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Be iterative, not flashy

Let’s imagine you have a body of work you’re responsible for. It could be a report, a book, a website, or a house.

Let’s also imagine the condition of this project—whatever it is—is perfectly serviceable. It did its job of educating or displaying or housing you yesterday, and it will probably continue to do so today.

Now let’s imagine that this project needs some help. You know it’s not perfect or even excellent, and you know you can make it better somehow. So you start thinking about what to do.

Do you:

  1. Decide on a massive up-front reinvestment of money and time in rewriting, rebuilding, or redesigning the project? Or,
  2. Decide to work on some small part slowly over time?

Most people will gravitate toward option 1. There are lots of pros to a “big push” on it:

  • It’s flashy and new and can garner more attention from people.
  • You can rally your team or family around this and have a sense of focus.
  • You can potentially reduce disruptions in people’s day or time by just doing it all at once.

Road projects, as one example, tend to go this route. Increasingly it seems like cities and states assume entire stretches of the road must be redone all at once in some massive project that reconfigures everything. Sometimes that’s necessary because we’ve learned a lot from lived experience, or the environment around us has changed.

But option 2 is a better option for just about everything. But few choose option 2—the small iterative improvements method—because it’s hard to get anyone to notice. Therefore, did it really happen?

Websites, of which I’m most familiar, have an average lifespan of about 3.5 years before someone throws their hands up and says it’s time to redo the whole thing. Time, money, and attention rally around this mammoth effort. Special teams of people are hired to consult. Checks and tempers are exchanged. And then it’s done only to repeat 3.5 years later.

I’ve come around to the notion that simply focusing some attention on a page at a time is superior. Earlier this morning, I reworked the text for a small chunk of pages related to office locations: three locations with three pages each and a main “all locations” page. It took me about 90 minutes.

If I had done them separately I’d probably spend nine minutes on each of them and move on because I knew I had all these other pages to do. Instead, I was able to do them superbly well because I had shifted my focus to know that was all I would do today on this project. So I was able to source excellent images. All the contact details were wrapped in schema and highly accessible code, and I included charts and supporting material newly written for these pages. On Monday I will do one other page.

If you repeat this every day or every couple of days, the results are amazing.

  • If you did a 40-minute high-intensity cardio workout today, you (like most people) will probably be gassed. You’ll be sore for days, and despite feeling like you did something hard (because you did), the value is minimal because you compensated by not moving for days. Instead, beginners should consider 10-20 minutes every day for several days. Eventually you will work up to longer sets, and the results will be more dramatic, if slower.
  • If you wanted to refresh your house you might paint every room and source new furniture or rugs to match. The result is a frenzy of activity, an essentially unusable house, and significant stress in choosing colors, styles, and patterns. Or, you could imagine a plan in your head for the whole house and paint the bathroom this weekend. You could probably do it yourself and by the end of the weekend, a bathroom is done. Then next weekend another, and two weeks after that the dining room when you decide on a new kitchen table. After a few months, your stress is lower, your house is better, and you get the benefit of having an ongoing project that delivers noticeable results.
  • Cities and states might do well to consider smaller construction projects. Instead of redoing six exit ramp redesigns at once, maybe do one or two. However, I can’t tell if the propensity for more extensive projects is a cynical need by politicians for grand ribbon cuttings or if it reduces labor costs somehow or is just because everything is falling apart all at once because they were built all at once.
  • Write a book a chapter-a-month. Even if you don’t totally stick to it, it’s a great way to have a book written in about a year. Remember what Ted Lasso referenced: bird by bird.

Apple’s iPhone delivers minor iterative year-over-year improvements that drive the tech press mad with nothing remarkable to write. But ten years down the line and look at what’s been done whittling away on the same rectangular piece of glass.

Be iterative, not flashy. If that worries you for the sake of securing your job or role in the pecking order, keep a weekly or monthly log of all the small stuff. Then send it as an extensive bulleted list to your boss or client. You’ll discover your list is longer and more detailed. Less “Redesigned the presentation” and more “Inserted three new slides on the impact of COVID-19.”

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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