Optimistic Incrementalism: Steady Smiling Steps Toward A Goal

Embrace optimistic incrementalism, gradually and persistently working toward a goal.

By on February 14, 2018 | 11 comments

While listening to a podcast during a bit of post-run yardwork last week, I heard the CEO of the Bleacher Report use the phrase “optimistic incrementalism” to describe his focus on making many small improvements rather than drastic adjustments to the business. The phrase and the concept immediately resonated with me. It aptly described my approach to both my running and my work this winter. I, too, aim to make many small improvements in both spheres with a faith that each small step leads me to future success.

First off, optimistic incrementalism isn’t sexy. In fact, it might be anti-sexy. It’s the dividend stock in a bitcoin world. It’s using an extra $10 toward paying off your $70,000 student loan rather than buying 10 lottery tickets. It’s years of dedicated pursuit rather than a quick hack.

In my mind, incrementalism might just be one of the most overlooked approaches to improvement in the modern world, and, perhaps, one that’s overdue for reexamination. Looking at that incrementalism with an intentionally positive approach gives us the method, encouragement, and conviction to get us to the figurative summits of our life one step at a time.

I find my work over the past few months to be exemplary of the concept. IRunFar readers’ recent increase in support (please join us on Patreon!) makes it tempting to immediately make major additions to iRunFar. Trust me, those dreams loom large in my mind, but the time’s not yet right. Instead, I’m spending this winter on a multitude of more minor projects… I’ll spare you the details. Now, none of those projects has wow factor, but I believe they’ll collectively make iRunFar a whole lot better, and will continue to do so for a long time to come. That, in a nutshell, is optimistic incrementalism.

On the running side, consistency is rarely flashy. It rarely flies as an Instagram pic. It almost never feels like an accomplishment. It rarely gets noticed, internally and externally. But if there’s one thing that correlates to successful running (whether it’s results, or ease, or whatever), it’s consistent dedication to running (or alternate endurance sports).

Day by day. Month by month. Year by year. You can make yourself a better runner. Sure, there’s temptation to head out for a 30-mile run in December or pack in a week of massive vertical gain in January after being chosen for that dream race in June, July, or August. (I know I’ve done it!) When that’s done out of excitement… or, perhaps, overexcitement, it might be worth coolly reflecting: is that long run or that big week over winter actually the best path toward summer success? Probably not. Instead, if you’ve already recovered from your previous season, maybe you can work back to near-daily running with a modest weekly training volume. A few weeks later, perhaps start doing some striders late in your run or add a moderately faster day of training during the week.

At the same time, you could start upping the length of your ‘long’ run. This winter, my long runs started at 10 miles… and that did feel long at the time. Over the next couple months, I’ve very gradually built that up to where 18 or 20 miles feels comfortable enough. Gradual increases were planned, but not rigid. Big jumps in distance weren’t planned and, indeed, avoided. It was encouraging every time I went a bit further and it was gratifying to be sore, but not too sore after many of these runs. Through individual runs in this process, I thought about how I could cover that distance, how that run would enable me to cover the next distance further, and how each run in that succession of runs would lead me closer to my running goals for this summer.

I aimed for that same sore-but-not-too-sore level if I ran something with more tempo or climbing than previous runs. One step at a time. A little more. A little faster. A bit higher. I knew and I know, this is the way I’ll be strong when I get to run Hardrock in July. Consistent, incremental improvement is how I’ll get there.

Now, calling for consistency in no way discounts the need for rest and recovery on various time scales. Indeed, I’d posit that intentional, purposeful rest and recovery is indicative of one’s dedication. This isn’t about more being better. Far from it. Heck, rest might be less exciting than consistency, but it certainly fits within optimistic incrementalism. The easy day actually taken easy. The recovery week after a tune-up race. The restful month in one’s offseason. They’re steps taken in faith that they’ll make you a better runner by doing less. How’s that for being optimistic?

Call for Comments

  • Do you ever find yourself drawn toward making a big jump in training even when it might not be the best idea? If so, how do you manage it?
  • Have you found success in gradual, incremental improvements in running, work, or otherwise? How have you motivated yourself on this more gradual path?
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.