Hollowing the stone: The art of sustainable progress

6233679473_64338dd3a6_mNormally, when we think of discipline, we envision the willpower to stick with difficult things when we’d rather quit. We keep waking up to run when we’d rather not. We keep eating vegetables when we’d rather eat cake.

But there’s another action that requires discipline that I’ve been pondering recently, and thought about more while reading Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. This is the discipline to keep progress sustainable. Sometimes, you leave growth on the table. You pace yourself. You preserve your strength to fight another day.

Collins and Hansen write about this by using the metaphor of a “20 Mile March.” Basically, the idea is that when traveling a long ways, you’re better off aiming for 20 miles a day in good weather and in bad, rather than going long when you’re good and sulking in your tent when it rains.

A business example would be Southwest Airlines. After deregulation, as Southwest was expanding nationally, in any given year, numerous cities would be clamoring for the airline to service their airports. Faced with the possibility of adding dozens of destinations, Southwest would add…four. By adding a small number, Southwest could serve those cities well and serve them profitably. If they added 40, they’d blow through a lot of capital and then maybe have to pull out of a dozen — which would be an expensive mistake. The point of a business is not to be big to satisfy a CEO’s desire to rule an empire. It’s to make money for its shareholders. This is a critical distinction.

We touched on this concept some in Discipline 3 from What the Most Successful People Do at Work: make success possible. This means limiting your to-do list, but accomplishing everything that’s on it. Too often, we make lists with 30 items, then can’t get through them all. Failure isn’t motivational. Progress is. And repeated progress is powerful. It has the force of water hollowing the stone. Drop by drop, it carves its way through, changing the seemingly unchangeable through sheer persistence.

There are lots of examples of how sustainable progress beats the jittery sort. People who successfully lose weight tend to lose a pound a week — week after week after week. Oh, how nice it might be to be able to lose 10 lbs in a weekend! But whatever you’d do to lose 10 lbs in a weekend probably isn’t sustainable, and you’ll be back up to your old weight, if not higher, soon enough. If you’re training for a long race, running coaches warn against increasing your mileage more than 10% per week. Sure, you may be able to jump from 15 miles per week to 30, but if you injure yourself, you’ll be running zero, which will drop your average back down pretty quick. In my daily check of Google Analytics, I’ve enjoyed seeing the hopefully sustainable growth in readership of this blog. Some days I get a traffic spike from a big blog that links here. I’m happy to see these new readers, but I know the vast majority won’t stick around. My job is not to keep chasing spikes. Instead, my job is to keep adding a few of those spiky visitors as regular readers. If I add a few, every week, over time that adds up.

Have you ever left growth on the table in pursuit of sustainable progress?

In other news: I finally met the fabulous Calee Lee, founder of Xist Publishing, in person at Book Expo America last week. For the story of her company’s genesis, read her guest post here from 2011 called “Want to write a book? Don’t do laundry.

I also had lunch with Dorie Clark, who wrote a post at Forbes of career advice to aspiring journalists after our conversation.

I also stood in awe of Holland Saltsman (of Life Simplified) for her ability to get something like 3 dozen autographed children’s books for the school library where she works.

I was on Colin McEnroe’s show on Connecticut Public Radio (with Nicholas Carr and others) talking about time and being busy. Here’s a recording of the show.

Photo courtesy flickr user rkramer62

7 thoughts on “Hollowing the stone: The art of sustainable progress

  1. My blog’s growth has been like that too…slow and steady. I actually think I prefer it that way, because I’ve been able to slowly grow as a blogger without the pressure of being suddenly huge overnight.

    1. @The Frugal Girl – I know. You figure out lots of things as you go along, and it’s good to make rookie mistakes only in front of a small number of people.

  2. I think I may have slowly grown to the point where I want to run my own business. Which surprises the heck out of me! If I’d set out to start a business straight out of college, or even 10 years ago, I would never have had the guts to do it, or the faith in my own capabilities. (And I’ve decided I want a business I can bootstrap, rather than chasing capital, for the same reason- I want the freedom to adopt a “slow and steady” approach instead of the 5 year horizons I’ve experienced as an employee of various venture-backed enterprises!)

    1. @Cloud- I look forward to hearing more about your business! But yes, slow and steady growth can bring big returns over the long haul.

  3. Wow, I love Calee’s post. Thanks for that.

    My mind is still blown from the way you added up all the to-dos I’d do in a year even if I only got 1 or 2 done a day 🙂

  4. Your philosophy is one I keep in mind in all areas of my life. Sure, I have the occasional work-a-thon but in general I have learned that keeping at something in small amounts still gets the job done. Yes it requires more patience but I find that it gives me more time to really perfect whatever it is that’s at hand! So I am all for sustainable progress!

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