Imagine I had a simple answer for you—a “how to be a better person” formula. I am sure you would love it.
Unfortunately, and fortunately, life is not that linear.
On your road to becoming a better person, you will encounter thousands of people spouting advice, telling you which tools to use, which actions to take, and which roads to follow. Some will try to sell you shortcuts. Others will try to sell you overnight success.
I am here to sell you on doing the damn work, getting comfortable with slow, and putting in the effort that will eventually result in an unstoppable you.
Shortly, we will turn our attention to a principle I like to call accretion. But first, a story…
Pablo Picasso was walking through the market one day when a woman spotted him. She stopped the artist, pulled out a piece of paper, and said, “Mr. Picasso, I am a fan of your work. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”
Picasso smiled and quickly drew a small but beautiful piece of art on the paper. Then, he handed the paper back to her, saying, “That will be one million dollars.”
“But Mr. Picasso, it only took you thirty seconds to draw this little masterpiece,” the woman said.
Picasso replied, “My good woman, it took me thirty years to draw that masterpiece in thirty seconds.”
Today, the name “Picasso” is synonymous with artistic genius, but Picasso was not born as the Picasso we know. He became it. Through years of practice and improvement, he built legendary skill, presence, and a legacy—a perfect example of living a life of steady accretion.
“The men who are successful in the end will be those whose success came as a result of steady accretion.” — Alexander Graham Bell
It is with Picasso in mind that I want to introduce you to the principle of accretion. The definition of accretion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is, a gradual process in which layers of a material are formed as small amounts are added over time.
How does this apply to becoming a better you?
When you live a life of steady accretion, you focus on small improvements over time. You actively decide to trade in quick fixes, overnight success, and instant gratification for the process of incremental improvement.
This approach yields the best results and, in my experience, provides the most sustainability. It deals head-on with one of the biggest problems people face when they start their journey to the upgraded self: becoming overwhelmed.
Being overwhelmed manifests in two ways.
- Exaggerated expectation
Accretion: The Procrastination Beater
People are amusing. We will procrastinate as long as we can, until we are finally pushed to the edge of change.
You see it when the newbie delays going to the gym because he has no idea where to start. He sits at home watching videos and reading articles. He gathers knowledge but no muscle, waiting for the perfect moment when his newly found knowledge collides with some motivation.
Change is overwhelming and often manifests as procrastination.
When you opt for a life of steady accretion, you are giving yourself permission to start small. Starting small means taking actions that don’t scare you and with which you are unlikely to fail.
Our newbie gym-goer could have arranged first to go for a session with a personal trainer who could have shown him the ropes. He could have learned how different machines work and which exercises he would benefit from the most. This small action would have removed anxiety, and it already increases his chances of success.
The change can and should be small. Not intimidating.
Accretion: The Expectations Killer
Another way that being overwhelmed manifests itself is through the lie that we must go from 0 to 100 km/h overnight.
I see this all the time.
Someone complains that they have been trying to meditate but that the practice is just “too boring and dull.” The conversation goes something like this.
Him: “I hate meditation. I see no benefit of it. Who can sit around for 20 minutes thinking of nothing?”
Me: “Well, why do you do 20 minutes?”
Him: “Because that is what people recommend.”
Me: “When did you start meditating?”
Him: “Two days ago.”
We want to excel at the things we do. That’s fine. But you have to remember that anyone who is great at anything started from scratch, even Picasso.
As with anything else in life, good things take time. If you swing for the fences, you will become frustrated unnecessarily and quit way too soon.
Want to start meditating? Commit to doing one minute. Sit still. Focus on your breathing.
Want to journal? Commit to doing five minutes of writing.
Yes, it’s a small action. It’s s small that it almost feels like a waste.
But if you think that small, incremental action-taking is wasted and yields no results, then read on…
What is the Point of Taking Small Action?
In his book, Die Empty, Todd Henry immortalised the following words:
“No one charts a course to mediocrity, yet it is a destination of choice. It is chosen in small ways over time. These tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions accumulate and eventually result in a state of crisis.”
If mediocrity is chosen in small ways over time, then so is greatness. No one has ever argued this point with me. We all inherently understand the truth in this statement, but we lack the patience to see it in action.
