The Big Question: Are You Better Than Yesterday?


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 yourefforts 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.

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143 Replies to “The Big Question: Are You Better Than Yesterday?”

  1. I’ve been working on a “program” for a while now. Where I have a set number of tasks that I MUST complete everyday in order to improve myself. So far, take time to eat right, exercise, stretch, create something (writing, art, photos) and be social. What else do you think I should add to the list?

  2. Thanks, Tim! I’ve taken my first step to doing something better by commenting on this blog instead of lurking… 🙂 But seriously, the most important message for me was the journey, rather than the destination. Am I losing weight every day? maybe not. Am I trying every day to lose weight? Well, I will now!

    Will I actually get my own blog up, and cover my own journey into fitness? Well tomorrow, i’ll make a change, write a post, or do something that will bring that one step closer to reality, and therefore make it better than it is today (i.e. it’ll be a bot more ready for publication). Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. @Matt Why not add time for laughter, gratitude, thankfulness, dreaming (as in visualizing/dreaming about you in your ideal future). Every day I do at least 30 seconds of intense laughing by myself. I am not looking at something funny or even thinking of something funny. I just decide to laugh at 100% for like 30 seconds every day. I’ve found that this “practice time” for laughing makes me much more likely to laugh and smile throughout my day. It looks ridiculous which is why I do it by myself 😉

  4. I’ve found this approach particularly useful when I have a goal that other people don’t understand, don’t believe in or don’t know how to be supportive of. It takes the internal pressure off – eliminating the feeling that I have to prove the merit or viability of the big picture goal to anyone else.

  5. Matt, I’d second what Aaron says. I especially like the idea of “gratitude”. You have “be social”, which is a great goal but not very actionable. Gratitude, “help someone”, etc. are more specific and actionable and would probably do what you want and more. Now you have me thinking about my list.

  6. This is good advice. The key for me is to make those individual changes permanent ones. Today you may be motivated. Tomorrow perhaps not.

    My programming made a huge leap when I started using cron jobs to forever automate tasks. The same applies to life. It usually takes more effort initially, but if you make a rule to never perform the same work twice, in the long run, you’ll have much less work to do.

  7. There’s a management term called “Kaizen” which represents small and consistent improvements over time. Using this concept, we can reflect each day on a list of items that we would want to see improvements in. Glad that the author (Chad) made it clear that “Small improvements also decrease the cost of failure”, hence making this improvement thing not too intimidating a task for us. Now… where would I like to see changes in myself in? 🙂

  8. Hey TIm,

    This post was right on time for me… I’ve been caught inbetween the back-and-forth of “extreme over-commitment” and “eternal procrastination”.

    It’s such a great feeling once I start a diet and workout routine. The motivation and drive usually lasts about 2-4 weeks followed by excuses and self-deception. The worst feeling is that time right before I recommit… that time where I’m coming face to face with reality and feeling the pain of regret. Like Tony Horton says, “You can choose the joy of discipline or the pain of regret”.

    Your “better than yesterday” idea makes sticking to something like a diet or workout routine a lot easier… at least a little less daunting. I think we can get so worked up over the huge task at hand (i.e. lose 20 lbs, run 5 miles, etc.) that we push the day-to-day improvements aside. By focusing on today, and not worrying about the future, it can make achieving those goals a lot easier.

    Thanks for the post,

    Chris Dunn

  9. I think this advice is awesome not only for improving ourselves by building incrementally on previous wins, but also very useful in destroying patterns and things that is no longer useful and energy sapping. We can try and improve and build better each day, or we can also work on destroying the walls and limitations that stand in your way to achieve satisfaction. This is normally easier said than done as we tend to have invested a lot of energy and time into building and maintaining our limitations.

    An example of a big “project” for me would be my use of language to create more authenticity in my life. I grew up in a system that promoted “people pleasing”, so being confrontational does not come naturally to me, a big problem when you are a project manager!. Yet, by confronting people more effectively every day I became better at it. On the flip side, I grew up in a very polite society and I became aware of the fact that I always seem to be “excusing” myself. Even when I bump into somebody in a supermarket aisle I’ll say something like “sorry” or “excuse me”. So I worked hard at eliminating “apologetic” language more and more. Now I rarely apologizes, without needing to be rude. The process of “stopping” to apologize was much harder than “starting” to be more confrontational!

