What is the compound effect?
Why is it so important for deep work?
You ask, we answer
In the ongoing series of blogs that I am publishing every Thursday – you ask, we answer – this week, we are exploring the topic of the compound effect and why it is so important to our deep work practices. I will explain what is the compound effect, how does it help build sustainable momentum and lead to the ability to do more and more focused work and produce at a higher quality level and frequency.
Shallow work, as defined in previous posts, with it’s distracted, unfocused and repetitive nature, leads to work often being done in fits and starts, so a burst of activity, often triggered by a deadline or the interaction with an authority figure then followed by distractions and then a loss of impetus and energy occurs. Everything grinds to a halt. If there was a chart of activity, it would be a zig-zagging line in peaks and troughs across the page with lots of long horizontal lines connecting the up/downs where everything has ‘flat-lined’ into no activity.
This is a far from ideal work/life practice and it will not lead to any meaningful work or progress towards our goals occurring. Longer-term, it is very damaging as we never build any momentum and therefore, we do not reach our peak focused work state of ‘flow’, where we are almost in a relentless state of focus and our creativity and productivity simply flow effortlessly and enable us to do our very best work.
Often, things like listening to a motivational speaker, or reading an inspiring book/blog, New Year’s day and it’s resolutions list and so on, lead to a tsunami of action lists and activity to try to combat this shallow work pattern, but because they are too much all at once to take on, we are unable to maintain them and we grind to a halt exhausted mentally and often physically too. We find ourselves yet again at the all too familiar starting point where we have the daunting prospect of having to build momentum again.
A little bit like going to the gym for a few weeks in December and then wiping it all out with a very indulgent Christmas and then faced with a cold January morning run in order to try and fit back into our clothes again. Yeah, not appealing.
What is the compound effect?
I am sure we are all familiar with compound interest works, it is like double chocolate topping for your savings. You earn interest on the money you deposit, and on the interest, you have already earned – so you earn interest on interest. It accumulates and builds momentum. Slowly but surely, step by step often over many years. Well, the same effect can be applied to all that we do, we can build slowly and sustainably.
A great example, the story of the magic penny. You have the choice, £3 million now or a penny today that doubles every day for 31 days, a month. For example, one person chooses the £3m and you choose the penny. Day 5 you have 16p they have £3m. Day 10 you have £5.12 they £3m. Uh oh, you made the wrong choice!!! Day 20 you have £5,243, still not looking great, is it. But by day 31 you have £10.7m. Day 29 I still have less than they do – £2.7m. Now obviously there are no magic pennies, but there are things that you can do that will have a similar impact on your life. Just by doing a bit every day towards achieving your goals and ending up with so much more than those who choose the supposedly easy, quick hit.
Basically, we have to work consistently for a long time before we see the payoff, life and work that matters takes time. There are no get rich quick schemes (that work long-term or rarely even short-term), no short-cuts, no cavalry, it’s down to us all to do the work.
We have to build our deep work habits slowly but surely every day. As humans, we are genetically programmed to avoid effort, simply because effort previously led to burning up precious energy and that meant foraging for more food, hard work and risk. The other factor, if we did anything too bold, big and out there we risked being ridiculed by our peers in the tribe and even being banished, not great. If therefore, we start off with small hardly noticeable steps, then the mind does not step into sabotage, it is easy to sustain. The small choices matter.
Obviously, there are whopping big mistakes that some make, but for most of us, it’s the small seemingly inconsequential choices that we frequently make that lead to the big changes. Many will remember a successful jeweller ‘Ratners’ and one day Gerald Ratner thought it a good idea to describe his stuff as ‘crap’. No surprises that he went out of business, but very few of us make these kinds of monumental choices. Most choices are small, where we decide to sleep in a little later, eat a bit more etc or the opposite. It is these small, often unnoticeable changes in life, that if repeatedly done day in, day out, over months and years, that have the biggest impact. Just staying bed for a few more minutes every day over a lifetime, look how much time is lost.
If you go on a very strict diet, yes you lose weight rapidly, but it is not sustainable and then the weight comes back as you have not changed the habits that got you to be overweight in the first place. Eating say 100-200 fewer calories a day is not significant and weight loss will not be noticeable in the first day, week, maybe first few months, but over a year, two years and so on, you will lose a lot of weight and it won’t have been a burden. As you lose the weight it becomes easier and easier, you build momentum, it is a ‘hockey stick’ graph of progress, very flat for a time and then a sudden peak of progress as momentum builds.
Habits play a big factor in all of this. Aristotle said “we are what we repeatedly do”. 95% of everything we feel, think, do and achieve is a result of a learned habit. We’re born with instincts but not a single habit. We live a lot of our lives on autopilot. The good news is any habit can be changed. Successful people have good habits in what counts, as they do what is needed consistently. Habits build by small daily steps, not giant leaps.
The final thing is momentum and it is so critical to success and can only happen if you keep doing the same things again and again. A big effort is needed to get something going and therefore if you stop, then you have to start all over again, however, if you keep going you reach a point where you have momentum. A car uses most of the fuel, energy, power etc to go from stationary to 50 mph, however, once the car is at 50 mph, maintaining that level takes hardly any fuel, just regular little taps on the accelerator.
Look around you at successful people you know and I guarantee their success has come from consistent small steps done very well over a long period of time.
This is the compound effect, small unnoticeable regular daily steps, blocks of time, daily rituals that lead, over a long enough period of time, to greater results than stop/start activity, that may yield huge, but never sustainable, success instantly. Only to be faced with all the effort to start again in a few weeks or months time.
How does this help produce better more focused work?
Deep work, like any practice, is a habit, a ritual and undertaking that requires intense concentration, will-power and energy to start and it requires you to repeat, when it’s tough, day in, day out. However, over-time it becomes easier to maintain and keep the momentum building.
We know that focused work without distraction and concentrating on the most important work only leads to better quality work being achieved. The outcome leads to projecting us towards our goals, so over many months and years gradually day by day, week by week, the compound effect kicks in and we become even better, even more quickly and momentum builds our flow of work reaches higher and higher levels of intensity and success.
Concentration is like a muscle, it has to be developed by use and gradual, repeated use, leads to better results.
Small changes create the compound effect. The average person watches 4 hours of media a day, just cut out 20 minutes a day to do deep work would lead to over 2 hours extra a week, nearly 10 hours a month, 120 hours a year or 5 whole extra days, and over 410 days across an average life expectancy of 82 years. You could gain more than a year to do work that matters, how much would your life change, just by one small choice, that did not mean eradicating Netflix completely, just changing some of the time to add in deep work.
Part of becoming more valuable, in a world where AI will replace more and more human endeavour, means that we have to produce work that is unique, work that makes a real difference, work that AI cannot replicate and that means we have to work faster and produces work at the highest level that we are capable of. That cannot be achieved in fits and starts in a distracted state and can not be achieved with a busy mind. We need to be in a meditative-like state of flow and concentration which can only be learnt by relentless practice and focus.
However, we will not sustain this unless the process to get there does not feel like a burden and is not too far beyond our current levels. Small purposeful regular steps enable us to get to where we want to be over time.
If you want to look more into the compound effect, then there is a brilliant book titled ‘The Compound Effect’ by Darren Hardy, some of it gets a little heavy going on the analytic processes he uses, but his explanation of the principles of how it works is well worth the read.
I hope as always that this was informative and useful in helping you to apply the practices of working in a deeper more concentrated way that will lead to a better quality of work and most importantly a better quality of life.
If you have any questions related to this or a question you’d like answered relating to working practices and rituals and how they relate to deep work and deep life, then please leave a comment.