The Accretion Approach
If you adopt the accretion approach, it’s because you see the value in growing in layers over time. You understand that adopting this mindset will increase your ability to sustain change and that change will come easier. Layer by layer, you will grow into a new being: a force to be reckoned with. But how do you go about layering?
The business world provides us with many models applicable to personal development. What I am about to discuss is based on the Shewhart Cycle popularized by Walter Shewhart, the father of statistical quality control.
The Shewhart cycle consists of the following elements:
The first question you need to ask yourself is, What is it in your life that you want to improve? There is no reason to start the journey if there is no goal.
If you are reading this, then your goal might be to start a new fitness regime, to improve your habits, to build better relationships, or to become a more effective person at work.
Whatever your goal, make sure that you can state it clearly.
This step is where accretion takes place. Once you know what your goal is, you need to break it down into repeatable daily actions. Remember that accretion happens over time. To build something of substance, then, you need to be consistent.
My suggestion is to grab Todoist (my favourite) or any other task manager to create a recurring task. Have it pop up every day to remind you to take action.
I am in the process of writing a book. The most important action I can take to make the book a reality and to meet deadlines is to put words consistently on paper, so I set up a recurring task on Todoist prompting me every day to write 600 words. Is it easy? No. Will it be worth it? Yes. Because of accretion, a few weeks from now, I will have a book. And it will be created reminder by reminder.
According to Shane Snow, author of Smartcuts, momentum is the biggest predictor of success in your personal life.
When you are taking daily action, you are building momentum. You are creating something that will become unstoppable. Therefore, it is good to ensure that you are creating the right thing.
To do this, you will do a personal audit every day, every week, and every month.
Daily: This one is easy. Did you do everything you needed to do today? It should take you no longer than five minutes to reflect on your day and assess what you need to improve.
Weekly: Were you consistent this week? What did you miss? Why? At this point, you should start seeing some patterns emerge. Enough time has elapsed for you to make a few important calls. You can see whether you are focusing on the right areas of your life and engaging in the right activities. If you find that you have not been accomplishing your daily goals and have struggled to stay consistent, then this will give you a good platform to plan the next week. And plan to succeed.
Monthly: Did the past month help you to make progress towards your goals? Were your actions enough? Do you need to correct your course? This is the same as the weekly audit but entails working with a lot more data.
Pro tip: Create a recurring reminder to complete your personal audit tasks.
Your personal audit will reveal your weak points and your strong points. What will you do with it?
Using the new information, you can then go back into planning mode.
“Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”― Bruce Barton
Accretion is slow. And I know you hate slow. If you are using the process discussed above, then you will be accelerating your progress.
It becomes quicker because:
- You learn what to focus on. Focus your time and effort on activities that create a bigger bang.
- You learn what to eliminate. Some activities contribute very little to your growth. They waste time and provide a minimal return. Eliminate them with prejudice.
The Accretion Approach can be applied to any area of your life and any activity that you want to incorporate. The more you do it, the more effective and efficient you will become.
You will have more small wins in a smaller period. You will feel the momentum build, and soon you will see how the small things become the big things.
To finish off, let’s apply this approach to becoming an early riser, one of the most difficult things to do in your life. Let’s assume you wake up at 6 a.m. but would like to join the 5 a.m. club.
If I were attempting to become an early riser using the Accretion Approach, then this is how my planning might look:
To wake up 15 minutes earlier than usual for five days for the week. [Small, manageable increment of 15 minutes]
Set my alarm for 5:45 a.m. Wake up when the alarm goes off.
Keep a calendar in my room where I can mark successful mornings with an X.
Review at the end of the day/week.
Based on the review in Week 1, I missed waking up at 5:45 a.m. twice. The reason was that I just felt too comfortable in bed.
Next week, I will try a different way to force myself out of bed.
To wake up 15 minutes earlier than usual, five days of the week.
[Goal has not changed, since there has been no consistency]
Set my alarm for 5:45 a.m.
Put my phone on the opposite side of the room. [New action to overcome the reason for failure]
This week, I managed to wake up successfully on all days.
I felt good on all days. No lapses in energy.
Progress to 5:30 a.m.
There you have it. Using this strategy will be slow, but you will arrive at your destination well prepared and solid. The habit will be deeper ingrained, and along the way, you will learn a lot about yourself.