  10. That’s a great post – there’s a lot I admire about the Pragmatic Programmers approach to life, the universe & everything. I do think though that it’s worth your while learning Ruby because there’s a lot it can do to make boring repetitive jobs easy & quick, and solving a problem with a program can often be a lot more interesting & fun than doing it manually. It’s the ultimate outsourcing really – replace the stuff that takes 80% of your time with the proverbial very small script! 🙂

  11. Hi Tim,

    with your interest in metrics, I wanted to know what you measure while learning a new language? It seems so subjective “I can say more than I could 3 months ago” ect. Do you measure mistakes made? Record yourself?

    Also, do you read fiction in other languages for relaxation?

    I’d appreciate your thoughts;)

  12. Not sure I agree with this article. I can’t always see an appreciable difference in the span of one day. I like the underlying thought of “baby steps” (thank you What About Bob?). But why arbitrarily choose one rotation of our planet on its access as the time frame in which to find emotional gratification due to perceived improvement? Often times its Worse today than yesterday, but in a longer time frame, I’m still progressing …………..I need a better way to motivate and reward myself than one day turnaround.


  13. i love it think i will print this out and and it up to remind me yep Matt@ Aaron has a good idea to by doing that it just seems like your project is more bright than before.

  14. Hi Huey

    one of the things i do is watch hulu Japanese anime like naurto i know that there some shows on there and they are in Japanese but down at the bottom there is English. So after watching about 50 of them you seem to pick up on it and i think Tim did mention something about that.

    i hope that helps

  15. Great post, Tim. I competed in the decathlon at the University of Tennessee. In my training journal, on the top of the page, I’d write “Did you get better today?” Even if it was a crap workout, there was always something to learn. When people get in a sustainable habit of improving a little bit each day, they can change the world. Thanks for all you do.

  16. well..

    i would have to say that answering the question ‘Are you better than yesterday?’ might lead to an subjective answer based upon temporary mental/emotional state.

    whats the difference between THINKING one is improving and actually improving? how does one really know…

  17. Funny thing. I am currently working on a load of unit tests as well. 🙂

    First structure your problem. Then apply »divide et imperare«. Very algorithmic approach! 🙂

    I am using GTD for… anything. The approach there is basically the same. Break down a project and proceed with small, tangible steps.

  18. Hey Tim:

    Thanks for sharing Chad’s insightful excerpt. I’m continually amazed at the power of basic logic and reason – small, persistent steps towards a goal. How simple. Yet, I am reminded quite frequently just how uncommon such commonsense can be – be it with corporate business mandates, political shenanigans, societal reform (e.g. health care), and more. How do you describe or explain such behavior by the masses? Fear? Sloth? Selfishness? I figured I’d ask you since my brain shall surely hemorrhage if I give it much more concentrated thought.

    Being a health/body fanatic such as yourself, I believe this rational model is essential to designing a healthier lifestyle. Measure what’s important, loose the nonsense (easily 80%), and make each day better (be it with nutrition, training, rest/regeneration, etc.). What do you judge to be the first or most important logical step in advising/inspiring someone to design a healthier lifestyle?

    Thanks for another great post, as always!



  19. Nice post, I would imagine it goes well with the idea of doing at least a few ACTIONABLE things on some level of consistency, in which case will add up to some positive results over time.



  20. To add a little quantification to the concept of small incremental improvements, I’m fond of the Alan Weiss quote, “if you improve one percent each day, in 70 days you will be twice as good.”

  21. Thanks Chad. Very interesting. I’ll take a stab at it.

    This just reinforces the old saying:

    “Don’t try to be better than someone else. Try to be better than you used to be.”

    Dont remember who said, but it stuck with me.

  22. Obviously, you’ve eluded to the scalability of this type of awesome questioning!

    I’ve used this in my own life to regain control of my finances. The power of questions in general is mind-boggling. Whenever I find a question like this that works, I will find ways to create “mental hurdles” for myself throughout the day.

