Optimistic Incrementalism: Steady Smiling Steps Toward A Goal

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?

There are 11 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    I take it on a clear day, with binoculars, you can see middle-age out there somewhere, waiting?

    In high-level chess they call it the slow accumulation of small advantages, it’s what wins in the end —


  2. Clown Runner

    I’m 47 so I’m running 4 out of every 7 days this Winter. I hate those 3 days off with a passion, but the hope is that come Spring and Summer the re-invested ‘rest dividends’ will pay off! Man how I wish I was 57, or better yet 67, or best yet, 77! Then I could run every day!!….

  3. Run GMD

    Each year when we pass winter’s midpoint I relish the lengthening days and signs of life’s reawakening on Earth.

    It is at this time I am most vulnerable to the running equivalent of “my eyes being bigger than my stomach,” whatever that is. (Perhaps “My legs to short for my running?”) I dream big and fire myself up, biting off far more than I can chew after too long in the cold, damp darkness.

    Thanks, Byron, for saving me from myself this year. Your words knocked some sense into me when I needed it. The wisdom in your post runs deep and cuts applies to running and so many other parts of life – relationships, marriage, career, parenthood. It’s all an ultramarathon, not a sprint.

  4. Robert Hammerly

    This is how I live my life. Slow calculated changes to my running. I even run on my “rest” days at least a mile. If we all make small changes to better ourselves we’d see the difference.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Hey Quigley,
      I’d not previously heard for James Clear, but thanks for letting me know about him and his work. I enjoyed the article you linked to and will check out some more of his writings.

  5. Seth Perry

    Agree with your comments and article Bryon, we live in a I want everything right now time- heck I want to be able to run a 100 miler tomorrow! Deep down we all know we need to put in the consistent work over a long period of time to be able to build up to those goals. Dreams are built one brick at a time!

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