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How I Make Life Changes, Part II.

8 April 2021

I’ve written before about how I am satisfied by incremental change. It’s a disposition that has served me well, and I don’t know exactly where it came from. A friend once described it as a “completionist” instinct, when we were talking about summitting a bunch of mountains (an activity I’ve gotten into during this blog’s long semi-hiatus). But that’s not quite right. I am not energized by completing things so much as I am by accumulating things. I like seeing things grow steadily, or waste steadily. I like watching progress. Like the time-lapse of a glacier moving – relentless, irresistible progress toward an end state or goal. It doesn’t actually matter if the goal is achievable always. What matters is moving in the direction of success, one day at a time.

This is how I’ve managed to accrue 4,801 consecutive days of sobriety, as I’m writing today on April 8th, 2021. These days, the maintenance of my sobriety is more of a background process. I haven’t been tempted by a drink in years. The obsession, as they say, has been lifted by a force beyond me. Take your pick about what that is, I don’t much care. All I know is I never had the power to do it myself. And then something changed and I joined a group of ex-drunks and started working on the steps, then I didn’t need to drink anymore. And day by day, hour by hour, I’m accumulating time in sobriety.

And so leveraging this satisfaction in incremental progress has become a cornerstone in my life regarding change, and I can apply it to almost any aspect of myself I want to improve. I wrote yesterday about being baffled by holding a job when I was in my first year of sobriety. But I was lucky (luck is a recurring theme in my life) that I had a boss who was an academic deeply devoted to mentoring and growing the careers of junior academics. He taught me to write papers and grants (not something I learned in engineering graduate school – partly because engineers do less of that and partly because I was a fuckup.).

And he taught me something else: every year, add a line to as many sections of your CV as you can. Publish a paper. Get a grant. Take a class. Add a position, or get promoted. Take on a new student. Teach a new class. Speak at a conference. Whatever you can do in each section of your CV, to make that section one entry longer, do that. And so I have. And over the past 13 years, my CV has grown from two pages to twelve. And I continue to, even though for the time being, I am in positions where a resume is of more value than a CV.

I have applied this incrementalist perspective to investing, to fitness, and to many other aspects of my life. I have found there are several key things about it that help me achieve my goals. The focus on progress, rather than perfection (a tool I’ve stolen directly from AA) allows me to take satisfaction in the process rather than the end product. Even though I do have, say, a financial goal for my retirement, I think less about how far I am from the goal and how little difference the next saved dollar makes, and more about how much more I have now than I did a month or a year ago. Every paycheck, I have a little left over from what I budget to spend each pay period, and that goes into my investment account. And it’s grown and one day I will have the resources to retire on what I’ve saved.

I’ve done the same thing with fitness. Jogging first a quarter mile, and slowly working myself all the way out to running marathons and ultramarathons and long triathlons. And as I wrote yesterday, I am currently in the beginnings of applying this (successfully at least to begin with) to weight loss. For which I needed additional tools. More about that tomorrow, maybe.

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