The Power of Incremental Work

Quite a while ago, I wrote a review of The New Turing Omnibus. A very clever book whose double entendre title reinforced the wit with which the subject matter was to be handled. In short, a very fun book that covers a lot of Computer Science topics.

What’s interesting though is how one tiny passage in the foreword changed my outlook on something important. Here it is:

Sometime during my childhood I encountered the traditional image of a bird that erodes a mountain by taking a single stone from it every year. In time, a mountain may disappear by this method – and appear elsewhere. That was my feeling about the Incremental growth of The Turing Omnibus from 1981 to 1988 when I completed the first draft, astonished once more at the power of Incremental work.

Now I had heard that fable before, about the bird moving mountains, and in many other contexts as well. It’s certainly not a new concept, we do it every day at work slicing a big product into component features, but here’s the deal: reading it in the context of personal projects it took on a new meaning for me.

Burning the Candle

Let’s say you’re in your twenties right now, or in another time of life where you have few dependents and a great deal of evening time on your hands. If you wanted to sink six hours a night into a side project, there’s nothing standing in your way. You can do these extended sessions for as long as and often as your personal willpower would dictate.

For me, when I was in that time of life, I was a notorious sprinter. At Amazon I was inculcated by the long hours and even stayed the night in the office when necessary, and since I was already an overachiever, that carried forward with me. After Amazon, I took those evening hours and applied them to side project after side project and to learning a whole raft of technologies.

But then I got married and we started a family. I simply didn’t have the time anymore to devote to extended sessions. For a short time, I stopped ingesting new technologies and new books altogether, there was too much going on. Great things, wonderful things, things I would never trade, and yet I wanted to be intentional about what time I had each day.

I have a little bit of time that I can spend in the evening or early morning. Or, I can encounter Resistance (read the War of Art) and choose to squander that time with TV or some other activity. As an aside, I think play is an essential part of life, so don’t get all black and white on me here, but I just think play is best once the work is all done. And play is best done with family and friends.

Anyway, I resolved a long time ago that I wanted to continuously learn and always be improving in all the areas to which I dedicate myself. I want to be a better software developer, a better family man, and a better friend. Each of these things can be viewed as a mountain to be moved, requiring intentionality and purpose of action over a long period of time.

The problem with the metaphor is that a mountain is finite, whereas these goals are “infinite games”, ones that have no completion except when we stop playing (as opposed to finite games that we play all the time which have points and victory conditions).

Incremental Work

In short, I’ve adopted a different view. In the context of these infinite games, the only victory condition is to continue playing, which means showing up each and every day to move the needle just a little bit. Read a few pages, squeeze in some more time for audio books, hit the web for actual learning and not mindless tech news, put a little bit of time into that art project or health regimen that you were always meaning to do. Just do it every single day. No more excuses and no more devaluing how important it is.

As the author of The New Turing Omnibus was surprised to discover, one day you wake up to the completion of a task you would have never thought possible to finish. Even those infinite goals show incredible progress when you measure them over a long enough period of time.

The key is to not lose heart, and to never give up. Every little piece of dirt was once a part of that mountain. Or, to pick another fable, eventually the Tortoise will outrun the Hare. Keep moving!