The Surprising Effect of Small Efforts over Time
In case you hadn’t noticed, this blog has been sucking a bit recently. I just haven’t been putting in the effort that this thing deserves, and I feel the patient eyes of all of you watching. “Come on, Mustache. Get back to work. Give us something GOOD!”
But there’s a good reason for this: For all of 2013, the blog has been forced to coexist with other bigger projects.
The moment I returned from that carpentourism gig in Hawaii, a friend of mine decided to build a long-awaited addition on the back of his house. And a big addition at that: 2 storeys and 750 square feet of it, with a 30-foot-high peaked roof, a big master suite upstairs, and a couple of nice rooms below. We’re good enough friends that I agreed to be his builder, since the cost difference between teaming up to build it ourselves and hiring an outside contractor would be upwards of $100,000.
So in mid-January, we broke ground. And since then from the hand-dug pier footings all the way to the shingles atop that high roof, we have built almost everything ourselves. I have had the opportunity to sling thousands of pounds of soil, mix and pour a similar amount of concrete, weld the steel columns into place, frame the entire structure, install all the supply and drain plumbing, build up a completely new electrical panel with about 40 circuits, install windows and doors, nail down 1500 pounds of shingles, build in a top-of-the-line EPA woodburning fireplace, and a hundred other tasks. (We’ll get into some of the most useful projects in upcoming posts).
Just before I left for vacation in June, we passed all of our critical inspections from the building department. While standing with the two friends who built this thing alongside me, basking in the moment’s success, we looked up and were amazed. How could this massive, hulking structure come from just the three little dudes who now stand in its shadow?
I was especially amazed myself, because much like my recent performance in blog-writing, I felt that my efforts on the addition project had been lackluster and somewhat unsatisfactory. I worked only while my son was in school, between 9 and 3 on weekdays. Plus, I usually started late in the day due to blog-related distractions. Often went home early. Biked home to take long luxurious Latte Lunch breaks with Mrs. MM a bit too often. We all skipped work whenever our kids were out of school for any reason, or when the weather was bad, or during the Seattle and Utah vacations that happened to fall during this time period.
And yet, through daily perseverance and always returning after each delay, somehow the addition got built. And in a not-overly-slow manner: 4.5 months from that first shovel in the dirt until Inspection Day, when we handed it over to a drywall crew to work their magic much more quickly (and cheaply) than we could do ourselves. About 270 hours of my free time went into it, and a similar number from each of the other two fellows.
And thus another life lesson materialized, with applications to Mustachianism as well. And that lesson is that small efforts, repeated over time, will almost always surprise you.
It’s a natural weakness of the human brain that we don’t recognize this, because we have our leftover instincts of survival in the moment. But a ten dollar lunch each workday compounds to $37,600 every ten years. An extra beer or slice of bread beyond your base calorie requirements adds up to 152 pounds of fat* over the same period. A habit of being just a bit rude to your spouse in certain situations can brew itself into lifelong resentment and divorce, while a slightly different habit of patience and respect can keep you happily married for life.
For me, the habit of occasionally typing some shit into the computer has resulted in an enormous pile of articles on this blog. 360 of them, or over 1000 pages if you were to make it all into a (repetitive and poorly edited) book. It’s a whole empire now, which automatically brings in readers and generates surprising quantities of money, and all caused by a series of individually insignificant efforts over time. And although things seem slow to me right now, with continued efforts I can surely make this place far better, finish the book that really needs to be written, and reach the right people. Then, of course, we can save the human race from destroying itself through overconsumption of its own habitat, which has been the plan all along.
So how can everyone benefit from this effect? By watching where your time goes, and making small adjustments to make sure most of those minutes are aligned with your real life goals.
Watching TV, for example, or playing massively multiplayer online games, can feel relaxing and even stimulating at times. But those hours spent relaxing and stimulating yourself can really add up, and when you tally the eventual sum of the life benefits, it ends up awfully close to zero. Many other leisure pursuits (complaining, ATV riding, shopping) often end up the same way.
The key is therefore to trick yourself into doing more things that are good for you. Not just more good things, but over time having your life be almost entirely good things.
Tiny things, like learning one new thing you were afraid of trying before. Fixing the screen on your upstairs window. Or taking a very short walk when you don’t really have the time or inclination to go for a real walk. Reading just a tiny amount of the investing book before you eat a tiny amount of raw vegetables. I have some gymnastics rings hanging from straps mounted to part of the high ceiling in my kitchen. When I don’t feel like really working out, which is quite often, I will walk over and do just 5 pull-ups on those rings. Over the past month or two, I’ve done this lazy cop-out routine about 100 times, which adds to 500 pull-ups, which is not such a bad thing after all.
Sooner than you think, you’ll find that your days are starting to change shape. These constant needlings from Mr. Money Mustache seemed annoying at first, but you will end up getting rid of your TV and replacing it with a library card after all, and poking around in the Reading List area of this blog. Over time, you’ll become a Self Improvement Machine, a miniature Dalai Lama with happiness beams shooting out of each of your orifices, which in turn shine onto others and make them happier. All in all, a surprising effect for such a small effort.
* For every 3600 calories that you eat beyond what your body can use, about 1 pound of fat gets stored. So if you multiply 150 calories x 3650 days, you’d have a 152 pound gain. Of course, real physiology is a bit more complicated, but it doesn’t matter – the tiny change of skipping the beer is the most important part of the equation.
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