What a massive distance!
When I enter a small Spanish village with my fully loaded bicycle, it is often a not-so-everyday event for the locals. While I relax somewhere on a bench or terrace or treat myself to a well-deserved cup of coffee, people regularly come for a chat. When I tell them that I come from Belgium and moreover that I have already cycled the entire route, this almost always results in surprised looks and reactions. People very often have the feeling that to undertake an adventure like mine you have to be a very good cyclist, and that the physical part of the undertaking is an almost insurmountable barrier. However, the more and more I am convinced that that is actually not the case. Of course it gives you a boost if you are a trained cyclist. More power and endurance definitely help when covering longer distances. However, it strikes me that the majority of the (rather rare) cyclists who cross my path are actually not cyclists pur sang. Rather, they are travelers who have found the ideal means of transport in the bicycle to explore unknown territory in an independent and pure way.
I think the actual cycling is not the biggest challenge of this type of trip at all. When you’re tired, you can always finish the day and rest. By the way, I often think that it is by no means certain that ‘real cyclists’ would enjoy this kind of adventure, since the biggest challenges lie in aspects other than the physical.
The distance between Belgium and Spain seems large, and of course it is. However, when you divide that large number of kilometers over the number of days I have actually cycled, it is noticeable that these are not actually impossible daily distances. I remember that during the first weeks of my trip I had a lot more trouble covering the miles and that I was often completely exhausted in the evenings. Every day, however, I improved in both the cycling and everything that comes with it.
- Setting up my tent took less time and energy over time,
- I slept less and less restless (and therefore better),
- my legs (and a lot of other body parts) got stronger,
- I learned what kind of nutrition my body needed,
- and so much more. Not only did it cost me less and less effort to travel, but the distance I had covered during this learning process was already considerable. This observation reminded me of a fascinating concept I read about recently.
A while back I read the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. He describes in a simple and clear way how our lives are largely filled and shaped by small habits. In addition, he makes an interesting analysis of the long-term consequences. The result of a one-time small action is often limited, but frequent repetition of it has a multiple effect. On the one hand, the impact of each new performance increases slightly over time: through repetition and training you (usually) refine your skills and become more effective in the performance. On the other hand, the results of those first performances also pile up. Moreover, in life almost nothing happens as you predict it in advance, and these first small steps often set unexpected trajectories in motion.
“Every small bit helps”Mom
Together with the observation that many small amounts add up to a lot over a long period of time, we can also say that small trajectory changes can have a big effect over time. To illustrate this, I would like to enlist the help of perhaps the most spectacular example of a traveler who encountered unexpected things in his path: Cristóbal Colón (or Christopher Columbus, as we know him better).
After his departure in Andalusia, Colón sailed to the Canary Islands. From this archipelago, his ships would cross the Atlantic to Asia via an undiscovered, hypothetical western shipping route. Just over a month after departing from these islands, the Spanish version of “Land in sight!” was heard. The group of explorers arrived on one of the islands we now know as the Bahamas. They had finally reached India, so they bestowed the name “Indians” on their warm welcoming committee.
Now let’s run a thought experiment where Columbus:
- effectively knew what he was doing,
- had access to the current knowledge about the operation of the compass,
- made his crossing in a straight line.
Imagine for a moment that on the eve of his departure he had decided to follow a course that was 3° more north. This timeless pencil case attribute may help you estimate the magnitude of 3°.
Not too much.
However, if we extend this deviation over the entire Atlantic Ocean crossing, we get a different picture. The map below shows that the first coastline on the horizon in that case would have been in the middle of present-day Florida.
So a slight change in direction here would result in a final difference of several hundred miles, and that would probably have had a significant impact on New World history.
This image is a useful tool for me to look at my own life and environment in a slightly different way. As with all these metaphors, it is of course important to realize that this does not represent ‘the truth’. However, it can be an opportunity to learn.
In the past year we have (unfortunately) come into contact with graphs that symbolize an exponential evolution. In the case of exponential increase over time, this simply means that the depicted phenomenon will increase faster and faster. When we look at the impact of a continuous daily improvement, it looks like this.
A daily improvement of 1% isn’t much by itself, but if you manage to keep it up over a long period of time, the accumulated effect can be enormous. The above representation tells us that the considered skill will already be six times better after six months, if we assume a daily improvement of 1%. If this same improvement continues in this way, however, the progress in the next six months will be a lot more drastic.
In addition, the red curve shows that the size of the daily improvement has a huge impact on the final result. Halving the daily progress results in a final result that is six times smaller after one year.
A small caveat to this thinking exercise is that, of course, over time it will become more difficult to find that extra percent. So I think in practice the growth curve is more likely to look like this.
At the start of the growing process, there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit available, making it easier to keep the daily growth at 1% and the curve rising exponentially. However, when you reach a level where it becomes quite a challenge to improve even more, the rate of growth will inevitably slow down. It is of course difficult to determine in advance where that tipping point lies.
In fact, this principle is very similar to the way in which ecology and biology look at population growth. Fascinating, but that aside.
In everyday life
Moving from this rather abstract theory to the messy practice of life, we can color these chalk lines in many different ways:
- When you try to learn something new every day, you build up a kind of web of knowledge. The more you learn, the better you can process and absorb the new information you collect. In this way, you build a foundation that makes it easier to understand new knowledge and concepts.
