Idealism vs. Incrementalism

This post is mostly about how we think.

Let's start with some simple definitions.

Idealism: Black or white thinking. All or nothing thinking. The story you tell yourself is something like, "I'd rather have my ideal version of a thing, or just not have it at all." I'm sure you can think of many examples in your own life. Here are a few that come up for me often - many of these have themes of time - If I can't get a period of uninterrupted reading time, I'm just not going to read. If I can't get at least a 20-minute workout in, I'm not going to workout. A final go-to, if the choices of dessert available don't appeal to me, I'll go without dessert for now ... because I know I've got an ideal one waiting at home.

Incrementalism: Small bites are better than no bites. Full spectrum thinking (That sounds like a logical opposite of black or white thinking, right?). Your story goes, "I'm happy to do this even for a minute." I'll just read two pages. I'll do 10 pushups. I'll eat whatever dessert is available.

As you've read these two, perhaps there is one that sounds more like you.

I'm not saying you're always one way or the other, I truly believe that it's situational.

What I will say is that you have a default.

At the time of writing this, I most certainly default to idealism.

Here are a few things I've learned about idealism:

  • Many of my ideals relate to time. I am also an introvert with a young family. This is often a challenging mix. Often I've found that my idealism translates to many selfish thoughts about how to spend time.

  • Idealism can force you to miss out on the magic of compounding. Let's take a simple example: exercise. Suppose my ideal is a 20-minute workout. As I said earlier, if I can't get it then I'd rather do nothing at all. What if I did just a single push-up? I know, it sounds ridiculous right, but can I actually say that I've made that choice enough times for the magic of compounding to do its thing? No. Compounding is a long game, and too often I think short-term.

  • Idealism has forced me to think a lot about quality over quantity. In my own life, idealism has related more often to quantity.

Even though it's not my default, here are a few things I've learned about incrementalism:

  • You're able to be far more flexible if you can be incremental in any given situation.

  • If you focus deeply on quality, taking an incremental approach might actually be equally if not more rewarding than an ideal approach. As an example if you chose to read only two or three pages of a book from your shelf (let's call that incremental, whereas your ideal would be reading for an hour instead), which book might have the possibility of giving you the highest potency per page? In other words, which book would leave you feeling satisfied having read only two or three pages?

  • If you default to idealism, thinking incrementally can be very hard. There might be some immediate gratification wrapped up in what makes this hard. Idealism might lead to immediate gratification more often, whereas, incrementalism (based on its long-term magical nature) leads to delayed gratification. The latter, by definition, is harder to see, which makes it easier to ignore.

I started this post by saying that while I believe we all have a default, I don't think we should.

I really believe we should let the situation dictate our approach.

The simplest question I can think of to leave you with is this:

When faced with a given situation, pay attention to what your default is (ideal or incremental), and then just ask yourself, how would this situation be different if I approach it the other way?


p.s. If you have four more minutes, I think this post pairs well with How to Feel Quality.

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