    I’ll put the message in random places like on the refrigerator handle (health) or taped to my debit card (money), etc… Making myself not only stop, but also reflect on the specific question does wonders!

    Thanks for the great new question. I’m off to find something to tape this to. 😉

  23. good post, mate.

    “The secret is to focus on making whatever it is you’re trying to improve and make better today than it was yesterday.”

    That really hit home for me, all of a sudden my long term goals are much more approachable.

    As always, thanks for the informative and insightful posts.


  24. Hmmm , I think the question am I better than yesterday, goes hand in hand with staying in the present moment. Let go of the past, the present, of “them” and making up stores about “you”. Live in the now. That way your focus is pure, when you do work on your goal.

  25. I think Osho put it pretty well (google it to read the full text):

    “This is one of the hardest truths to recognize, that one remains the same – that whatsoever we do, we remain the same. There is no “improvement”. The whole ego is shattered because the ego lives through improvement, the idea of improvement, the idea of reaching somewhere, someday. Maybe not today but tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. To recognize the fact that there is no improvement in the world, that life is just a celebration, it has nothing like business in it – once you understand this, the whole ego trip stops, and suddenly you are thrown back to this moment.”

  26. Interesting take on consistent improvement. There have been times when traffic’s been slow because of some aspects I let fall behind.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Chad.

  27. Unfortunately, most of us only ask this after a bad day. I think it’s just as important to ask ourselves after a good day.

    Always be moving forward…

  28. Initially I thought, “this is nonsense.” I put my ~5 daily goals on a sheet of paper and if it doesn’t make the list, I don’t think about it. That means improvements come in jumpy focused gaps, not diffuse incremental daily improvement.

    Stepping back, I can see a lot of wisdom in the post, but it still seems tailored to someone who doesn’t have his life under control, who’s at 95% capacity and trying to barely squeeze out a slow change in major life habits.

    There are things I put on that single piece of paper that do go on the back burner. They aren’t action items but habits I’m working on. I guess that’s what this is about. But those are usually former action points that just need some reinforcement to stick.

    So… do we have to read the whole programming books to find out what problem solving skills they’ve developed? Ha ha… I’m lazy.

  29. This can be applied in a number of areas.

    One of my flaws is that I’m quite lazy around the house, especially when it comes to cleaning. I generally leave things to my wife to deal with, which, as I’m sure you’ll understand, does not make her happy.

    But, I used to have a whiteboard near my desk (home office) with one line on it – What have you done today? Whether it was empty the bin, wipe the bench down, or put away all the magazines etc left on the coffee table, just one thing a day made a noticeable difference, and kept me in the good books 🙂

    Thanks for reminding me, must start doing that again!

  30. I think anyone who has read books on time management or attended courses will recognise the concept of breaking the really big task down into manageable chunks to get things done without loosing all hope of success.

    What really resonated with me was to look back on a daily basis and think did I get some of the stuff done and how do I feel about the fact that I am making progress, even if only in %s of the while task – excellent advise.

    I recently ran a software business (as part of a large organisation) and our R&D manager introduced a very agile development process. Each task should be measurable in hours (3-4 max ideally, in the context of 6-9 month project with about 6-7 people full time working on it) and then when they get finished, they are tested, and when fully debugged, put to bed as complete, ticked off the list and are clearly moving us somewhere ‘better than yesterday’. It’s a very effective way to keep progress moving. I shall start applying that to my daily life, but I don’t think the tasks will be anywhere near as long as 3-4 hours.

  31. A golf pro once gave me great advice about the game of golf that is similar to what he was talking about:

    The only thing that the golfer should ever be concerned about is the swing, if he has a perfect swing then he should be happy with that swing, the result is almost irrelevant. As soon as the ball leaves the club it is out of your control, there is no point in worrying about it from that point on. The only thing you should do is focus on making what you control (the swing) better each and every time.

  32. Good to see a post from Chad here. I agree that taking small steps is easier, but it gives high rewards in the long time. If you take big steps but give up after a week, then that would be worthless.

