The Power of Repetition

Posted by bob on October 5, 2021

There is amazing power in the act of repetition. The Chinese proverb that “a journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step” reminds us that daunting challenges can be overcome by repeating smaller actions.

We even embed this concept in discussions of planning when we talk about “what steps will we need to take to accomplish this goal?” It is unlikely that we are planning how to walk, but the terminology has become so common that we don’t even think about the underlying meaning.

My grandfather was a bricklayer. He used to tell a story about a workman delivering a load of sand to be mixed with cement and water to create mortar. It was a hot day and the workman was commenting extensively on the effort required of him to push the giant pile of sand off the back of his truck onto sheets of old plywood on the ground. My grandfather asked the man, “How would you feel about having to move that pile with this tiny trowel?” (A trowel has a flat working surface of maybe a few square inches.) The workman replied, “No way, that would be impossible.” My grandfather told him, “By the time this house is done, I will have moved that entire pile and that pile of cement over there using just this trowel.”

There exists perhaps a small trick to this story. When mortar is mixed with water, it becomes a gritty paste. So the workman was probably imagining trying to balance grains of sand on the trowel, which would never stay in place for very long. But even had he understood the thicker nature of the mixed mortar, he would still have been confronted by a daunting task: moving many cubic meters (yards) of material perhaps a few cubic centimeters (inches) at a time. Nonetheless: second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, and day-by-day the repetition of simpler motions moves all of that mortar from a staging board into the layers of brick that form the walls of a house.

Pulling weeds, cutting grass, painting walls, and organizing clutter are all good examples of the power of repetition. You start with a simple step and repeat it many times. Sometimes the mid-process result looks worse than the beginning or end-result. Don’t worry, keeping working: it will get better.

Solving problems is the same way. You make your list of what you know and what you don’t know. You work through the discovery steps until you know enough to recognize what is really causing the problem. Maybe you have to solve a lot of little side problems along the way.

Write down your plans before you start a task, and then follow the plan. You can change the plan after a while if it clearly is heading the wrong direction, but try to give your plan a fair chance with plenty of repetition.

Repetition can deliver other benefits. Daily affirmations (“I will document and solve a problem today”) condition our thinking towards positive outcomes. Affirmations give us the mindset we need to move through all of those little steps towards the goal.

Bad habits represent a different form of repetition. We often find bad habits are terribly difficult to stop doing. Maybe we have always done something a particular way. Or maybe we fall into some unhealthy habits. Smoking, alcohol, and overeating are just a few of the ways that repetition can turn into something very bad.  The headache is that repetition of bad habits gives us tiny immediate rewards.

Breaking bad habits is far harder than creating them. But maybe you didn’t come here for that kind of personal advice. Remember though, that nobody tries to break good habits, just the bad ones. Work hard at creating good habits. Please, use the power of repetition for your long term benefit.