Wednesday Feature: Relentless Incrementalism

There is an old saying that goes like this: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” That is a succinct definition for relentless incrementalism.

Doing the hard stuff in life is rarely a quick accomplishment. I’ve never run a marathon, but I know people who have, and I know they don’t just show up to a race and run 26 plus miles. The people I know that run marathons train for many, many months running incremental distances, building their endurance. Relentless incrementalism.

Luck notwithstanding, success is hard work. Sure, luck is somewhat involved but I prefer Louis Pasteur’s (the great inventor) saying: “Chance (luck) favors the prepared mind.” Pasteur saw luck or fortune as something that is omnipresent, one just has to have an open mind to see it or find it. Edison (Thomas) took a different tack. Edison when asked how he felt about failing 1,000 times to invent the lightbulb, replied: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Relentless incrementalism.

The author James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, talks about relentless incrementalism as doing a thing over and over – building a habit. He uses the example of, “write for ten minutes a day over a lifetime and you will be a writer”. The concept is simplistic yet for so many, hard to do.

Getting somewhere requires locomotion in a particular direction. An incremental approach as one cannot yet, quantum leap to a different destination, future or past. As humans, we long for quick, simple fixes yet forget that the journey, even when it is arduous, is worth the effort. I today, appreciate the journey, forward and sometimes, backward. Going forward again, requires relentless incrementalism.

At its core, relentless incrementalism is about continuous progress or at least, the effort of making progress. It is by definition, CQI (continuous quality improvement). It looks like building a wall brick by brick or going on a walk or hike, one step at a time. With each step, or each brick, we get closer to the goal. Self-improvement works this way too.

I did a Google search on ‘relentless incrementalism’ and its quite interesting to see how the words and the concept are used. Lots of firms use the phrase such as the investment firm Market Source. It’s apparently motivational and embedded in leadership principles. Posters exist and all kinds of novel sayings as well. I was rather amused by how many adaptations exist.

A long time ago, I studied quite a bit of philosophy and theology. Philosopher favorites of mine included John Dewey and William James (pragmatists) and St. Thomas Acquinas. Dewey and James were enveloped in relentless incrementalism and Dewey’s key concepts on education and learning, textbook examples of incrementalism (the scientific method). Acquinas’s five ways to prove the existence of God requires incrementalism: Motion, Efficient Cause, Possibility and Necessity, Gradation, Design. For Acquinas his mix of theology and Aristotelian philosophy was a way of creating a process to know the existence of God and to logically, develop an approach to understanding how and why, God exists (incrementalism).

Whether it has been forming a bond of love, finding the right way to make a great Stroganoff, or losing a few pounds, relentless incrementalism is a great approach to accomplishing just about anything. I apply it daily and while I haven’t perfected much (even Stroganoff), I have developed some great habits worth working incrementally on improving. Happy Hump Day!


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