  33. Hi Chad

    Great post and a simple but difficult maxim to live by (bit of an oxymoron there). How do you outdo yourself from the day before? is a great question to keep asking yourself. It’s often simple questions like this that make us more productive and reach our goals quicker.

  34. Excellent, excellent post;)

    Framing one’s goals in this way is absolutely motivating, and practical.

    Thanks again!

  35. So true. It is better to jog once a week for a year, than quitting after 2 weeks because 3 times a week was too hard!

    Habits should be installed slowly and steadily.

    And a big thanks to Chad for The Passionate Programmer, every chapter was inspiring and useful.

  36. Thank you for this, it is just the kind of practical strategy and philosophy I needed at this time in my life.

    I have a habit of setting grandiose goals that either never seem to go anywhere or get stuck through lack of motivation. This article has made me remember that the times when I have succeeded in what I wanted to do were based on progressing in this way.

  37. Nice post.

    In that same spirit “There is no complex operation that cannot be divided into a multitude of simple ones”. It’s not from me, it supposedly has some Zen Buddhist origin.

    It’s also a little bit reminiscent of the Kaizen principle, which encourages small, and presumably near-constant, improvements. I think it’s popular within Toyota, as well as white dudes who wanted to become the business Samurai of the 80s (I’m not knocking anyone, I’m a white dude and I’d love to be a Samurai, hahaha).

    All good stuff, it’s a constant struggle and it all requires will-power and discipline. This seems a great place to start.

  38. I really like Chads books – they were the first that put me on the path of self-improvement (albeit work-related). I think it’s interesting that non-programmers can find lifehacks in books which are broadly technical.

  39. Great article. Asking yourself if you are better than yesterday (and last week, and last year) is an important question.

    Regarding the goal of “getting in shape,” there is a way to make this easier. Go play! Go do something physical that you like, and if you don’t know anything that you like, then keep trying new things until you find one. Exerciseshould be fun and social, like running around playing tag as a kid. It lost it’s charm when our running was bolted down at the gym, and our playground was filled with TV’s and started charging $40/month.

    If you’re forcing it, it’s probably not sustainable. Good luck!

  40. Great guest post, Tim! I am a programmer and have just started using the Ruby language. This post has hit home is so many ways! I’m starting a workout schedule now!

  41. Thanks Chad, it’s so helpful to hear about other ways to look at the, at times, overwhelming task of “getting in shape”.

    I love the list idea, and find it really helps to see all those little improvements you’ve made day by day. Good Luck!

  42. “I view my life in a way … I’ll explain it to you, OK?” he told his small audience in Florida. “The greatest thing about tomorrow is, I will be better than I am today. And that’s how I look at my life. I will be better as a golfer, I will be better as a person, I will be better as a father, I will be a better husband, I will be better as a friend. That’s the beauty of tomorrow. There is no such thing as a setback. The lessons I learn today I will apply tomorrow, and I will be better.”

    If it works for Tiger Woods, it’s good enough for me.

  43. Great post. I’ve also found when working towards a certain goal to align yourself with as many people as you can who are working towards a similar goal.

    That’s what Napoleon Hill called the mastermind group.

    So, in the weight example: instead of hanging around people who are over weight and constantly complain about their weight to you and tell you how impossible it is to do anything, it’s much better to start associating with people who’re optimistic toward losing weight, and also people who have successfully lost weight.

    Another thing, instead of trying to figure out everything yourself get a professional to help you especially to get you started. A professional who understands your goals and who might also be from your own culture, thus, would understand different type of food etc.

    Trying to figure out everything by yourself can be demotivating unless you have a lot of faith and you’ve done it before. Self-doubt often creeps in.

    Also, join online forums and groups who’s aiming for the same goal as you. Every single day talk to each other to motivate, encourage, and keep each other on track. 🙂

    Something I’ve learned in my life… 🙂

  44. The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen Covers this is great detail, in a very simple way. Highly recommended reading!

    Our Thoughts x action + TIME = desired results

    We’re in a quick fix society that is designed to drag us down.

