The Maths of Consistency

Can we quantify the power of compounding habits to reach a goal? Armed with the little memories I have of high school maths, I started a little thought experiment.

A probability tells us how likely it is for an event to occur. Let's consider that the probability of writing one successful blog on a given day is 10% (p=0.1). I'm not going to define what success is, because formulas do not care for subjective opinions. In this situation, success can be whatever you want it to be.

If you publish every day for 7 days, how does your probability of success evolve? The probability of failure is 1-p (90%), and the probability of failing for 7 days straight is (1-p)^7 (0.478 or 48%). We want to have at least one successful blog this week. Having at least one successful blog on a given week is mutually exclusive of failing for 7 days in a row, so we can use the complement rule to calculate the relevant result: 1-(1-p)^7 = 0.52, which means that our probability of writing a successful blog post by writing every day for a week is 52%.

Now, let's say it takes you a week to write one blog post and you manage to multiply the quality by 2, we can infer that your success probability doubles as well (20%). It's still 2.6 times less probable to obtain a favorable outcome compared to the first scenario (1-(1-0.2) = 0.2).

You would need to multiply your blog post's quality by 5 to reach the same probability of success than a daily content creator (1-(1-0.5) = 0.5).

If you post once a day for a month, using the same reasoning, your probability is now 95%, close to a guaranteed success (1-(1-0.1)^30 = 0.95). If you post once a month, your probability is still 10%.

This is why focusing on consistency and increasing your iteration speed is better than focusing on quality to obtain creative breakout opportunities.

We are often told that we should not neglect quality. It is true, the result of the thought experiment doesn't contradict this. However, if you know that spending more days on a given post will not bring at least a 5 times improvement in quality, it's much better to just post something faster. It doesn't mean you shouldn't take the work seriously, but you have to do your best in a shorter amount of time because past a certain period it becomes counter-productive.

It's much harder to multiply your work quality by 2 or 5 than it is to just create more frequently at the best level of quality you can. Every artist knows that. Stephen King suggests writing first drafts in less than 3 months. I am reminded of a quote from Van Gogh in the movie At Eternity's Gate: "The painters I like all paint fast in one clear gesture, each stroke. You’ve heard of “a stroke of genius”? Well, that’s what it means," to which Paul Gauguin answers, "you don’t even paint that way. You paint fast and you overpaint. Your surface looks like it’s made out of clay. It’s more like sculpture than painting." Quality is hard to judge and easy to overthink. More often than not, it's a by-product of quantity.

The more often you confront your work with the real world, the higher your probability of success. That's what the math will tell you. Except the success rate is closer to 0.00001% in real life.

There are outliers that will prove me wrong indeed. Some writers spend weeks on a single piece. Some ideas take a long time to mature. Fortunately, we don't have to wait for ideas to be perfect to share them, but it's often wiser to be patient. The essayist Paul Graham is a good example. He takes weeks to publish a single blog post, but that doesn't mean he doesn't regularly share his work in progress, or in his own words:

"As for how to write well, here's the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; [...] expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it [...] have friends you trust read your stuff and tell you which bits are confusing or drag [...] accumulate notes for topics you plan to cover at the bottom of the file"
Writing, Briefly

So sure, Paul Graham publishes something once a month or two, but it's an illusion to think he only *writes* once a month: he still writes several micro-drafts, notes, tweets, and emails in a short amount of time. It all eventually compounds. Creating and challenging your ideas remains a regular thing: you have to put content in front of people as regularly as possible for it to reach the desired result!