In a previous post, I discussed how to realize your ideals with constant, incremental improvements. The key idea of that post was that drastic change, in theory, need not be drastic in practice. Rather, we can build up to drastic change from very modest beginnings.
For example, if you want to exercise more, you can start by exercising for 1 minute a day. In practice, you will do a lot more than 1 minute per day. But, by setting the minimum criteria for success to be comically low, you make it impossible to fail even in the worst scenario. Even if it’s 11:30pm on a Saturday and you’re out at a bar, you can step out, do a few wall pushups and still succeed. As you slowly build up your habits and trust in yourself, you can, over time, transform this slow trickle into an uncontainable flood.
In this post, I will outline how I use this strategy in my own life. In general, what’s worked for me is the concept of a “success spiral” .
The Success Spiral
A success spiral is a concrete instantiation of the principle of constant improvement: you start small, track your progress, and periodically build your minimum criteria for success upwards.
Here’s a concrete example. Let’s say that that you want to write a novel. Jumping straight into writing an hour each day is an exercise in futility. Initially, you might have enough passion to write for hours. But, this surge of passion will eventually wear out. What then?
You start with a smaller goal. You make it impossible to fail. Divide your goal by 100. Want to write for two hours each day? Make your goal to write for 1 minute. Everyone can write for a minute each day, no matter how much they have going on. Even if it’s 11:55pm , you have enough time to meet your goal. Every night, you track how much you wrote. You check the box that says you met your goal. Then you sleep in confidence.
At the end of the first week, you check your progress. You notice that not only did you write for at least one minute every day, you wrote for at least 10. So, you build on your minimum criteria. Now you have to write for 2 minutes every day. At the end of the second week, you notice that you’ve been writing for at least 15 minutes each day. So you build again. Now you have to write for 5 minutes every day.
In a few months, one of three things will happen: (1) You will have reached your goal of writing for two hours each day, and you will be doing it with ease; (2) You will realize that you simply cannot spare two hours a day because of your other commitments, but you will still be making constant progress at a more realistic level (e.g., 30 minutes per day); or, (3) you will realize that you do not really want to write a novel.
In any case, you will have won. If option (1), you will have realized your ideal. If option (2), you will have realized that your ideal is unrealistic but will still be making constant, effortless progress towards your goal. If option (3), you will no longer be wasting your precious mental energy on a goal that you do not truly want.
How I Use Success Spirals
At any given moment, I have a set of active success spirals that I am pursuing. Some of these are in “maintenance” mode and others are in “growth” mode.
The “maintenance” spirals are those habits that I have developed into their ultimate form, at least for now. For example, I clean and/or declutter my room for 10 minutes every single day. I don’t need or want to clean for any more than ten minutes per day, so I am not actively growing my spiral. Once cleaning my room for 10 minutes a day becomes an automatic routine that I do not have to think about, I will archive that spiral. Archived spirals are simply those that I no longer need to track.
The “growth” spirals, as you can guess, are those that I am actively growing. One example is my spiral for working on this blog. My spiral for this blog is only about three weeks old. It started at 1 minute per day, every day and has since been promoted to 5 minutes per day, every day. I want to eventually work on this blog for 30 minutes per day on every weekday.
Active spirals require a regular reflection period. I reflect every Sunday. On Sunday, I’ll open up the spreadsheet in which I track my active spirals.
For maintenance spirals, I basically just make sure that I have not failed to meet my minimum goal. If I have, I’ll consider either taking the spiral down a level (e.g., from 10 minutes to 5 minutes) or, if I’m interested in maintaining the spiral at its current level, I’ll employ other motivation tricks to further incentive myself . In practice, I have never (yet) had to this. Once a spiral gets into maintenance mode, I have never failed. Success spirals are that powerful.
For growth spirals, I take one additional step: I determine if it’s time for promotion. Promotion is the process of building a spiral’s minimum success criteria towards its maintenance level. In the case of this blog, as I mentioned, that’s 30 minutes per day — whereas I’m currently just at 5. I deem a spiral ready for promotion when the minimum amount of time I’m putting in is at or greater than the next level of promotion. For example, if the next promotion level is 10 minutes per day, and I notice that I’m already clocking in about 11-12 minutes per day, I’ll know it’s time for promotion.
When I promote a spiral, I also determine the next level of promotion (assuming the spiral has not reached maintenance). I determine the next level of promotion ahead of time because it gives me a concrete, more ambitious goal to work towards (e.g., if the next level is 10 minutes per day and I’m currently at 5, I’ll know I want to move up to 10). If you do it right, spiral promotion becomes its own motivational reward — you’ll eventually habituate yourself to working towards promotion, and the anticipation of growing your spiral will excite you.
Using success spirals, I have done things that, a few years ago, I would not have expected I was capable of doing. Here are three examples:
- Worked out 5 days a week for 20 consecutive weeks (even while traveling).
- Wrote three-fourths of my thesis proposal (~65 pages) in just over two weeks.
- Learned ~1500 new Japanese word readings and ~500 new Japanese Kanji characters by studying Japanese for just ~5 minutes per day this past year.
Success spirals are immensely powerful motivational tools. They are also probably one of the simplest ways for you to realize your ideals through constant, incremental improvement.
In a future post, I’ll write a more concrete step-by-step “how-to” guide on creating effective success spirals. For now, I’ll leave you with this task: Think about something you’ve always wanted to do, but put off. Then, formulate a success spiral to help you do it. What is a starting goal that makes it impossible for you to fail? Is it 1 minute of writing per day? Is it doing 5 jumping jacks? Is it eating one spinach leaf? Let me know what you decide and how it works out!
 I first heard about success spirals from Nick Winter’s book, “The Motivation Hacker”. Since I learned about it, I’ve incorporated it into my own life to make steady progress. I’ve also modified them slightly to suit my own goals.
 Not that I’m advocating working at 11:55pm. In fact, I think having a hard-line beyond which you do not work is essential for both productivity and mental health. Maybe I’ll write about that later.
 For example, by embedding the habit in a cue-routine-reward loop, which I first read about in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, and which I hope to write about in a future post. Or by making failure costly.