The Big Question: Are You Better Than Yesterday?

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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.

I’ve also recently been working on one of the most complex, ugliest Ruby on Rails applications I’ve ever seen. My company inherited it from another developer as a consulting project. There were a few key features that needed to be implemented and a slew of bugs and performance issues to correct. When we opened the hood to make these changes, we discovered an enormous mess. The company employing us was time- and cash-constrained, so we didn’t have the luxury to start from scratch, even though this is the kind of code you throw away.

So, we trudged along making small fix after small fix, taking much longer to get each one finished than expected. When we started, it seemed like the monstrosity of the code base would never dissipate. Working on the application was tiring and joyless. But over time, the fixes have come faster, and the once-unacceptable performance of the
application has improved. This is because we made the decision to make the code base better each day than it was the day before. That sometimes meant refactoring a long method into several smaller, well-named methods. Sometimes it meant removing inheritance hierarchies that never belonged in the object model. Sometimes it just meant fixing a long-broken unit test.

But since we’ve made these changes incrementally, they’ve come for “free.” Refactoring one method is something you can do in the time you would normally spend getting another cup of coffee or chatting with a co-worker about the latest news. And making one small improvement is motivating. You can clearly see the difference in that one thing you’ve fixed as soon as the change is made.

You might not be able to see a noticeable difference in the whole with each incremental change, though. When you’re trying to become more respected in your workplace or be healthier, the individual improvements you make each day often won’t lead directly to tangible results. This is, as we saw before, the reason big goals like these become so demotivating. So, for most of the big, difficult goals you’re striving for, it’s important to think not about getting closer each day to the goal, but rather, to think about doing better in your
efforts toward that goal than yesterday.

I can’t, for example, guarantee that I’ll be less fat today than yesterday, but I can control whether I do more today to lose weight. And if I do, I have a right to feel good about what I’ve done. This consistent, measurable improvement in my actions frees me from the cycle of guilt and procrastination that most of us are ultimately defeated by when we try to do Big Important Things.

You also need to be happy with small amounts of “better.” Writing one more test than you did yesterday is enough to get you closer to the goal of “being better about unit testing.” If you’re starting at zero, one additional test per day is a sustainable rate, and by the time you can no longer do better than yesterday, you’ll find that you’re now “better about unit testing” and you don’t need to keep making the same improvements. If, on the other hand, you decided to go from zero to fifty tests on the first day of your improvement plan, the first day would be hard, and the second day probably wouldn’t happen. So, make your improvements small and incremental but daily.

Small improvements also decrease the cost of failure. If you miss a day, you have a new baseline for tomorrow.

One of the great things about this simple maxim is that it can apply to very tactical goals, such as finishing a project or cleaning up a piece of software, or it can apply to the very highest level goals you might have. How have you taken better action today for improving your career than you did yesterday? Make one more contact, submit a patch to an open source project, write a thoughtful post and publish it on your weblog. Help one more person on a technical forum in your area of expertise than you did yesterday. If you every day you do a little better than yesterday toward improving yourself, you’ll find that the otherwise ocean-sized proposition of building a remarkable career becomes more tractable.

Give it a try:

Make a list of the difficult, complex personal or professional improvements you’d like to make. It’s OK if you have a fairly long list. Now, for each item in the list, think about what you could do today to make yourself or that item better than yesterday. Tomorrow, look at the list again.

Was yesterday better than the day before? How can you make today better? Do it again the next day. Put it on your calendar. Spend two minutes thinking about this each morning.

Related and Suggested Posts:
Tim Ferriss on Stoicism as Productivity System

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137 comments on “The Big Question: Are You Better Than Yesterday?

  1. Simplistic but works.

    One version of the method for weight management is to measure every morning waist circumstance (instead of weight). If it’s higher than yeasterday, you eat less calories, if it’s as yeasterday you can keep on as yeasterday. Some say it has worked for decades for them.

  2. Nice post… I second this having wrote code for everything from exoatmospheric rockets to pacemakers. If you boil this down I think it comes to a simple concept, “Always taking right action”. I use a task list focus my mind on taking action. Then break the tasks down to a level I know can be accomplished immediately (that day) with my knowledge and resources at hand. This enables my mind to take “right action” or rather actions geared towards accomplishing my goal / task at hand as written on the task list. It’s unbelievable the problems you can solve with this simple concept of “always taking right action”. And it can easily be applied anyplace in your life.

  3. I did this for the past few days and its working great! The cool thing is the build in momentum from incremental growth until one day something big and bad happens and you roll right on through it because you’ve made yourself stronger. I really appreciate this. It’s good for exercise, relationships, work, business, fun, etc.

    Thanks again Timotao!

  4. Yes, continuous improvement, I love it! I switched to a raw food lifestyle to get all the manufactured garbage food out of my system and now have renewed energy to persue my passions!

    To Your Health!

    James Reno

  5. I’m totally into demystifying and deconstructing everything…I would like to be a doctor in one day of research, a lawyer…so strong is my do-it-yourself bent. so, when my body started to fall apart — yes turned to mush in front of my computer — I experimented with every avenue I could find until one totally popped out and worked, fast. I like seeing results fast. Doesn’t always work when what you really want is to get into the process and away from thinking about the results… but helps keep on the action track. Thanks for the post, Rori Raye

  6. I think this is a really great outlook on just how to deal with tasks everyday without feeling overwhlemed on any long-term or life plans. It’s just about taking things a day at a time – and that idea of “was today better than yesterday” is a good question to ask yourself.

