What is Your “Average Speed” in Your Life, Your Health, and Your Work?

I have a friend named Nathan Barry who recently finished writing three books in just 9 months.

How did he do it?

By following a simple strategy. He wrote 1,000 words per day. (That’s about 2 to 3 pages.) And he did it every day for 253 straight days.

Now, compare that strategy to the classic image of a writer hiding out in a cabin for weeks and writing like a madman to finish their book.

The maniac in the cabin has a high “maximum speed” — maybe 20 or even 30 pages per day. But after a few weeks at that unsustainable pace, either the book is finished or the author is.

By comparison, Nathan’s maximum speed never reached the peak levels of the crazy writer in the cabin. However, over the course of a year or two his average speed was much higher.

This lesson extends far beyond writing.

For example, anyone can feel a burst of inspiration, head to the gym, and push themselves for a single workout. That’s maximum speed. We waste a lot of time obsessing over it. How hard was your workout? How motivated are you? How fast are you pushing it?

But what if you were to average all of your days in the last month? How many of those days included a workout? How about the last three months? Or the last year? What has your average speed been?

Look at it this way and you might realize, for example, that you were sick for a week and there were a couple times when you skipped the gym after a long day of work and you were on the road for two weeks as well. Suddenly, you realize that your maximum speed might be high every now and then, but your average speed is much lower than you think.

From what I can tell, this principle holds true for your work habits, your eating habits, your relationship habits, and virtually every other area of your life.

The Surprising Thing About Average Speed

Here’s the surprising thing about average speed: It doesn’t take very long for average speed to produce incredible results.

So often we waste our time and energy thinking that we need a monumental effort to achieve anything significant. We tell ourselves that we need to get amped up on motivation and desire. We think that we need to work harder than everyone else.

But when you look at people who are really making progress, you see something different. Nathan wrote 1,000 words per day, every day. And nine months later? Three books are finished. At no point did he necessarily work harder than everyone else. There’s nothing sexy or shocking about writing 2 or 3 pages per day. Nathan was simply more consistent than everyone else and, as a result, his average speed for those 253 days was much higher than most people.

Of course, the natural question that follows from all of this is, “How do I increase my average speed?”

Let’s talk about that now.

Habit Graduation: How to Increase Your Average Speed

Recently, I was told about the idea of “habit graduation.” That is, graduating from your current habit to one level higher. Basically, habit graduation is about increasing your average speed.

Here are some examples…

  • If your average speed is eating three healthy meals per week, can you “graduate” that to one healthy meal per day?
  • If your average speed is exercising twice per month, can you “graduate” that to once per week?
  • If your job is crazy and you only talk to your old friends on the phone once every three months, can you schedule those calls into your calendar and “graduate” that habit to once per month?

You get the idea. Habit graduation is about considering your goals and your current average speed, and thinking about how you can increase your output by just a little bit on a consistent basis.

I’ve thought about how I might apply this myself.

For the last eight months, I’ve published a new article every Monday and every Thursday without fail. (Click here to see them all.) Now, I’m considering “graduating” that habit to the next level.

For example, I could follow Nathan’s strategy and write 1,000 words per day. Presumably, this would allow me to continue writing two articles each week while also working on other useful things — like a book of my own.

Where to Go From Here

We all have an average speed when it comes to our habits. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, that average speed might be much slower than we’d like.

The truth is, anyone can get motivated and push themselves for one day, but very few people maintain a consistent effort every week without fail.

The important thing isn’t to judge yourself or feel guilty about having a lower average speed than you would like. The important thing is to be aware of what’s actually going on, realize that it’s within your control, and then embrace the fact that a small, but consistent change in your daily habits can lead to a remarkable increase in your average speed.

In your health, your work, and your life, it doesn’t require a massive effort to achieve incredible results — just a consistent one.

It’s time to graduate to the next level. What’s your average speed?

62 Comments

    • This is great, I think a lot about how I need to improve or work harder all the time and Im always aware of it. Its gotten to the point where I don’t see anything really that different or knew when I read advice on ways to improve yourself, but this graduation thing is a great way to look at things. Its good to remember we dont have to be awesome straight away, its a muscle we need to exercise and grow. I like, thank you.

      • Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Elle! You’re right on with the thought: “it’s a muscle we need to exercise and grow.” I agree.

        And thanks for taking the time to read. It’s great to have you in our little community.

  1. Nugget: “The important thing isn’t to judge yourself or feel guilty ….” YES! This directive isn’t to point the light on that which is missing. We perfectionist/pessimist types can readily display that as such an awesome talent!

    The focus is on that “… it’s within your control ….” The positive aspect, the abundance. Not on that which is lacking. Look forward, not backward!

    Beautiful.

