The Case for Incremental Progress

We are embarking on a new year – what kinds of goals have you set for yourself? Setting big audacious goals and expecting quick results is tempting but can cause us to fail with inaction because we become overwhelmed by the enormity of them. Breaking those goals into smaller increments – and setting the expectation of progress in the same way – we see that it is not too much to take on. I recently added a new exercise to my morning routine and it has certainly given me practice in heeding my own advice on progress. The first day I was barely able to do one and now, after 25 days, I can do eight. My goal is 22 and it may take the better part of the year for me to get there – incremental progress.

Communication habits take time and incremental progress to change. Habits are automatic behaviors that we’ve learned from an original motivation which now occur without a conscious motivation. Changing unwanted habits requires consciously replacing that action with a new one, until the new action can occur without conscious motivation. Research shows that habits take time and repetition to build. 

Take one of the most common communication habits that people want to change: audible pauses (um, uh, so, er). We can make a goal of having silent pauses and come up with strategies, such as pressing the roof of our mouth with our tongue, but we will still use audible pauses in our speech for some time because they are a habit. They occur without conscious effort. Our original motivation that formed the habit was likely to hold our spot in a conversation so that somebody else doesn’t interrupt. We need to replace the audible pause with something else that holds our spot – such as executive presence through bold posture. Then, over time, we achieve the same goal of holding the conversation with a different action. We consciously and repeatedly replace audible pauses with bold posture and the tongue on the roof of our mouth so no sound comes out. We build a new habit – incremental progress.

Setting realistic habit-change expectations and tracking incremental progress will reduce frustration and the tendency to be self-critical, which only sets us back. In the reducing audible pauses example, it is better to start by picking one meeting a week in which fewer than five audible pauses are used. Then, the next week, pick that same meeting and one other, gradually increasing the number and types of communication interactions in which we utilize our new habit. Gentle persistence applied relentlessly.   

In this first month of the year, join me in taking on new challenges, applying persistence in small increments over time, and making progress. From Benjamin Franklin’s idiom, “Little strokes fell great oaks,” we get the reminder that small everyday efforts make change happen.