Slow and Steady is Bullshit

Last Updated: July 14, 2014

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in life that goes against the traditional wisdom, it’s that real progress doesn’t happen piecemeal and spread out over time. It happens in bursts and flashes, whole sprints at once.

Permit me a ladder for an analogy.

If you want to get to the top of a ladder, you better not try to climb it a quarter-rung every day. Do that and you’ll never get anywhere, because every day, on the time between your efforts, you’ll be slipping back down to the first rung.

In multitasking research, this phenomenon is called “context switching costs”. It means that it’s hard to get back into the groove of something once you’ve taken a break.

Instead, I have a different system. I set discrete goals, and then I make sacrifices to give my goals the focus I need in order to achieve them with violent speed.

As far as ladders are concerned, it’s about getting to the next fucking rung, no matter what.

Once you’re there, you can afford to rest a bit if you like, as long as you hold on tight enough to not slip back down. Once you’re recovered, make the next effort. Get to the next rung. Catch your breath once you’re there. Eventually you’ll get to the top.

For example, this is my system for learning new things. If I start an online class—and I usually finish three or four a year—I’ll aim to get through it as quickly as possible. If I’m really trying, I can do a week’s worth of work in an evening, and I can keep that pace up for two evenings out of every three, finishing the whole class in about three weeks.

That’s the thing, though: I can focus like hell for three weeks. And not only can I do that, but I have a much harder time keeping up a lesser level of focus for the three months it would take to finish the class at a regular pace. Once I’m done, once I understand all the things I set out to learn, then I’m at a rung I can hold on to, and I won’t forget the concepts the way I would if I took breaks before I fully grasped them.

I believe that this strategy holds for any task that’s dominated by building skills. Sports, programming, or whatever else. Do it quickly, do it with intent, or don’t bother doing it. Piddling progress is no progress at all.