    Applied to my ongoing job search: In literature it’s suggested that you follow this or that formula, do this for x hours/day, etc. etc. Do I get there? Seldom. Can I contact one more person/week? Can I devote one more hour or day to this? Kick it up just a notch? A notch that works for me.

    Over time the incremental step, to a slightly new average speed, results in huge gains. We just can’t see it.

    Thank you James, for the push to take it up another additional step!

    • Happy to provide a little nudge, Garry! Thanks for taking the time to read. (And good luck with the job search!)

  2. I really like this concept. In the business world, authors Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen talk of the “20 Mile March” concept. This is the same idea in different context: If we steadily march 20 miles everyday, we will get to our destination, and be healthier when we get there.

    Our culture tends to reward the “maniacs”, the ones who push and produce extreme results with extreme effort. It’s sexy, and makes for good entertainment. Steadily increasing our average speed is not going to make headlines, but essential for healthy lives.

    Sometimes average is exceptional.

    • Peter — thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think we’re definitely in agreement on this.

      Oddly enough, I had a friend who walked across the United States (Delaware coast to San Francisco). And he averaged, more or less, 20 miles each day.

    • I second Peter’s comment about the “20 mile march” concept Collins talks about in his book Good to Great, it’s pretty much the same as what James is writing about here.

      We can take this and apply it to our personal life – consistently going to the gym x times per week, on both the days we don’t and do feel like it. Sitting down to read an hour per day, etc.

  3. I think we tend to do all we can and spend all the energy as fast as possible, only to reach some goal, because we love the destination. We want so hard to get there that we get dispirited when something make our path more intricate.

    You teached me that the habit, the constant average speed, is more important. And is the habit that we should love. Thank you.

    • Gabriel — glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for taking the time to read and share. Your thoughts are always welcome here!

    • Richard — I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but monkeys are awesome!

      p.s. Thanks for taking the time to read. I really appreciate you being in our community!

  4. Great post! I found that the exact same is true for language-learning:

    When I started to log the hours I spend on learning languages, I first discovered that my average speed is much slower than I thought it was. There were days when I would do a lot, but then memory bias tricked me into thinking that those days were much more recent or much more common than they actually were.

    By logging how much I was actually doing, I guilted myself into studying more regularly, and then I gradually upped the amount of hours I expected of myself. Right now I’ve been logging for several years and my current goal is to study languages for more than 712 hours this year, because 712 hours is my current record, set in 2011. Rather than looking at this huge number all the time though, I divided it into daily/weekly goals and my spreadsheet also tells me if I’m ahead of my goal or behind.

    • Judith — this is a great example and a good reminder of how important it is to track your progress (with any goal). Tracking own behavior opens our eyes to what is actually happening rather than what we think/feel is happening.

      Thanks for sharing! And good luck with the languages!

  5. I used the very same method to work up to my current pre-5:00am ice cold shower. I started with 3 minutes and added just 5 seconds a day. Three weeks later I could easily do 5 minutes.

    I don’t recall seeing any posts on the benfits of cold showers, they work wonders!

    • John — I’ve heard good things (and I used ice as therapy many, many times during my athletic career … so I’m sure there are benefits). I haven’t made a habit of cold showers though.

      Glad to hear they are working well for you. And keep that attitude! Slow and consistent progress works wonders in all areas of life.

  6. James,

    I am a recently new reader; don’t even know how I stumbled upon your site, but I am glad I did – that’s the beauty of the internet!

    Awesome post. I think as people, we always try to reach for amazing and set such a high bar that we forget we can reach amazing if we make these small goals and work at “average.”

    Look forward to seeing you graduate … sooo I can see more posts in the future.

    • Steven — welcome to our little community! It’s great to have you here. And I especially appreciate you reaching out and sharing your thoughts.

      I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way!

  7. Hi James,

    Have you thought of adding links to the bottom of your articles so they can easily be shared on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook? Just curious- would help us folks who might want to share your articles with our followers.

    Great article today! It is so easy to get caught up in big moments of effort and forget it is the consistent smaller efforts that are the backbone of getting us to our goals. Thanks for the great read!

    -Kelly

    • Kelly — this is a great suggestion!

      If you’re reading on the website, you can always just copy the URL and paste it into whatever network you want, but I am taking your advice to heart and adding links for Facebook and Twitter at the bottom of the emails I send out.

      You’ll see them there soon and sharing should be a simple click of the button!

      Thanks for reading!

    • Technically speaking, I think each strategy could work … but the in practice the “spurts” are so few and far between (life happens) that building habits is the much more effective way to go.

      As always, thanks for reading, Mike!

  8. Thank you so very much for these words of wisdom. I just recently found your writings and am very grateful to you. I am transitioning in life, and your sound words are an enormous help and comfort to me as I find my way.

    • Susana — thanks so much for the kind words. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and it’s great to have you in our little community.

      I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way!

