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What Progress Is Really Like: The Ice Cube Metaphor



Sometimes it's best to share the work of people much smarter than us. Today's entry is an exerpt from 'Atomic Habits' by James Clear. Imagine that you have an ice cube sitting on the table in front of you. The room is cold, and you can see your breath. It is currently twenty‐five degrees. Ever so slowly, the room begins to heat up. Twenty‐six degrees. Twenty‐seven. Twenty‐eight. The ice cube is still sitting on the table in front of you. Twenty‐nine degrees. Thirty. Thirty‐one. Still, nothing has happened. Then, thirty‐two degrees. The ice begins to melt. A one‐degree shift, seemingly no different from the temperature increases before it, has unlocked a considerable change. “Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.” This pattern shows up everywhere. Cancer spends 80 per cent of its life undetectable, then takes over the body in months. Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks. Similarly, habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any journey, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress linearly, and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere.

It is the human equivalent of geological pressure. Two tectonic plates can grind against one another for millions of years, the tension slowly building all the while. Then, one day, they rub each other once again, in the same fashion they have for ages, but this time the tension is too high. An earthquake erupts. Change can take years—before it happens all at once. All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.




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