We often fail to appreciate the value of consistency. If you could improve just 1% each day, after one year you’d be among the best in the world.
WATCHING KIDS LEARN TO READ
We moved to Japan a year and a half ago. My oldest daughter could speak Japanese thanks to her mom, but her reading level was quite low. All of her classmates were far ahead of her, especially in recognizing kanji characters.
We created a plan with her teachers to have her do one extra worksheet each night, primarily focused on new kanji. We also found enjoyable picture-filled books for her to practice reading. (Japan is great for finding highly illustrated stories.)
She did the worksheets and sat on the couch slowly working through the stories. For months, it didn’t seem like she was making much progress. She struggled with the worksheets and she read slowly. Many days she didn’t want to do it.
Then, it all started to come together. She recognized the characters more quickly. She picked up the new ones after fewer repetitions. And she started plowing through book after book.
She is now among the top readers in her class. She reads all the time. And her reading ability has far surpassed mine in most respects.
Here’s what stands out to me about this past year: she never improved all that much on any given day. She improved a tiny amount each day and was very consistent about doing the work.
WHAT IF YOU GOT 1% BETTER EACH DAY?
Here’s a question that most people don’t answer correctly. If you got 1% better each day for one year, how much better would you be?
A lot of people answer that we’d be 3.65 times (or 365%) better. That’s wrong. In fact, it’s way wrong.
The reason is simple but not intuitive. Future improvement builds on previous improvement. We don’t keep going up 1% from day one. We go up 1% from the day before. Which is 1% more than the day before it. And so on.
So how much better would you actually be: 37 TIMES BETTER! (Or 3,778% better; here’s the equation: 1.01^365)
How can improving by just 1% each day result in that big a change?
THE MAGIC OF COMPOUNDING
The secret lies in a concept called compounding.
Compounding is an idea from finance. It essentially means earning interest on our interest.
Here’s how it works. The principal is the amount we invest. Interest is what we earn over some period of time. If we add that interest to our principal and repeat the cycle, we earn interest on both our original principal AND the first interest we received.
Our second interest payment is slightly higher than the first. And the third slightly higher than the second. And so on.
With each cycle, the growth actually gets faster. (This is called a positive feedback loop, and I explain how they work in this article. I also connect how we study to how we learn in this article.)
This goes against the way we think about improvement. The way we typically imagine improvement is small increases adding on each other. Plus one. Plus one. Plus one. Over time it looks like a straight line going gradually higher and higher.
But if you can keep the same rate of growth while increasing your base, you get exponential growth. And that graph looks totally different.
As you see above, they seem similar in the beginning. It takes time before the compounding line begins to grow. Eventually the compounding line starts to shoot vertical, while the linear line stays the same. (I put a dotted line to indicate where it becomes really clear that something is different.)
My daughter’s reading didn’t improve linearly. It looked linear for quite some time, but then it went vertical. Because she compounded her learning over a long period of time.
Did she improve 1% per day? Is she 37 times better at reading now than before?
I have no idea. And it doesn’t matter. She followed an effective system and got the expected results.
1% PER DAY IS A MINDSET, NOT A GOAL
I don’t want to get stuck on 1% or improving 37x. That’s not the point.
Improving 1% per day is not a goal. It’s a mindset. It’s a way to reinforce the importance of consistency over any one day’s efforts.
If you’re a runner, one workout isn’t going to make you a champion. But improving a little bit everyday could very well make you one, if you stick with it long enough.
If you’re a writer, you aren’t going to get 37x better in one year. But if you approach your craft with a mindset to get a little better each day, you’ll see dramatic improvement in a year.
If you’re a manager, you probably aren’t going to grow profits 3,778% in one year. But many continuous small improvements really will build on themselves to create significant growth over time.
Just like my daughter’s reading, the more you commit to a process of consistent tiny improvements, the more likely you are to experience outsized growth. But it’s the consistency that matters.
LEARN A LITTLE MORE EVERYDAY TO GO BE MORE EDUCATED
What is your strategy for learning new things?
I’m not talking about tactics. Things like internet research, reading books, listening to podcasts, taking courses, writing notes, keeping a learning journal. These are all good things, but they aren’t a strategy.
Your strategy is the philosophy and plan that guides your tactics. Most people don’t have one.
Let me propose one for you: Learn a little more everyday.
It doesn’t matter if it’s 1% or 0.1%. You can’t track it anyway. I like 1% because it’s easy to explain to other people.
If you are learning a skill (reading, piano, negotiation, basket-weaving), this approach will get you very good in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re learning a subject (Japanese, chemistry, C++, the history of basket-weaving) it will make you one of the top 1% of experts in that domain. And if you’ve got that much skill or knowledge, there will always be opportunities to capitalize on it.
The key is to be consistent, so start small enough to keep it easy. My default when I just don’t have time: I read one article and then mentally try to connect the main idea to something else in a creative way.
You don’t need to stress the tactics. Don’t stress how much you learned or whether it was the most important thing. Those all become irrelevant as you consistently make progress. It all compounds on itself over time.
If you have something you want to learn, get started today. If you use the 1% Per Day mindset to consistently put in the work, you’ll eventually find yourself in the top 1%.
Bryan Green is the co-founder of Go Be More and the author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster. The book helps aspiring runners experience rapid improvements by generating powerful leap cycles. His companion workbook is designed to apply the principles in daily training, and his coach’s guide provides activities for teams to do together. He also publishes the rapidly growing Think Better Newsletter every week. Learn more at maketheleapbook.com or purchase your copy of his book directly below.