  9. I too just found you and I’m so happy I have. I used your 2 minute procrastination theory yesterday, as well as your say don’t not can’t advice! Both really resonated with me! This advise will also help….although I would like to share that I forced myself to lift weights 3 times a week without fail. I volunteered to care for my 7 month old grand daughter for 6 weeks…all day for 5 days each week….and I was terrified I couldn’t do it. I’m old with a bad back,and two hip replacements! So I trained for the caregiving by lifting weights starting about 3 months before my duties were to begin.and it has made a world of difference. I can lift and hold her and not die in the process. So sometimes fear Also helps the equation.

    • Barbara — thanks for saying hello! It’s great to have you in our little community.

      And you’re right, fear can be a very powerful motivator. (I just prefer not to live in fear all the time!)

      Thanks for reading!

  10. Just wanted to say that I enjoy your articles and read every one. They are informative and give me that extra inspirational push in pursuing my goals. Thank you and I look forward to reading the next one.

    • Thanks so much, Rita! I’m happy to have you reading and I’ll do my best to keep great information coming your way. Thanks for being an important part of our little community!

  11. Thanks James, I love consistency…and incrementally pushing forward. I started logging my weekly runs for the first and am so astounded to realize that in just five months I have clocked up nearly 500km! I read different running blogs and often felt I would never be a ‘real’ runner because they run amazing times and distances, BUT seeing my average km in my log has made such a difference..

    • Sharon — this is a perfect example of the power of consistency (and why it’s important for us to track our progress). Congrats on all of the running you’ve done so far! It sounds like you’ve really got some momentum built up.

      Keep up the good work on your end and I’ll do my best to send useful ideas your way. Thanks for reading!

    • You bet! I’m glad you enjoyed it, Nick. Thanks for taking the time to read and be part of our little community. It’s great to have you here.

  12. Good article. I probably have graduated my old bad habits many times over and I must say good habits are hard to keep. It’s very easy to get distracted by old ones and everything else that goes around us. But this post has shed a new light on me. I think people also tend to forget and have to reread or listen what ever motivates and sets them on right path, guess that also means I have to come back here.

  13. Very interesting James. I’ll tell you a true story…

    In April of 2012, I met a woman online. She lives a thousand miles away. We began contacting one another, emailing love songs from YouTube and became close friends.

    I weighed 296 pounds and was concerned that if and when we met, she would be disappointed. So I made a commitment to change…

    I decided to exercise every morning and every night, change my eating habits to include only oatmeal, fruit and salad until I felt confident that she would like me.

    On her birthday, June 21st, I began with ten pound dumbbells doing ten curls and ten press in the morning and at night. I ate oatmeal for breakfast, apples, oranges, and bananas for lunch, and soup and salad for dinner. Every day.

    I graduated my exercising reps by five each week or so.

    I have not changed my diet. I now do five different moved with 30 reps each morning AND night. I now weigh 203. I have lost 93 pounds in just less than a year. My life has changed completely.

    My average speed was a key factor. Never demanding too much work. Never going hungry. Steadily improving.

    I am confident that anyone that does the same will have similar results.

    I plan to meet my friend Kat on her 50th birthday on June 26th, 2013.

    • Bradley — this is a great example of slow and steady habit graduation. I love it. Congrats on the progress so far and enjoy your time with Kat!

      Thanks for reading!

  14. Excellent article touching on the benefits of habit and consistency in reaching goals. I think this applies to all areas of life, but especially to fitness.

    One point I would like to add, I know many friends who regularly eat poorly and work out maybe twice per week. They tend to say things like, I’m gonna kill it at the gym today. But this is a problem because having one or two intense workouts twice a week open the door to injury. Also, it tends to burn up your glycogen stores (as opposed to fat) and leaves the person incredibly hungry (carb hungry) for several days thereafter. These folks tend to lose weight when they stop working out, because they get off the roller coaster of binge eating and hardcore Rocky workouts.

    Love reading your articles. Keep up the great work!

    • Glad you’re enjoying the articles, Brian! And thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. It’s great to have you contributing to our little community!

  15. Love this philosophy, and I really appreciate the reminder. I employed something similar when I decided to lose weight several years ago (and have kept most of it off … 20-25 pounds). I stepped on the scale one day, and it was the most I’d weighed in my life … the kind of number that makes the scale moan just a bit. I got overwhelmed, but knew I had to change my eating habits or it would continue to spin out of control.

    Instead of just cutting out the bad and integrating the good, all overnight, I decided to keep an “eating” journal, not so much for counting calories or anything so detailed, but for what I generally ate each day and whether I met my rules for the week. I had two simple rules:

    (1) add one good thing in per week a certain number of times (i.e., cut portions in half, 1 apple every day, etc.)
    (2) remove one bad thing per week (i.e., limit of 3 fried items in a week, soda only when dining out, dine out 3 times per week, etc.)

