The 1% Method: How Incremental Progress Turns Into Mammoth Results

According to legend, there was a masked hero who roamed the Southwestern United States defending those who could not protect themselves.

Zorro was fearless, heroic, and seemingly immortal. His sharp, witty intellect coupled with his smooth romantic style with women portrayed him as irresistible. Zorro had the complete package.

But what often gets overlooked is that Zorro wasn’t gifted with an aptitude for the qualities he was admired for.

In the film, The Mask Of Zorro, we witness the young but passionate Zorro as Alejandro. As a young buck, his enthusiasm to bring justice to the world outpaced his skills. However, he wanted to become a superhero overnight.

The young Alejandro wanted to conquer the world swiftly. But without sufficient training and practice, his initial enthusiasm faded like a Southwest sunset. Soon thereafter, depression and alcoholism took a foothold.

Then Don Diego, the sage sword master comes along and sees great potential in the young man. Don takes Alejandro under his wing and promises Alejandro that mastery will come with “dedication and time.”

Don Diego then takes Alejandro to his hidden cave to begin training – and the journey initiates with Diego drawing a small circle in the dirt. Day after day, Alejandro is forced to only fight within the small circle. Don Diego told his protegé:

This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.

Slowly but surely, Alejandro masters control in the small circle. With each achievement the circle gets bigger allowing him to broadened his training and increase his skill.

With time, Alejandro was swinging from ropes, defeating his master in sword fights and performing stunts he was never able to do prior to mastering the small circle.

Before gaining control of the small circle, Alejandro felt like he had no control over his skills, no faith in his ability to accomplish what he wanted to do. But with one small act – mastering the circle – he changed the trajectory of his life and became Zorro.

The story of Zorro paints a strikingly accurate picture of how we can approach our herculean sized goals in life. One of the key aspects of goal achievement is feeling like you’re in control of the process.

But when the pace at which we live today runs faster than our ability to keep up, feeling like you’re in control is the first thing that gets tossed out. This is particularly true when you bite off more than you can chew when it comes to goal setting.

When you set gigantic goals without limiting the scope of how you will achieve it, you tend to thrust forward with bravado early on, only to fizzle out soon thereafter due to exhaustion and the lack of skill to accomplish the goal.

Zorro started small and he didn’t become a master swordsman overnight. By narrowing down his efforts to the small circle he accumulated the skills and confidence to gradually expand the circle into a larger and larger area.

Luckily you can take a similar approach to achieving your big goal. And, there are two real life examples that we can look at to help you leverage incremental change into mammoth results.

Anthony Trollope and Arnold Schwarzenegger are these examples.

Anthony Trollope was a prolific writer. Initiating his writing journey in 1847, he wrote at furious pace for the next 38 years – he published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction and an array of articles and letters.

Interestingly, he managed to sustain his pace by using a simple strategy by writing in 15 minute intervals for three hours per day.

His strategy is highlighted in Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals:

“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour…

This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year”

Anthony Trollope turned incremental progress – just 1% of his day or 15 minutes – into mammoth results over the long haul.

Arnold Schwarzenegger birthed his dominance in the sport of bodybuilding by starting his training at 15 years old. At 20 years old he won the Mr. Universe, then went onto win the Mr. Olympia contest seven times.

He didn’t just happen to adopt his split training routine that consisted of two grueling workouts a day for up to four hours. Similarly to Trollope, Arnold used incremental progress to fuel long-term results – as a young boy, he did push ups in order to earn his breakfast.

Years later, Arnold realized that incremental progress was the key to time-stacking (we’ll get into this later) and accumulating hours of practice to your craft:

You don’t have to enter the next Mr. Olympia. You don’t have to have a six-pack in six-months:

Give me 15 minutes a day. That is 1 percent of your day. All I’m asking is that you do something for your health and fitness 1 percent of your day? It’s true. I’ll show you a workout that you can do in 15 minutes, wherever you are. Maybe you need your 15 minutes to plan a healthier menu for the week. But for now I want you to take 1 percent of each day and make it all about you living a healthier life. Trust me, if you make the 1 Percent pledge, you’ll find yourself doing more.

These two examples may seem unrelated at first glance. However, it’s been my personal experience that if I have my fitness routine in order, my writing routine tends to suffer. On the contrary, if my writing routine is sharp, then my fitness routine tends to unravel.

And that’s the wrestling match many you grapple with too. It seems impossible to function at peak performance and maximum productivity  in the boardroom AND in the weight-room.

However, when we break down the 1% strategy that Trollope and Schwarzenegger used to be so productive in writing and fitness, it’s a very similar approach that Zorro took to master his craft. He started small, but gradually widened his circle. From there, his legendary success followed.

The point is this: By dedicating just 1% of your day or 15 minutes to working on your most important task, it gives you the power to control your progress it a bite sized manner.

When you approach big goals with this method you regain the confidence that your behavior does matter, which is critical to habit formation and confidence to come back the next day to do more work.

By internalizing the 1% method in your approach you’ll unlock the your potential to engage in deep work  consistently – allowing you to make purposeful progress every day.