  45. A good piece of advice that I’ve heard several times is to tell people about the goals you are setting for yourself, as it makes you accountable. But you can apply this article to this piece of advice for even more likely success.By telling people in conversation what you have to accomplish on a specific day it becomes immediate and cements in your mind that you are going to see if through. Whether it’s “I have to run 2 miles today”, “call X number of people”, etc. Now you have a a target for the day you are accountable for, and you can improve these day after day to consistantly grow.

    Being accountable on a day to day basis can be very useful. Just don’t pester everyone with everything you have to do that day. It may get annoying.

  46. Great post!

    I completely agree.

    I try to live by the mantra to improve 1% at everything I do, everyday.

    Huge goals often scare us too much. Enough that we are afraid to even try to conquer them. But breaking up your goals into small 1% increments daily is a lot more manageable and not nearly as scary!

    Thanks for your post!

    Alexandra Cattoni

  47. This is the kind of advice people have to be open to (ready for) to take seriously. With an open mind, it has immediate impact. I’m trying to be more open today than yesterday. It’s already working! Thank you!

  48. An interesting and practical approach to the “How to eat an elephant…in small pieces” wisdom philosophy.

    All the best to the writer.

  49. Tim,

    Thanks for posting this today, it was exactly what I needed to hear (read). Doesn’t seem to matter what we want to change, the process of making it happen is about the same. Constant And Never Ending Improvement. Like everyone else, when one area of my life seems to be doing better, I discover others need more attention. The one constant in all of this is TIME. Each of us has the same 24 hours in a day to accomplish what we set out to do. If there are ways to save time and be productive (as your book and blog shows) then we improve by simply implementing the method(s).

    The discussion on fitness strikes me as odd and all too common regarding the subject matter. Too many people assume all exercise is good and effective. Too many people also assume exercise and fitness is simple, 30-40 minutes working on some machines and 30-40 minutes of cardio. It’s no wonder so many get discouraged after doing 4 weeks of this and see no change. There are more effective ways to accomplish the same objective and get quicker results.

    Thanks again.

  50. Great work Chad Fowler,

    Thanks for taking the time to write that and sharing it with us.

    I’d just like to make one small contribution to that,

    Keeping a record of one’s improvement is a great moral booster. Sometimes the daily changes we incour are so small, that we can’t even see it. Remembering how we were a week ago, a month, a year, a decade, etc… can remind us through experience how a little change every day goes a long way.

    Also a little healthy competition is another way to mesure ourselves, and keep us in the good path. We measure our progression by comparison. But we also run the risk of picking the wrong partner and using their laziness as an excuse for our own lazyness.

    @Ricky: Also very true, thanks for the insight!

    One thing I’ve seen often in young entrepeneurs is trying to get into the legal aspect of whatever they are doing themselves, instead of getting professional help (lawyer). A couple of times it was fatal…

  51. This kind of goes under the assumption you CAN improve each day over the previous day. I focus on what activity did I do to get me closer to the goal, what activity took me further from my goal. It is kind of the same thing I know but the way Tim phrased it was doing better than the previous day and we know all days don’t get better. There are hills and valleys.

    In losing weight I could look back at the end of the day –

    -Did I eat healthy, what did I eat that was not healthy

    -Did I exercise

    -Did I burn more calories than I consumed?

    Sometimes I mess up and don’t eat well or exercise. So when reflect on a bad day I remind myself to start new tomorrow. I look at the situation that lead to something bad and do my best to identify it, then see how to avoid or change it.

    So rather than thinking of better, better, better, better, think like +’s and -‘s and when you have more +’s you are getting “better”

  52. @AR – Thanks. I’ve learned this the hard way. I was conditioned to believe that anyone can succeed by enlisting help from others, a real winner is a person who does everything himself/herself.

    And I ended up wasting years after years. Still I didn’t know everything. And that’s when I also got stuck in a vicious cycle of self-doubt and failure.

    The people who were succeeding around me were going straight to the leaders in the field and asking for their help. This was saving them literally years of trial and error. Now that they were on the right track, it was much easier to keep going.