- The more you help others, the more others are inclined to help you. Being a little nicer in every interaction will, on average, also bring you more love, and that will probably make your relationships deeper and stronger.
- If you do the same small task every day, you will probably get better at it over time and therefore your energy will yield more results. Last winter I lived in a house that was ‘heated’ with a fireplace. I decided to chop a little bit of wood every day. That in itself was not much, but after a month and a half – when it got really cold – I had already collected a whole mountain of wood without really getting tired. Moreover, it also went more smoothly, as my technique also improved over time.
Until now we have always talked about improvements and growth, but as everyone knows, life is not a pony camp and there are times when it gets more difficult. The same principle can also be applied here, albeit in the other direction.
- A negative self-image often appears as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, some critical self-reflection can do no harm. However, when you always view yourself in a certain way (worthless, stupid, fat, anxious, …), you train yourself to view life from that perspective. This can cause you to behave the way you expect yourself in this new context, which in turn can lead to a further lowering of self-esteem.
- Similar things can be said about the way you look at others. When you are annoyed by a certain behavior of a colleague / partner / friend, it often happens that you draw attention to this detail for yourself. This fixation will make you stand out even more and your annoyance can increase even more. In addition, I think that the behavior of others is also affected by this, as we are all biologically pre-programmed to live up to the expectations of others.
- Social outbursts of anger and protest are very rarely the result of 1 isolated cause – although they are often presented as such – but of frustration built up over a long period of time.
One of the biggest challenges that comes with this type of pattern is the fact that the results of your actions only become visible and tangible after a number of repetitions. Imagine that you put an ice block in an enclosed space, at a temperature of -10°C. You then increase the temperature of this room by 2°C every day.
Would you say here that your actions had an effect only on day 7? If you only look at the visible results, which in the majority of cases are the only source of direct information, this may seem to be the case. But without the preliminary warming, I’m afraid the ice block would have been dormant on the seventh day.
When the weather lady mentions the freezing point, it is clear that she means 0° Celsius. But what is the shape of water at exactly this temperature?
We all know that liquid water turns into ice when the temperature drops below freezing, just as we also know that ice melts when the temperature goes positive. But what actually happens at the transition point? Well, apparently it depends… When approaching zero from a lower temperature – as in our example – the ice will not melt when the temperature reaches exactly 0°C. Additional heat energy added at this point will initially be used to achieve the solid-to-liquid conversion without affecting the effective temperature of the ice/water. Just at the point where the conversion to water is complete, the temperature will still be 0°C. From this moment on, extra added heat causes an increase in the temperature of the water. (thanks Karthik Naicker)
For the sake of convenience, I have disregarded the impact of air pressure for a moment and have assumed that we are talking about a situation with “standard atmospheric conditions”. If you don’t, a whole new box of possibilities opens up..
This metaphor can help to trust in a process where it is not immediately possible to ‘harvest’. For the vast majority of areas of expertise, there is a period when – although you try your best to learn a lot – you seem to be stuck on the spot and not making any progress. While the results aren’t immediately apparent, you’re probably building a foundation here that you can rely on in the future. When the construction of a beautiful building is completed, it is mainly the architectural design that attracts attention. But without the invisible foundations, we would probably only be able to enjoy the beauty for a limited time.
It can also help to better understand the people around you. Almost everyone who has a deep mastery of a skill started at a time when they didn’t and has had to go through a growth path that probably involved trial and error. Of course, the ‘natural gift’ aspect also plays a role in the speed of learning, but if Jimi Hendrix hadn’t spent so much time with his guitar, I could probably play his songs. So when a breakthrough seems to come out of nowhere, it’s often a good reflex to realize that a lot of work has probably gone into it beneath the surface.
“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits”James Clear
The central theme of the book “Atomic Habits” is the importance of habits and patterns (habits) to achieve these accumulation effects. He describes a lot of simple practices and tools, both to create and reinforce desired patterns and to eliminate negative habits from your life. As always with this kind of work, not everything is equally useful, but I have already found the usefulness of some techniques that I have picked up thanks to this book. Within his working method, the main focus is not on “objectives”, but on “systems”, with the underlying philosophy that a well-functioning system will also result in progress in the long term. Conversely, however, it is much more difficult to achieve sustainable success without supporting systems.
Zoals ik eerder al vertelde in De kunst van het vertrekken
As I mentioned earlier in The Art of Beginning, it can be quite an effort to get moving. But as many a torn list of New Year’s resolutions has proven in the past, perseverance is often at least as great a challenge. An explanation for this could be that when we start a new activity we always have to actively decide to set ourselves in motion. When you create a habit of doing this activity—and thus avoiding the recurring decision—it becomes a lot easier mentally to get started.
Miracles do not exist, but good techniques can help you enormously to get to your desired trajectory and also to stay there. The concept of Atomic Habits will not provide you with a magical solution to all your problems, but it has already provided me with a lot of new insights that help me to stay on my path better.
And if you stay on that path for a while and persevere, the rest will follow. Little by little.
“A year from now you will wish you had started today”Karen Lamb
Interested in the concept of Atomic Habits? Here you can find a video where the author clearly explains his insights.