  7. I think this is such a great outlook. It just helps with getting through daily tasks and not feeling so overwhelmed by long-term goals or life plans. It’s easy to build things up until they feel impossible, but focusing yourself by simply asking this easy question of “is today better”, it can make you feel accomplished and progressive, rather than slow and lost. Thanks for the post.

  8. Tim,

    I am really fascinated and curious about your ideas/actions.

    Just wanted to know if it is really possible to define the word ‘better’ since each day is subject to such mass variety of new conditions/stimuli/situations?

  9. Making small changes or improvements that don’t yield immediate results can sometimes weaken a person’s belief or conviction that a certain outcome can in fact be achieved. Without a strong belief, the behavior needed to produce the outcome becomes more and more difficult. You question the effectiveness of what you are doing…you wonder if it will actually work. So you engage in the behavior less and less, making the outcome even more unreachable. This in turn reduces the intensity of the belief even more and creates a negative feedback loop. The unfortunate outcome is that you never achieve the outcome. That’s why it is so important to maintain a strong belief that you will achieve the outcome even though you cannot see any results now.

  10. It’s all about being a little bit better than yesterday, this is a great way to think. Once you only have to be better than yesterday it’s not so hard because it’s doesn’t seem like such a huge leap.
    Great post.

  11. Great post – I always look back at myself over 6 months and ask “are you doing better than you were 6 months ago?”, and I always am. It’s important to focus and think small, but not to give-in to over-analysis and negativity either. Sometimes by becoming too micro-focused, I can go too far. 6 months works for me.

    Stephen Nash

  12. I see a lot of comments alluding to looking back on the day and judging yourself against the progress you’ve made. For me, I think the best use of the question would be at the start of the day, or at least at the end looking forward, answering with a perpetual “not yet.” That way it’s more of a progressive push to follow the lifestyle you want, and those prone to depressive thoughts will be less likely to beat themselves up over the failures of today or yesterday. After all, you can’t fail Tomorrow.

    That’s what I got out of it. This article does seem like a lighter reiteration of some of the thoughts in 4HWW and other blog posts (keeping “work” from overwhelming your life by compacting it into smaller worthwhile chunks, breaking down language learning, the “Trial by Fire” concept of learning): It isn’t an effective use of time or energy to be constantly intimidated by your own large goals. Just take steps and get it over with. Doing what you intended to do reduces anxiety, anyway, even if that “to do” was something like laughing, or relaxing.

  13. great tips..also try not eating after 8pm and increasing slow carb intake while eliminating “whites” (raw sugar, white bread). Persistence and chronic reassessment are invaluable traits…if only we stressed statistics in the classroom more so than calculus, perhaps these findings would be common knowledge

  14. I myself don’t see the point in changing.

    I think that people waste too much time trying to pursue “the good life” instead of just appreciating what they have and who they already are. It does not matter if one is overweight or uneducated or poor or unattractive. All of those things do not guarantee a good life. I think today’s people are too self-absorbed.

    Changing is not always for the best. I just accept myself for who I am. I do not want to change. Why spend time trying to change things that will not mean anything in the end? Life is good as is. I just feel sad for all of you out there who are “chasing dreams”. Dreams aren’t important. Reality is.

  15. I might add “if not better, was today consistent with my long term goal?” “better than yesterday” might be difficult to measure, especially for semi-serious athletes. For me, I worry it might lead to overtraining. A day of rest and healthy eating might not seem better than yesterday’s 8K run, but it sure is necessary to keep moving forward.

  16. Lei este post tan pronto como salio y como es uno de mis favoritos lo tengo lo re lei hoy ..gracias tim por el gran apollo sin importar el idioma .

  17. When I speak at conventions, I talk about how our belief systems create our experience. If we hold a belief strongly, we go through life looking for reasons that prove it’s true.

    Finding new things to believe in will help you become a better person tomorrow! ;) Loved the article. Thanks for putting it up!

  18. Rather than striving for perfection, striving to be better today than yesterday is a better, simpiler and more effective approach to self improvement.

    Thanks for sharing Tim.

  19. I completely agree with what is being said here.

    Any goal, desire will be achieved if you dont give up. A vivid thought about where you want to be daily puts you in better stead than the day before as you are creating a habit that will serve you in the strongest possible ways in your quest to achieve your goals.

    I gain a lot of certainty from the fact that if i dont give up one day i will get there. There are few better goals to have than to live the lifestyle endorsed on this website.

    Tim you are changing my life!

  20. There is always room for Kaizen! Constsnt improvement and refinement. A master is a person who constantly refines and simplifies! Thanks for a great article!
    Stacey Burke Perth Chiropractor

  21. Implicitly, what I “read” into this post is the “personal development” trap – people put off continuing to take action because they do not sell immediate results, they then take even less action then before and this spiraling failure increases evermore.

    Anthony Robbins did a fantastic interview with John Reese and Frank Kern on this topic, in which Tony focuses on the PARB model. Don’t be putt of by what associations you may have made with these guys, the content is excellent and take-aways for whatever your doing; internet marketing, the 4-hour Body or finding that dream relationship.

    Enjoy.