    E.g. my brother wanted to learn to play pool. He talked to the people who were constantly winning championships at pool halls etc. They got him started in the right direction. And before long he was a champion himself. In a few months to a year or so he was beating people who’d been playing for 10-15 years!

    I found that people are willing to help as long as they can see that one is sincere.

  53. great topic! one area I am currently working on is weight loss. I refuse to be one of those people that puts on 2-3pounds a year and wakes up one day 30 pounds overweight. recently I have changed my goals from lose X amount of weight by X date to daily mini goals – running 3 miles faster than last time. eating 7servings of fruit/veggetables a day, getting atleast 7 hours of sleep at night etc. It was been so rewarding to focus on small goals that I actually have control over, unlike what the scale reads on a certain day. Each day I strive to make healthier choices than the day before. So far it has worked, I feel healthier and the scale has gone down – maybe not as fast or consistent as I would have liked, but still, it’s moving.

  54. Great post!

    This idea has done wonders for me over that past couple months. I used Tim Ferriss’s “Dreamline” to define 4 of the most important goals I want to accomplish in the next 6 months.

    These include:

    – Gain 10 pounds of muscle

    – Get new laptop computer

    – Successfully be able to do the windmill (breakdancing move)

    – Create an internet business that generates $1000 profit per month

    I use the new Google Tasks provided with Gmail to make a hierarchical to do list breaking down my goals into smaller daily tasks and check them off each day as I accomplish them. It’s important to do these small tasks at the beginning of the day (before checking your email) to not let anything distract you. Although I’ve yet to check off any of these main goals, this had allowed me to make great progress in less than two months and I hope to have each of these accomplished by the end of the year.

  55. I love this, Mark: “This is one of the hardest truths to recognize, that one remains the same – that whatsoever we do, we remain the same. There is no “improvement.”

    In the spirit of this article (and at the risk of possibly encouraging small-minded, task-oriented thinking as opposed to that zen level of awareness) I’m going to make a suggestion for folks who are trying to beat procrastination and make sustained progress on their goals:

    Check out Mark Forster’s AUTOFOCUS system. It’s just a handwritten todo list — on steroids.

    Autofocus gives you very specific ‘rules’ about how you go through your todo list. But underneath this seemingly technical set of rules lies the true heart of the system — it unleashes (and very much relies on) your intuition and craftily undermines the universal tendency for task avoidance. Autofocus eats procrastination for breakfast. Without even trying.

    The signs that it’s working for you: resistance melts away, moving through your list is a pleasure, and you begin checking off todo’s at the speed of light.

    Won’t work for everyone, I’m sure. And yeah, ‘systems’ are usually bogus time-wasters that we jump on when we’re trying to avoid real work. But I’d encourage you to try it, just for one week. It’s free, its simplicity is truly beguiling, and aside from reading the rules, there’s no major start-up time investment, so there’s little to lose.

  56. Great post! We often are intimidated by the size of the challenge. Size matters – if we let it. We are also infatuated with qualitative measures such as better, best, worst and last.

    I find it simpler to concentrate on quantity instead of quality. Just do more!

    It’s like a fantastic experiment, a leap into the unknown. Throw stuff out there and see what comes back. Sometimes it’s nothing: sometimes you get a huge shout out from the world.

    If showing up is 80% of success, the other 20% is just doing it – and lots of it!

  57. Reading this post, I’m worried that this blog is starting down the well-trodden but endless path of self-help advice. There are tons of websites that offer similar seemingly insightful tidbits, but until now this blog was not one of them.

    I come this blog seeking specific, measurable and clever strategies for making money, improving my health, and living a life I can be proud of. I’m looking for an extension to the 4HourWorkWeek book. While I realize that the line between what you stand for and what Oprah has to give is a very fine one, I still think it’s noticeable.

    1. Hi Adam,

      There’s plenty of what you want coming, so not to fret. I like to mix things up on this blog, and that takes many different forms. I expect about 20% of my total readership to think any given post is terrible 🙂

      All the best,


  58. Hey, What up Tim/ the world, this was a nice article, it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, from an amazing book (pretty sure you would like it if you haven’t already read it Tim)

    “Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday,

    more skillful than today.

    This is never-ending.”

