a blue banner with the words "incremental change: Another Way to Effectively Accomplish Goals" accompanied by a 1, 2, and 3 with arrows between them

by Jordon Dutton | 5 Minute Read

How are those New Year’s Resolutions going? If you are like me, they were broken the 1st week of the New Year for most years — enough times to say that my New Year’s Resolution was to NOT make New Year’s Resolutions, and I am embarrassed to confess, even my loophole did not work. The point of this article is not to focus on my failure, well not entirely, but to focus on a different mind frame when working on goals. If you are familiar with the Agile process, this will be a bit of a review for you, but I will explain for those of you who are not familiar with it.

a dart board with an arrow in the middleIn Agile, we are taught to focus and break up a product or problem into smaller, workable parts or components, creating a plan to focus on these smaller parts in increments. In this blog, we will focus on the benefits of making smaller changes over time and the impact this approach has on achieving goals, or results, in a process called incremental change. Having a mind frame of incremental change can be a more effective and productive way to achieve the results you are working towards.

Before we discuss the benefits, let us give an example of how incremental change can be implemented. Let us choose something that is common and often on everyone’s resolution, that is right, the dreaded and eluding “I want to get healthy and fit goal!” Again, not one of my finer moments of accomplishments, as it is still one that I am working on myself.

For some people, this goal can be a daunting and overwhelming task, as it encompasses more than just being healthy. If we break this down, health can include emotional, physical, mental and for some people, even spiritual well-being. Each requires different focuses and attention to achieve a balanced state. For the sake of keeping this article short and keeping your attention, we will just focus on the physical aspect of “getting healthy.”

numbers 1, 2, and 3 with arrows between themBreaking down the physical aspect of health, most would agree that a person needs both diet and exercise. Both can be a lot to undertake, so creating smaller goals and planning them in increments can be immensely helpful. These increments can include some of the following items in our Sample Plan.

Sample Plan Using Incremental Change

The Planning

  • an illustration of a pencil writing a lineDiet
    • Eating Vegetables
    • Limiting Sugar
    • Cutting back on bread
    • Drinking Water
  • Exercise
    • Cardio
    • Lifting weights
    • Consistency and Frequency
    • Rest Day

Now that we have broken the goal into smaller parts, we have a longer list! How does that help anyone? Well, we do not tackle them all at once. We divide the goal into smaller increments and then focus on 1 or 2 for a brief period of time, making them manageable.

1st Increment: Plan (2 weeks)

  • a blue circle with a one in itLimit sugar to 4 times a week
  • Exercise 3 different times per week

1st Increment: Results

  • Limit sugar to 4 times a week: Success
  • Exercise 3 separate times per week
    • 1st week: Success
    • 2nd week: Only Twice

After the second week, we would evaluate our progress and adjust our plan.

1st Increment: Evaluation

What we discover is that limiting our sugar to 4 times a week was an easy task for us, but we came to the realization that we do not like to exercise, so we did not feel motivated to complete the 2nd week. Though we did that hike for one of the exercises and enjoyed that. We then adjust our plan for the next two weeks.

2nd Increment: Plan (2 weeks)

  • a grey circle with a two in itLimit sugar to 3 times per week and eat 2 vegetables a day
  • Go on 2 hikes per week

2nd Increment: Results

  • Limit sugar to 3 times per week and eat 2 vegetables a day: Success
  • Go on 2 hikes per week: Success

2nd Increment: Evaluation

Here, we see that we were able to accomplish our goals with both diet and exercise. For the 3rd increment, we would look back at the plan, evaluate our successes and challenges, and then adjust.

We keep making small incremental changes and are consistently improving towards our goals — eventually making and surpassing the real intent of our initial goal in the first place. Now, let us take a look at some of the benefits that come with using incremental change as an approach.


Better Focus

a blue magnifying glassDividing the task into smaller parts allows for better focus. Increasing our focus on smaller increments allows us to gather more data, avoid distractions, and discover root causes for rising issues at a smaller level rather than compounding at the end. In our first increment example, we did well on limiting the sugar but did not complete the frequency of exercise per week. With this focus, we saw the data and then made the adjustment in the following two weeks to do more with the diet and adjusted with exercise to a more attainable goal. This is all because we narrowed our focus, to create less distractions with everything that a person must do to get healthy.

Continuous Cycle of Improvement

four arrows in a circleAnother benefit of incremental change is that it being a continuous cycle, always finding ways to expand and improve, all the while delivering results. Instead of trying to work through the whole project and make improvements at the end, we could work on individual parts, improve on those, and deliver continuously along the way. In our example, we may have discovered that limiting our sugar was not as difficult as we originally thought, and that we did not eat a lot of vegetables, so we adjusted the next change to go less in sugar but include more vegetables. In exercise, we discovered that we were not motivated or found enough time but found that we did enjoy hiking, so we adjusted to the next change to hike more each week. This skill of evaluating the data and adjusting improves commitment, effort, and ultimately the results.

Stress Level Decreased

a sad face with a down arrow and a happy face with an up arrowFocusing on increments and improving along the way allows us to feel that we are accomplishing and making progress. Breaking goals down in smaller increments allows us to feel that the plan is attainable and as we achieve those goals, we gain a sense of accomplishment, which then motivates us to do better. Keeping our stress levels down keeps us motivated and gives us the energy to continue our journey to achieve our goals.

an announcement hornIf you are feeling overwhelmed with your goals or tasks, or just need to try a different way of accomplishing them, I invite you to try this method. I have personally seen the benefits of doing so in my career and life. Instilling this lesson of incremental change did in fact, increase my focus, provided me a continuous cycle of evaluation, adjusting, and showing improvement, and in a stressful world, decreased my stress through feelings of attainability and accomplishments. These are just a few benefits of incremental change, and there are more. Please feel free to leave in the comment section any other benefits you can see or have seen by implementing this process in your personal life or career.