Embrace 1% Days

First Published: May 25, 2021

I've been recording my food intake for 307 days. This is the longest I've tracked my food in my entire life. I've done it for short spurts, but it usually goes like this:

  • Enthusiastically start tracking
  • Hit a snag with a meal I ate out or someone else cooked for me (basically a meal I couldn't be 100% accurate about)
  • Feel like the whole thing is ruined and give up
  • Feel guilty and repeat the cycle next week or next month or next year

I never noticed that my nemesis was always bad data. I would get so frazzled by one mistake or one imperfection in the data that I would tear it down and start over.

What cracked it for me this time around? For once, I let myself be imperfect. Instead of demanding I hit 100% accuracy every day and then swinging to 0% when I made a mistake (meaning: record nothing that day), I would let myself be as inaccurate as I needed to be to build the habit. Even 1% would be better than 0%. If all I could do that day was open the app and add an apple in at lunch, so be it. If I couldn't figure out some magical sauce at a restaurant, no big deal. When I ran up against a meal I didn't know how to track, I made my best guess and moved on. My only rule for myself was to make an attempt and do my best each day, whatever that looked like.

This turned out to be incredibly effective. I noticed that I naturally started to get more accurate in my recording simply because I was practicing over and over again and spending increasing amounts of time in the app. I also realized that I could always go back and make corrections or additions to previous days if I really wanted to. As I got more practice, I also got better at knowing ingredients and amounts.

Refining the data became a long term process, not an immediate habit. "Doing it perfectly" is now off on some distant horizon, even though now I am pretty darn accurate most of the time.

The core lesson I've learned from this experiment is that you're better off showing up and doing what you can each day (no matter what that looks like) than sporadically trying to hit 100% perfect days. Embrace 1% days, 50% days, and all the rest.

We think taking a zero day is going to play out like this:

  • Day 1: 100%
  • Day 2: 100%
  • Day 3: 0%
  • Day 4: 100%
  • Day 5: 100%
  • Day 6: 100%
  • Day 7: 100%

But it usually turns out like this instead:

  • Day 1: 100%
  • Day 2: 100%
  • Day 3: 0%
  • Day 4: 100%
  • Day 5: 0%
  • Day 6: 0%
  • Day 7: 0%

A funny thing happens when you separate the motions of doing the thing from the amount of effort you put into the thing. Swapping in the 0% days for 1% days tends to shape up more like this:

  • Day 1: 100%
  • Day 2: 100%
  • Day 3: 1%
  • Day 4: 10%
  • Day 5: 100%
  • Day 6: 50%
  • Day 7: 100%

In the moment, we don't feel like a zero day is going to be any worse than a 1% day. We forget that those 1% days start to compound, and soon we're mixing in a lot more 100% days than we used to.

On a day you don't feel like working out (or whatever your exercise of choice is), you're better off still putting on your gym clothes, driving to the gym (or in my case walking to the other side of my office), and turning right around to go home than skipping it entirely. Why? You're building that connection in your brain that says, "Oh, after work I do this routine."

The same is true of writing or making videos. If you don't feel like writing that article or making that video, just get yourself set up, write one sentence or record 30 seconds, and pack it up and try again tomorrow. When I was recording my ngUpgrade course, I had over 200 videos on my outline. I made a promise to myself that I would produce 2 minutes of video per day. Some days this was all I could do, but often the act of just getting my computer ready to record and getting started was enough to get me over the hump. As I started to build momentum, I made my goal to produce two videos per day.

Next time you're tempted to take a 0% day for a habit you're building, try to find that 1%. Then tomorrow, try it again. See what happens over a week of just giving yourself a win for making an attempt rather than how well you made the attempt.

Give this a try and let me know if it works for you.

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