The Incrementalist's Mannifesto

Last night, I bought a book that I hope to review on this blog sometime soon. It's called Learn Python the Hard Way: A Very Simple Introduction to the Terrifyingly Beautiful World of Computers and Code, and its author is Zed A. Shaw.

I didn't go into the bookstore looking for a book on Python. I went because we found a bunch of gift cards lying around that we wanted to use up before they expired. When I got to the bookstore, I decided that what I wanted was a book that taught me some kind of practical skill. I seldom have time to read these days, and if I'm going to read anything at all, I'd like it to be something useful, rather than just some excuse to pass the time. (I have many other, more interesting ways to pass my time than reading.) Maybe I could learn how to draw, I thought to myself, as I perused the arts section. Maybe I could find a book on classical or flamenco guitar technique, I thought to myself, as I perused the music section. Maybe I could find a cookbook that could teach me to expand my cooking repertoire, I thought, as I perused the food section...

I found no such books in any section, because all of the books that potentially could teach me such things are written all wrong. I don't want to sit and read for two hours, taking notes, studying supplemental information, and committing concepts to memory. If I were going to do all that, I'd just enroll in a class. I don't have time for all of that. What I need is a way to learn a new skill through short, concentrated, daily practice. That's how we learn musical instruments. That's how we learn languages. That's how we train our bodies. New skills should work the same way.

So, I was slightly encouraged when I arrived at the Technology section and found a variety of programming books in which coding is taught through the use of short projects and case studies. That seemed like something I could work with. Python is also heavily utilized in my career industry, so this wouldn't merely be a practical skill, but also a professional one. I was narrowing down my search.

What sold me on Learn Python the Hard Way was looking at the Table of Contents: The book is organized into a series of coding exercises. I browsed the book's Introduction, and was pleased to discover that the book was written using the Direction Instruction teaching method. Direct Instruction is the method we used to teach our daughter how to read, and it's the preferred teaching method in all the best schools. The reason is because it really works. It breaks a subject down into small sequential lessons in which each lesson builds incrementally upon the one preceding it. By the end of a full set of lessons, students tend to absorb material better and retain it for longer than any other teaching method. Direct Instruction can be a little boring, and the first lessons are often the most difficult -- hence the name "...the Hard Way." But if one persists in this kind of instruction, one stands to gain more than any other competing instructional technique.

So here we have small, incremental changes that add up to major successes in the long run. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because I've blogged about it before. In fact, I write about it all the time. The other day, I wrote about how I was using this approach to modify my current running regimen. More to the point, I wrote a blog post six years ago entitled "Incremental Fitness," that quickly laid out the general idea. The truth is, over the years, I've discovered that the absolute best way to improve your fitness is to stick to a fundamentally sound routine while making small changes to it week-by-week or month-by-month. This ensures that the body has enough time to adapt to new exercises and improve upon them, without ever gaining so much efficiency that fitness improvement is sacrificed to mastery of technique.

Then there's music. I've been keen to improve my guitar technique. I'm pretty fast, but I'm not the kind of player I'd like to be. I'm not the kind of player who can take an interesting passage or lick and play it comfortably with tone and feeling as soon as I think it up. I stumble through a lot of what I want to play. I play well enough to impress laypeople, but not enough to impress fellow players. I want to change that. To that end, I picked up a book recommended by Dweezil Zappa (I think), called Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson. Again, the idea here is very simple: One lick per day, every day, for 365 consecutive days. The licks increase in difficulty week by week until, by the end of a year's time, one will have hopefully improved his playing dramatically. Best of all, the time commitment to these practice sessions is minimal. I can work my way through each lick a number of times and still have a little time left over to practice or write my own material. All the while, I'm becoming a better player, day by day.

I've applied the incremental approach to personal finance, stowing away daily, weekly, and monthly amounts of money, based on certain criteria, and funnelling that money into a diversified set of savings and investment instruments. I also stopped buying things that I wanted outright, and instead created a dedicated account for my own personal entertainment expenses. This account grows by a miniscule amount, but it grows every day, and within just a few short weeks it was easy to learn the fundamental lesson here: It doesn't take very much money to add up quickly if you save it consistently.

You don't have to clean every room in your house on "chore day." All you really need to do is commit to spending just five minutes cleaning the house each day. That will add up, and if it doesn't solve your clutter problem, add a sixth minute. Big deal. I don't know what the magic number is for you; maybe it's seven, eight, ten, or fifteen minutes. Whatever it is, it's a small and doable number for you to use to incrementally clean your home, rather than relying on a large and unpleasant house-cleaning project.

Again and again, the lesson presents itself in every conceivable context. If you want your life to get a lot better, don't try to work through a major catharsis. Forget about "new year, new you" and all such nonsense. What works better than anything is to simply identify one small thing that can be slightly improved, make a tiny (but permanent) change to that one thing, and then continue on about your day. Changes like this, made consistently over time, will eventually result in your whole life being better.

I call this approach Incrementalism. It's not a revolutionary idea, and I'm not the first person to have thought of it. But it does have the power to revolutionize your life, and if reading about it here gives you an idea to improve your situation in some small way, that's a good thing. 

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