The Surprising Truth About Reaching Your Goals (it’s Not About Big Gains)

Recently, at my jiu-jitsu academy, the instructor began the class like this:

“I know you all want to be great. You want to make progress, fast. But always aiming for big gains is a mistake. They’re not going to happen very often. Instead, aim to get one percent better — every single day.”

And he’s right. When working toward any goal, we rarely make big leaps overnight. Instead, we should expect our progress to add up little by little over time.

Of course, this is easy to tell others and hard to practice ourselves. Each time I step onto the jiu-jitsu mat, I’m secretly hoping for a breakthrough. Instead, I have to remind myself that pushing myself just a little harder every day will eventually result in significant long-term progress.

Whether your goal is to become a better artist, musician, writer, or jiu-jitsu athlete, your focus should be less on the big gains and more on small, daily, incremental progress. Here are three things to pay attention to when trying to get better at any craft:

Don’t Skip the Basics 

Most people who set out to achieve a new goal understandably focus on the finish line — the race they want to run, the song they want to play, or the cool jiu-jitsu submission they saw on YouTube. It’s not uncommon to want to breeze through the basics and get on to the cooler, sexier stuff as soon as possible.

I’m no stranger to this in my own pursuits. At various times in my life, from learning to box to learning how to run a business, I thought I could breeze through the basics. As a result, I tried to skip foundational steps — and ended up having to go back and fill in gaps later on.

But the basics are there for a reason. Just like a house, we need a strong foundation on which to build our own excellence. Once we internalize the basics to the point where we don’t have to think about them, we can then start to add our own flare and make our craft of choice our own.

Whether you’re learning jiu-jitsu, dance, painting, or cooking, don’t skip or speed through the foundations. It may feel like you’re going slower now, but taking your time during this early phase of learning will help skyrocket your progress later on.

Practice Intentionally 

Getting our reps in is important, whether our goal is to learn a new song on the guitar, practice communication skills, or pick up a new athletic skill.

But while many people think that time alone will result in progress, spending time practicing distractedly won’t help you reach mastery level. To improve, we have to do what the psychologist Anders Ericsson called deliberate practice — or practice that’s “effortful in nature, with the main goal of personal improvement of performance rather than enjoyment.”

In jiu-jitsu, this means drilling the same move repeatedly with intention. It means making mistakes, identifying what we did wrong, then correcting them. We can apply this same deliberate practicing technique to any area of our lives.

Get More Feedback When Necessary 

We’ve all experienced the feeling of a plateau, that state where we feel stuck and are no longer making progress. And they’re no fun — as author and human potentialist George Leonard writes, for most people, “plateaus are a form of purgatory.”

And while they’re frustrating at the moment, plateaus have a purpose: more often than not, they’re what you need to further internalize a skill. Sometimes we need these long stretches of time to get in more deliberate practice.

Still, plateaus shouldn’t last forever. If you’ve been stuck in one for a while, it’s likely due to one reason: insufficient feedback. Here are some ways to get more feedback:

  • If you’re an artist, get a friend you trust to share their perspective on your work. For writers, hiring an editor can be immensely helpful.”
  • If you’re an athlete and have mostly been practicing on your own, find a coach or find other people to practice with you who challenge you.
  • Take a class, read a book, and do your research to pinpoint areas where you might need to increase your knowledge base or ways to work on weaknesses.

All three of these strategies highlight one common truth: no one gets good at anything overnight. Excellence takes time. To go from a beginner in any craft to master won’t happen in months — it will likely take years. The bigger the challenge, the longer you can expect it to take.

The key to long-term progress is two-fold: focus on getting one percent better every day — and don’t give up.

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