this approach to create revolutionary products, like James Dyson and the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner.
After experiencing frustration with his vacuum, Dyson set out to design a new system that would have better suction. He created his first prototype, then 5,127 more before finally building the Dyson vacuum that made the company what it is today.
This approach of incremental innovation still applies to the company today, where every Dyson prototype goes through hundreds or thousands of tweaks and improvements before hitting the shelves.
How to engineer incremental change
So how do you go about making incremental changes?
It sounds simple: Just break down big goals into smaller ones, and away you go. However, the approach is a little more nuanced than that.
If you want to unlock the power of incremental change, there are four things you need to be aware of.
1. Break things down into stages
The biggest, and perhaps the most important, part of implementing incremental change is to turn every big goal into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Whether it’s a college assignment or a project at work, breaking things down into phases, milestones, and actions will make it more digestible and keep you on track as you move towards your final objective.
If you prefer to think visually, experiment with mapping out the different stages in a project management tool (I use Monday.com). This is an awesome way to make sure you’re tracking well on time and that you’re clear on what needs to be completed as you work toward your end goal.
2. Focus on little changes
Draw inspiration from James Dyson and think about how you can improve on existing things over time. This could be anything from a group assignment in college to a process at work or even how you approach things in your daily life.
Ask questions like:
How could I tweak this to make it better?
How can I improve?
How can we build upon what’s been done already?
Here’s the best bit: When you ask these questions, you’ll also inspire others around you to start implementing incremental change.
3. Stay agile
Agile is one of those buzzwords that has been floating around the tech world for a while. The whole concept of agile is to be adaptable, respond quickly to any changes, and iterate when things don’t go as planned.
Let’s be real: no matter what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll encounter roadblocks along the way. Change is rarely linear, and adopting an agile mindset allows you to respond to setbacks quickly and productively.
You might do a fantastic job at waking up early for weeks on end, only to have a particularly challenging few days where you sleep in. Rather than giving up, you can use the agile methodology to review your current situation and adapt your approach to suit. For example, you can go to bed earlier when you feel exhausted or even allow yourself to sleep in this week and go back to waking up earlier next week.
4. Keep track of your wins
One of the toughest things about incremental change is that it can be difficult to see your wins when you’re in the thick of it. Little changes aren’t exciting, and it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any progress, even though you’re making plenty of strides towards your final goal.
This is why recording your wins matters so much—even if it’s the smallest of achievements. Make an effort to regularly write down what you’ve done. Trust me: You’ll probably be shocked at how far you’ve come, even when you thought you were standing still.
I also like to have a checklist where I tick off wins as I go along. This small action gives me a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment while also helping me maintain momentum as I chip away at my goal.
Success comes from the little things
Incremental change is all about putting one foot in front of the other. You take one step, then another, then another…and before you know it, you’re at your final destination.
Start experimenting with incremental change in your life, and you’ll most likely be surprised at how much more you get done, all with less effort. And if you ever get stuck, remember this:
Unwavering incremental change can create remarkable and monumental results.