    —Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure


  59. Tim,

    I just want to tell you I think you have one of the freshest and most fascinating minds on the planet today. Think Gandhi. Think Einstein. Think Zen master. Think Jack Welch. I’m old enough to be your mother and yet you inspire me all the time.

    Keep up the good work and don’t ever stop.

    Jane Dobisz

    Guiding Teacher Cambridge Zen Center

    Author of: One Hundred Days of Solitude: A Zen Retreat In The Woods

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jane! But I don’t hold a candle to the people you mentioned 🙂

      All the best,


  60. This was an interesting post. I consider myself someone who isn’t really a programmer, but having done programming the past, I do follow a lot of the problem solving theories. I’ll probably re-read this one a few times.

  61. Tim,

    This was such a great post. I really follows a lot of what you were saying in the book about being a doer. Getting out and accomplishing one step at a time, rather that having that huge goal staring you down.

    Great, and as always, immediately usable advice.


  62. Adam – I clicked on your url because of your challenging stance. (Most people who are intrigued by “personal development” will cringe – in reluctant partial assent – when the mindset is referred to as fluff.) Lo and behold, I wandered into a delightful PD video by Srikumar Rao, which I want to thank you for (tossed it right into my collection of personal development resources).

    Just ribbing, I do know what you mean — PD can be pure mental masturbation. But I’m not yet ready to give up that particular facet of an aware life, despite its intangible qualities. Sometimes you hear what may seem like nothing more than a tidbit of common sense (or fluff) a thousand times, and then it finally clicks and becomes yours.

    But that’s just my reality.

  63. Brilliant….I’ve recently read the book “Simple-ology” and this has an interesting commonality. When you break things down, steady progress is very simple.

    Yet we become so easily distracted.

    We focus on the wrong target / or don’t have one.

    This re-iterates the concept of accomplishing one simple priority each day for your chosen targets. When setting up each day in the morning, you will soon crave the journey much more and the daily/nightly recap becomes a checkpoint.

    Great post Tim, tons of value here.


  64. Never fear going slowly, only fear to stop…

    Something along those lines, it obviously loses a lot in translation but… It’s a chinese proverb!

    Maybe you heard it there? 🙂

  65. Easily asked and answered. I like it.

    The only consideration in my opinion – it takes those occasional ‘worse than’ days in order to truly appreciate the progress/’better than’ days. I don’t know if I’d want to lose that (sometime!) contrast.

  66. This is a recycled concept that goes as far back as the Greeks- which is not surprising given they discovered trigonometry by drawing in the sand. You visualize the idealized form of yourself and/or society and take incremental steps to approach that goal. Of course it is a function bounded from above in that one never reaches the ideal. What is really interesting is that this philosophical point seems to naturally arise from solving complicated logical problems. So its the nerds who inherit the earth.

  67. This is great! This attitude really works because if you make it a habbit, your mind cultivates as attitude of constant positive improvement. If you look at our lives as a limited time line to acheive every goal and dream we’ve ever had, our day to day improvement is the most relevent unit that determines this overall success.

  68. Thx for the tool on long snap shots for firefox, I needed it earlier today to show one of my Va’s the keywords on my adwords campaign. Sweet tool!!!

    Welcome Back!!!!


  69. What a great post.

    I’ve always been a believer in this rule, putting just a little effort everyday, turning something large into something accomplishable. I first experienced this in the gym when some of my workout partners would face a challenge doing chin-ups. They would say something like “I’ve never been good at these” or “I’ve never been able to do more than one.” — so they didn’t see it as important, let alone do-able. I would always push them to try at least one on back day. So little by little, even if they started out doing only a half chin-up, they would eventually reach one, two, and even get to ten. I always remembered that experience while thinking of the “chin-up memories” when faced with any challenge in life.

    Thank you again for the article Chad and Tim.

  70. So, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months but hadn’t actually read the book yet. The sequence of events since I got it (last week) is pretty remarkable and I wanted to share. (Bare with me, this comment is related to the post too).

