How long does it take to bring about change in your life?
But if you and I don’t fool ourselves—and fooling oneself is the easiest thing to do—we’ll find that the answer to the question is: really long.
A few weeks ago, I felt agitated after a conversation on politics with a friend. The thing about agitation is that it doesn’t disappear if you drown it out in distractions. It merely festers like a suppressed ailment. Then one day, it erupts, sometimes at the worst of places.
It dawned on me that my inner turmoil didn’t arise from arguing over politics. It arose from the frustration over not having made any progress on an important goal in the previous two weeks. Arguments over politics, which I had in plenty during those two weeks, were a means to escape from working on the goal.
Why was I fleeing from the goal despite having the tools and bandwidth to pursue it? I had the intent to work on it. But turns out, my workout routine got in the way.
Ever since the lockdown eased in our area, I would visit the park at 4 PM to exercise. In the beginning, this workout served as a useful break from work and reenergized me for my evening work sessions. But after a month, it got in the way of my work.
My typical workday revolves around deep work sessions: tasks that need two hours or more at a stretch. The first session is from 9:30 AM to 1 PM. The next is from 3 PM to 7 PM. Between these sessions, I read, eat my lunch, and take a power nap.
The 4 PM workout split the second half of my day right down the middle. The first of those sessions began at 2:30 PM and ended at 3:40 PM. Barely any time to do meaningful work. And the post-workout session—5:30 PM to 7 PM—went by in a daze while my body recuperated from the exhaustion. And I would plonk my butt in front of the TV after dinner.
This meant I didn’t pursue any deep tasks after 1 PM. In effect, I worked meaningfully for just 3.5 hours each day. And that was the cause of my agitation.
It felt tempting to redesign my entire routine to overcome this challenge. After all, progress demands massive change, right?
Not really. Progress and improvement are a result of a myriad of tiny changes that compound over time. So I made a simple change to my routine: I shifted my workout session from 4 PM to 8 PM.
The intent was clear. I wouldn’t commit to this routine for three months. Instead, I would try it out for two weeks and collect data on its impact on my day.
In effect, I would fire bullets before I fired cannonballs.
Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Imagine a hostile ship about to attack you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder, so you decide to use it all to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball misses the oncoming ship and lands in the ocean. When you turn to the stockpile, you discover that you’re out of gunpowder and in big trouble.
But suppose instead when you spot the ship, you use a little gunpowder to fire a bullet first. The bullet misses the ship by 40 degrees. You fire another bullet. It misses by 20 degrees. The next one hits the hull of the ship—Bingo!
Now you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire the biggest cannonball you have along the trajectory. And you sink the enemy ship.
In his book Great by Choice, author Jim Collins explained that successful companies make big bets after they’ve empirically validated that those bets would pay off. The less successful comparisons made big bets without empirical validation.
Big successes fired bullets first while the less successful comparisons fired cannonballs.
It’s tempting to search look for that one cannonball will make your do a 180-degree U-turn. The investment that will 10X your wealth, the diet plan that’ll make you lose a dozen pounds in a month, the article that goes viral and becomes your ticket to fame.
When people ask how you did it, you can place your finger on that single moment that started it all.
The search for this magic bullet—rather magic cannonball—leads you to thousands of articles and videos. Each new piece of content offers a new idea, which you commit to fully and set out to transmogrify your entire routine.
Such transmogrifications offer a burst of hope at first. Then they begin to take a toll.
Each new plan makes you exert tremendous resources. You invest in it so deeply that you ignore the indications and obvious facts that things aren’t going well. You refuse to accept that the idea may not work. “This has to go right! This has to change my life!,” you think.
But it doesn’t. Instead, you become inflexible, afraid of change. Like the emperor who clings to his poor decisions because he doesn’t want his subjects to think that he was wrong. The fear of appearing foolish hangs over your head like the Sword of Damocles.
The harder you try to not appear foolish, the more foolish mistakes you make. Then you grasp for other new ideas. This vicious loop continues until you’re too weak to even believe that you can have a good life.
Here’s a simpler and more fun alternative.
Approach life like a scientist, the one with frazzled hair and a face covered in black soot from the tiny explosions that occurred during her lab experiments. The one who approaches failure with curiosity rather than fear. The one who cannot stop herself from trying new combinations in the search for an interesting result.
Work behind closed doors on experiments where the stakes are low and distractions are at a minimum. Validate your instincts with data. Apply your learning to make your future better, one percent at a time. One percent of daily improvement might seem tiny, but it yields a whopping 3,778% growth at the end of the year!
“Instead of starting over, fix a few things that bug you. Often you’ll find those little fixes totally change your perception of the whole.”— Joe Satriani
Many of your tweaks won’t pay off. But the ones that do will yield outsized returns. People will ask how you changed overnight. And you’ll just smile because in your heart you’ll know that the overnight change resulted from a thousand invisible tweaks you made for months, or years.
Bringing It Home
Shifting my workout to 8 PM meant I now had two deep-work sessions: 9:30 AM to 1 PM, and 3:30 PM to 7 PM.
Within a week, I felt happier and more productive. And I began to make better use of my post-workout time too. When the results remained consistent for two weeks, I made the new workout time a part of my schedule.
Life doesn’t begin after you arrive at a destination. It’s like water, getting shaped by what you do in the present moment. Your present-moment actions multiply to produce your future.
You can either look for cannonballs and let your life stagnate like brackish water at the bottom of a vase. Or you can keep firing bullets and let life flow through you like a freshwater spring.