On Thinking and Acting in Increments

12 December, 2021

We seem to be living in the eternal now. We want to get through what we have to get through as quickly as possible, if only to move on to the next items on our lists of things to do.

We tend to think in terms of sprints and pushes. We get frustrated when we don’t finish something quickly.

That applies to work, to play, to reading, to learning, to … well, to just about everything. And that’s not the best way to approach anything you need or want to do.

Instead of trying to do something in one fell swoop, try thinking and acting in increments.


You’ve probably heard the proverb that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s what thinking and acting in increments is all about.

You don’t focus on the end or the result. You focus on:

  1. Getting started
  2. Where you are now
  3. What you’re doing now

It also involves focusing on smaller bits of what you want to do, and fitting those smaller bits into your schedule. You want to take small steps, not make big splashes.

By adopting this approach, you build, smaller bit by smaller bit, on what you’ve done the day before.

An Example

Shortly after it came out, I started reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. It’s a massive, sprawling novel weighing in at around 1100 pages. The problem was that I felt I needed to devote long stretches of time to the book. I read it infrequently, often with large gaps in between reading sessions. I quickly lost the plot, which frustrated me.

I decided to start over and to devote 30 to 45 minutes each evening to reading Against the Day. That made all the difference.

It took me a while, but adopting an incremental approach enabled me not to just read the book but also enjoy the book.

Steps to Thinking and Acting in Increments

Start by determining how much time you can set aside each day. That could be 15 minutes. It could be an hour. Just don’t think you have more time than you actually do.

Next, break down what you want to do. Split the task into manageable chunks — for example, reading 20 pages of a book or doing half or all of a module of an online course.

Then, block that time off. Create a schedule. Follow it. Stick to it as best you can.

Finally, do it. There’s nothing more I can say about that …

Thinking and acting in increments goes against the prevailing notion that we need to do more and to do it faster. Thinking and acting in increments takes longer, While in the end you’re doing less, what you’re doing will be more fulfilling. You’ll be going deeper and getting a stronger appreciation for what you’re doing.

Scott Nesbitt