    Two weekends ago I noticed the 4-hr wk week on sale for $5 at Audible and downloaded it. Last Wednesday on a flight I finished my previous book and began yours. Thursday morning I contacted a famous food critic and asked for an interview. Friday I did the interview. Monday at 6am I posted the interview on my blog. Monday at noon my blog was mentioned in the New York Times referencing the interview. Tuesday the entire exchange was mentioned in the SF Chronicle on blog of said food critic; I finished reading 4-hr work week. Today, clear gmail inbox and flooded with new web traffic and dedicated readers/subscribers.

    So to the point, YES, today is better than yesterday. Much thanks!

  71. Thanks, Tim. Just what I needed today–because my todays have been getting worse than their yesterdays. No more!


  72. It is a great concept, but when you are trying to achieve multiple goals and you have them broken down as such, sometimes it feels like it is never ending and monotonuous.

  73. In order to be better today then you were yesterday, we must force ourselves to take action. Life is an adventure, and similar to how the journey of 1,000 miles started with only one step, we need to focus our attention on moving towards the life that we have always dreamed of living….Good work Tim!

  74. Hi Tim

    I have been following your blogs for a while and has found these highly motivating. Keep up the good work. You are an inspiration.

    Jones Kurian

  75. That was deep. Not to sound cliche but it puts everything in perspective. Keep going further and further when it comes to accomplish your goals and dreams. Am I Better Than Yesterday? I Am Better Than Yesterday. I’ll mentally retain this mantra. Thanks Chad and Tim for sharing.

  76. I came up with a similar concept for staying in shape. The idea is not to focus on how you want to look in the end but instead, focus on consistency. For example, if you want to loose weight and want to approach the problem with running, instead of going to the gym and running for an hour on the first and maybe second day and being completely burned out on the third and fourth and therefore start to get de-motivated, go for a goal that no matter how small, you know that you will be able to do it again and again. Say 5 to 10 minutes (if you hate running) eventually you will start running more and more on small increments that are a lot more natural for your body to take on. So the goal should be to come up with a routine that u do consistently as opposed to the goal being loosing so many lbs. loosing the weight should be a consequence or side effect of your exercise not a goal that has the power of de-motivating you.

  77. Great post, thank you for sharing this. It’s so common to find How-to-guides on the internet, enticing promises and ads everywhere… But this post shows what really matters: how to decrease the chance of failure by breaking all things down to the small bits. It kinda reminds me of Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: being stuck is the stage we all face when trying to sort out all problems at once.

    Instead, we should take little steps and go on everyday, so that we won’t be afraid to answer the big question.

    It’s hard, when we are handling so many challenges at the same time… this is why I’m going to make a list right now! And possibly post something on my Illustration website.

    This article also reminds me of something an old guy in Seattle said when I met him on a bridge over the highway. He was holding a giant banner against the Bush wars and I asked him why he was doing it… he replied “One day, my grandchildren will ask me what I was doing against the atrocities, and I want to give them an answer”.

  78. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for sharing Chad’s thoughts on making small and consistent changes in our lives on a daily basis.

    Chad, your post really hammers home the point that the life philosophy of “Constant and Never Ending Improvement” is really applicable to any area of our lives, as long as we remain consistent, practice the fundamentals and focus on the long term.



  79. Wow, great post Tim. It’s funny but I was already thinking about this today before I even read it! My idea invloved my monthly wall calendar in the kitchen. I never use it because I keep appointments in another calendar. The kitchen calendar usually has a few concerts scrawled here and there. Stuff that seemed mildly amusing.

    My idea was to start writing down the major milestones for each day. So today, I got a new client -> finished moving into new house -> went swimming instead of normal workout. (used intuition which said “you need to relax”)

    How will I fit these into the tiny box? (new client, moved, swam, chilled) My goal is balance

  80. Holy sh!t, I just took a closer look on the header image at the top of your site, where you’re doing a headstand, and was like, “damn he’s ripped”

    hurry and get that fitness book out, whatever you’re doing, it works

    ..and yes, I’m straight-

  81. This advice will definitely allow people to work harder on themselves each day. Allowing them to push themselves to create progress instead of regress.

    Personal growth will come out of daily practice of making today better then yesterday.