Here’s why the 1% method is so effective.


Breaking Through The Inertia

The problem with big goals is that they can be intimidating.

Often, it feels like you’re trying to get a boat over a mountain. This can paralyze us into inaction which then builds up to what I call goal-anxiety. 

The thought of a big goal energizes us, but when we look at reality and what we’ve done to make progress on that goal it sends us down a spiral of guilt – because we haven’t done anything about make the goal to make it a reality.

This ping-pong match between fantasy  and reality can be exhausting.

Instead of focusing on the outcome (which probably won’t happen anytime soon), using the 1% method serves as a pressure release valve on your mind. It narrows your focus to 15 minutes of work on your goal, rather than looking at the goal as one big step or achievement.

Here are a few examples:

Instead of dreaming about building an Instagram with thousands of travel photographs, start by taking one photo and spend 1% or 15 minutes of your day doing so.

Rather than spending all your time vision casting that novel you want to write, dedicated 1% or 15 minutes of your day to writing 200 words.

Wishing that you had a strong, lean physique can be intoxicating. The vision serves up a wicked cocktail of dopamine, but unfortunately, when the high fades, reality sets in and you realize your body isn’t any different. Spend less time dreaming and more time using the 1% method. Dedicate 1% or 15 minutes of your day to improve your body composition.

By using the 1% method to tackle big goals it eases the potential goal anxiety and it makes it easy to break through the inertia.


The Art Of Building Momentum

Big goals require momentum. Andy Swan, a serial entrepreneur said:

One of the most common mistakes is to set lofty goals from a resting start.

Interestingly, most of us do the exact opposite of what it takes to build momentum. We dive in head first and bite off more than we can chew. Typically, we start out with bravado but soon burn out. This kills any initial momentum you created at the onset. And then, this cycle repeats itself and sends you into a firestorm of frustration.

When you want to run a marathon, you start by running a few miles and build from there.

When you want to write a book, you start by writing for 15 minutes per day.

When you want to be the top sales person in the company, you start by dedicating 15 minutes of your day to sales calls.

When you want to be a monument of physical excellence, you start by showing up to the gym for 15 minutes.

By starting with small, but challenging, action oriented goals, you spark sustainable momentum. The 1% method safe-guards you against yourself from trying to be the Superhero – much like Alejandro before he mastered his small circle.


Good Intentions Hold You Back

Thinking about achieving your goal gives you a sneak peek at the new you – the one who did the work and achieved something worthwhile.

A study from the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School revealed that focusing on your goals fuels your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you arrive at your outcome goal.

However, there’s a huge drawback tucked into this equation. By over-indulging your focus time, it diminishes your capacity to relish in the daily behaviors needed to make the goal a reality.

Meaning, nothing has deep purpose, until you arrive at the end destination. Thus, your motivation to show up each day recedes like the ocean tide.

Good intentions and focusing on your goals is good. However, shifting some of that emotional energy into the 1% method will allow you to focus on the present moment and learn how to be mindful of what matters right now – not what could happen down the road.


Finish Faster

Trollope and Schwarzenegger were impatient, just like you and me.

Writing a novel or building a championship physique take a long time. They didn’t want to wait for completion. So they used the 1% method to finish faster.

Trollope gained a sense of accomplishment from completing his daily work with 15 minute intervals. Arnold started out by completing push ups before breakfast.

Once these small landmarks were accomplished on a daily basis, it delivered a small dose of accomplishment – and thus, increased motivation to come back the next day and do the same thing.

Chances are, your goal will take some time too. And, you probably don’t want to wait several months, or even years to feel like you’ve accomplished something.

By using the 1% method or 15 minutes of your day, you can feel accomplished every day.


It Makes Time-Stacking Easier

When you get good at allocating 1% of your day to your most important tasks, it allows you to stack another 15 minutes on top of that much easier.

In Trollope’s cases he wrote for 15 minute increments for a total of three hours per day.

In Schwarzenegger’s case, whether he knew it or not, he trained in 15 minute increments for up to four hours per day in his prime.

Whatever your paramount goal is, eventually, you’re going to have to increase the time you dedicate to your craft.

Starting out with 1% gives you momentum, but in the long, run stacking those 15 minute intervals to accumulate several hours per day is how you achieve mastery.


Wrapping Up

Regardless of your goal, narrowing down your focus to small manageable tasks that can be done daily is the secret weapon to achievement.

The 1% method eliminates the overwhelm, assist in building sustainable momentum, helps you finish faster and makes it simple to stack the amount of time you spend on your craft.

If you’re tired of starting the same goal over and over, it’s time to scale down your approach and narrow your focus. Employ the 1% method, it can end that frustrating cycle.


Question: Have you been wrestling with a goal that you’ve had to start over and over again? If so, and you plan on using the 1% method, please share with me which strategies you will use on  FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

End Notes:

Thanks to Mason Currey,  Shawn Achor, Anthony Trollope, Arnold Schwarzenegger for prompting this piece.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work 

Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story

The Spark

When Thinking About Goals Undermines The Pursuit