What Progress Is Really Like

WHAT PROGRESS IS REALLY LIKE

Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you. The room is cold and you can see your breath.

It is currently twenty- five degrees. Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up.

Twenty-­six degrees.

Twenty-­seven.

Twenty-­eight.

The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you.

Twenty-­nine degrees.

Thirty.

Thirty-­one.

Still, nothing has happened.

Then, thirty-­two degrees. The ice begins to melt.

A one-­degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a huge change.

Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.

This pattern shows up everywhere. Cancer spends 80 percent of its life undetectable, then takes over the body in months. Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems under‑ ground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks.

Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed. This is one of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits that last.

People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result, and decide to stop. You think, “I’ve been running every day for a month, so why can’t I see any change in my body?” Once this kind of thinking takes over, it’s easy to let good habits fall by the wayside. But in order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to break through this plateau—what I call the Plateau of Latent Potential.

If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from twenty-­five to thirty-­one degrees.

Your work was not wasted; it is just being stored. All the action happens at thirty-­two degrees. When you finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential, people will call it an overnight success. The outside world only sees the most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it. But you know that it’s the work you did long ago—when it seemed that you weren’t making any progress—that makes the jump today possible.

It is the human equivalent of geological pressure. Two tectonic plates can grind against one another for millions of years, the tension slowly building all the while. Then, one day, they rub each other once again, in the same fashion they have for ages, but this time the tension is too great. An earthquake erupts.

Change can take years—before it happens all at once.

 

An excerpt from ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear

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