The Magic of Cumulative Effort: Overnight Success, One Night at a Time

How taking tiny steps every day can change your life in profound ways

The magic of cumulative effort

Everything you do matters. Not just what you plan to do this week, or this year — but every move you make. We get so focused on the big picture we don’t realize the power of our smaller, daily choices.

Whether or not you shove the third doughnut in your mouth, that extra ten dollars you debate putting away, or whether you choose to work today or play — the cumulative pile grows only when you add to it. You can’t plan your way to success without putting in the daily work.

What’s the big deal with cumulative effort?

There’s no overnight success. There’s no instant hit. There’s no viral video that makes us famous while we sleep. Sure, there are stories, but we must act as if overnight will not happen to us. If we don’t put in the work, those around us will. If don’t develop our craft today, the person next door will do the work every day until we’re dwarfed.

We can’t rely on luck or one hit.

There’s no controlling for luck. It’s a lightning strike — a random accident. Luck is awesome when it happens. We’d be stupid not to accept its gifts. But luck is the exception. We must work with what we can control. And we can control cumulative effort.

This is a recipe for overnight success.

One night at a time, after months or years of cumulative nights, you can engineer your own overnight success. There’s no more relying on luck or chance. We find something that works once and we repeat the process daily until we get the result we want.

It’s not like the forest showed-up one day. Seeds had to grow seventy years. The seeds had no idea they’d become a forest. They accepted the daily gifts of the sun and rain until the forest grew too dense to ignore.

One day your cumulative pile of effort will grow so big they can’t ignore you any longer. This is your tipping point. You stand back from the pile, put your hands on your hips and say I can’t believe I did all this, but here it is. Cumulative effort doesn’t feel like a mountain while you climb it. The grains of rice add-up to form the mountain over time.

I recognize how simple this sounds, but when was the last time we focused on these tiny efforts.

If you want more you’ve got to do more. Either you can work in insane bursts of work, or you make daily, methodical, tortoise-like steps towards the endgame.

As Malcolm Gladwell says:

Practice isn’t the thing you do because you’re good. Practice is the thing you do to make you good.

Practice comes in many forms. Whether you’re investing, singing, painting, or marathoning, the small, daily efforts grow to huge gains as they accumulate.

I’m a writer, so I’ll use daily writing as an example. A typical commercial novel has a word count around 80,000. I have two choices if I want to finish my novel:

  1. I can write sporadically in long, burn-out sprints.
  2. I can write a measured, daily amount.

If I write a very manageable 1,000 words per day I’ll have 365,000 words written by the end of the year, or 4.5 novels per year — al from writing two hours per day.

Or, I can pick number one. I write once every other week and spend all day writing 8,000 words. I get so burnt out I’m exhausted, so I only do this twice per month. This leaves me with approximately two novels per year, most-likely one or none. Without the daily habit, the work is much harder to sustain.

We have failed examples of sprint-effort everywhere.

We procrastinate projects that feel to big we can’t start. We look at the pile instead of the single log. We wait until it’s too late for daily effort. We have to cram at the last minute. We feel as if we’re doing focused, hard work. We work all night until we can’t hold our heads up. But sprint-work turns sloppy and sprints are unsustainable.

Or we pick cumulative effort.

Instead, we choose to build small habits. We practice our craft daily for an hour or two. We develop the habit and carve time to ensure we do our work 365 days per year. The work becomes part of who we are, not some end-of-the-month cram-session.

The daily effort is small, but the reward is large.

Cumulative effort is the difference between sprinting and working — between daily, blue collar effort and work-vomit.

You only have to be good enough

Natural talent has a ceiling. The rest of success is due to the effort we put in. If I write one story per day for a year, my cumulative pile will be 365 stories per year. If I stood at the base of 365 stories it would look insurmountable. Instead, I ignore the end goal and focus on the daily work — one story. One story is easier.

When you do something — anything — every day, you’ll get better. We self-correct, become more efficient, and improve our work in tiny bites. Who’s better as basketball, the kid with raw talent who never practices, or the average kid who shoots 500 free-throws before bed each night?

A small list of cumulative, daily ideas

Improve 1% per day — Do this daily for a year and you’ll double your level of improvement every 72 days. By the end of a year you’ll be hundreds of times better than when you started.

Write 1000 words per day — Want to publish four novels a year. This is how you do it. Two daily hours at a time. You’ll have created a mega-series while the other authors around you are still working on their first manuscript.

Do 50 push-ups — Want to look amazing without dedicating time to the gym. Exercise a little every day. Do 50 push-ups before you jump in the shower. Do 50 body squats before you eat breakfast. Stop typing every hour and do 205 jumping jacks.

Read 25 pages — Read a couple books a month spending dedicated reading time every day. Feed your mind so your work can grow.

Listen to one podcast — The information is limitless and valuable. With audio you can do two things at once. Daily podcast listening can make you an expert in almost any topic.

Watch one YouTube lecture — Some of the best lectures ever given are all online, for free. Some from 50 years ago. If you can’t see your favorite speaker in person, develop your own night school and teach yourself a new skill, hone your current craft, or develop a new habit.

How to practice cumulative effort

I wrote this post about developing a daily writing habit. You can use the information inside to substitute any habit into a daily practice:

It’s hard to ignore the goal on the other end of the process, but we must. Cumulative effort isn’t linear. There’s a hockey sticking that happens once you build enough daily momentum. With daily practice, the resulting accumulation may be much-larger than you ever anticipated.

Daily work is not linear. The results compound over time.

We get to work one day at a time. The results will come. If you do the daily work you can’t avoid the results. They will come automatically. This is the beauty of cumulative effort.

We also discover we can’t do everything. We must pair-down our big ideas to small set of most-important tasks. Practice your cumulative work first, before you attempt anything else for the day. At least you can say hey, I wrote today, or I did my 50 push-ups, now I’m ready for anything.

If you want to know more about how to create the perfect to-do list to help you keep your daily efforts on-track, I wrote a post about Ivy Lee’s 100-year-old method here:

Most people won’t practice this method. Most people choose the procrastination sprints. These folks spend the majority of their time wishing things were different and bitter when they aren’t. Their resulting output will be tiny in comparison to yours.

You are not most people.

You believe in the power of cumulative work. You find your work that matters most. You practice that work daily, no matter what. You understand the importance of the journey. Maybe you don’t feel confident in your skills today. You’ll feel more confident tomorrow. In 72 days you’ll be 200% more confident than the first day.

Don’t worry about the size of the cumulative pile at the end. Most-likely you’ll underestimate. The end feels huge and unobtainable. One daily check mark on your to-do list is easy.

Now, go accumulate.

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