    The idea was to then keep the rules in place for all subsequent weeks (presumably hoping that I would be adjusted by the following week). This way I kept eating how I was used to eating, but with two simple changes, and gradually changing my eating habits over time. I never got overwhelmed, my grocery buying habits were minimally impacted each week (this can be stressful as well if changing too much too fast). Within just a month, I had changed several things about my eating to the point that my lifestyle changed, breathing got better, life overall got better. By three months, my grocery basket was 75-80% produce, and I was eating very low processed foods on a weekly basis … but I didn’t stress about the changes because they were so gradual. My energy had not been that high and balanced in years!

    It truly does work, and the “average speed” idea is a great and applicable way to adjust your habits in a very manageable way. Thanks, James … great article!

    • Jason — congrats on all of your success! This is an excellent example of how to approach a problem in a gradual and consistent way. Thank you for sharing it with us. I hope others read this and think about how they can apply the same philosophy to their goals.

      Thanks for reading!

  16. James, this article, like most of your others is awesome.

    I didn’t realize that I had implemented this idea when I chose to change the way I eat so I would be healthier, but I did. I was using this very methodology. Now that I am aware of what I was doing I can see huge potential for this in other aspects of my life.

    Thanks for pointing out what should have been obvious (to me). I enjoy your writing. Keep up the good work.

    Now let’s see what other changes I can make…

    • Thanks Jason! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      And it sounds like you’re making a lot of progress. Keep that momentum going!

  17. It was nicely written, James, with the right amount of inspiration and actionable items. I have been following Nathan as well and have seen that he is progressing with steady pace. Very useful practical advise, if we put to use, we win. :)

  18. Hi!

    I am also a new reader … and happy to be :-) Thanks for your writting!

    I totally agree with this “average speed” idea, and I think I already apply it in my sport habits and I’ll now try to apply it for my crafting too (this could even become a side-job if I am consistent enough…)

    Though, I am having trouble figuring how to use it at work: I tend to do all my tasks really fast without stopping (as fast as I can actually), because working is the only thing I am supposed to do at work, and really can’t think about average speed v.s. maximum speed in these conditions (I’m an engineer, working in an office). Have you any clues to give me so that I can maybe find a healthier way to get my work done?

    • Esther — thanks for saying hello. It’s great to have you in our little community! Welcome!

      I’ll say this about using average speed at work…

      Average speed isn’t about intentionally working slower, per say. What it’s about is working more consistently on the things that are important. For example, there are probably deliverables that you have at work that pop up on a recurring basis. For example, a monthly report.

      Maximum speed is cranking out that monthly report as fast as you can the day before it’s due. Average speed is starting an outline at the beginning of the month, filling out key ideas as they happen, and then simply editing the report at the end of the month. Consistent work vs. frantic work.

      Hopefully that helps clear things up. Thanks for reading!

      • Thanks for your answer, I think I got it now! Reports (or other redundant administrative tasks) are definitely a great example for that, at least in my case!

  19. Another awesome article, and much needed read…

    I think high RPMs is how I’ve always ran my life, I’ve got to focus on the gains I’ve made and work on consistency. Several times I’ve taken on too much only to have it crack my framework…

    • Hey Leon! I think we’ve all been there before — pushing for too much, too fast. With the hope that it will somehow get us to where we want to be sooner. Always focused on the result and never on the process.

      That said, it’s great to hear that you’re dedicating yourself to consistency now. Keep up the good work and thanks for reading!

  20. Wow, amazing article. I bet a lot of people suffer from the initial-exuberation leading to overzealousness and then max speed finally leading to burning out syndrome. I for sure do. This article shows the way. This is just great. I never can make anything to stick. I will try this average speed thing to make to stick. Thanks man for showing the way.

    Oh by the way, the cold shower stuff was cool as pointed by one of the commenters. Lemme try that too.

  21. Wow – what a beautifully simple, elegant and profound concept! I’ve recently given up sugar, and sometimes feel like the future days without it are looming large. But with this approach I can easily shift my focus to my average speed around healthy meals – much higher than in the past! All my meals are now healthy, and it’s becoming my new normal. Thank you for the insights. :)

  22. I really enjoyed your write up. This is a great alternate explanation as to consitancy beating flash in the pan devotion. People who want to really change themselves need to do it on an everyday approach. Passionate begginings all too often lead to increased drop off and then eventual quitting. If you can maintain the pace you’re a lot more likely to finish and not quit. Often people obsess about food and exercise and then a couple months later they are finished and just keep saying how it’s too hard and that’s not living, etc. Nobody needs to be perfect all the time and do multiple workouts a day and eat perfect, but if you’re worknig in the right direction to be active and eat well most of the time then you can of course miss days and eat whatever occasionally.

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