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The Big Question: Are You Better Than Yesterday?

Written by Tim FerrissTopics: Mental Performance


Big goals? Learn to think small. (Photo: H. Koppdelaney)

The following is a guest post from Chad Fowler, CTO of InfoEther, Inc.

He spends much of his time solving hard problems for customers in the Ruby computer language. He is also co-organizer of RubyConf and RailsConf, where I first met him in person.

Our second meeting was in Boulder, where he was kind enough to use his musical background and natural language experience (Hindi, among others) to teach a knuckle-dragger (me) the primitive basics of Ruby… It was a wonderful experience, and I read his book, The Passionate Programmer, on the plane ride back to San Francisco.

I found it to be full of actionable advice for non-programmers, just as I did The Pragmatic Programmer. I am most certainly not a programmer, but the structured problem-solving skills of programmers is impressive and worth emulating. I hope you enjoy the following excerpt as much as I did.

Better Than Yesterday?

Fixing a bug is (usually) easy. Something is broken. You know it’s broken, because someone reported it. If you can reproduce the bug, then fixing the bug means correcting whatever malfunction caused it and verifying that it is no longer reproducible. If only all problems were this simple!

Not every problem or challenge is quite so discrete, though. Most important challenges in life manifest themselves as large, insurmountable amorphous blobs of potential failure. This is true of software development, career management, and even lifestyle and health.

A complex and bug-riddled system needs to be overhauled. Your career is stagnating by the minute. You are steadily letting your sedentary computer-programming desk-bound lifestyle turn your body into mush.

All of these problems are much bigger and harder to just fix than a bug. They’re all complex, hard to measure, and comprised of many different small solutions–some of which will fail to work!

Because of this complexity, we easily become demotivated by the bigger issues and turn our attention instead to things that are easier to measure and easier to quickly fix. This is why we procrastinate. And the procrastination generates guilt, which makes us feel bad and therefore procrastinate some more.

I’ve struggled with getting and staying in shape for as long as I can remember. Indeed, when you’re miserably out of shape, “just get in shape” isn’t a concept you can even grasp much less do something concrete about. And to make it harder, if you do something toward improving it, you can’t tell immediately or even after a week that anything has changed. In fact, you could spend all day working on getting in shape, and a week later you might have nothing at all to show for it.

This is the kind of demotivator that can jump right up and beat you into submission before you even get started.

I’ve recently been working on this very problem in earnest. Going to the gym almost daily, eating better–the works. But even when I’m getting with the program in a serious way, it’s hard to see the results. As I was wallowing in my demotivation one recent evening, my friend Erik Kastner posted a message to Twitter with the following text:

Help me get my $%!^ in shape…ask me once a day: “Was today better than yesterday?” (nutrition / exercise) – today: YES!

When I read this I realized that it was the ticket to getting in shape. I recognized it from the big problems I have successfully solved in my life. The secret is to focus on making whatever it is you’re trying to improve and make better today than it was yesterday. That’s it. It’s easy. And, as Erik was, it’s possible to be enthusiastic about taking real, tangible steps toward a distant goal.

Read the rest here.