Day 40: Success is a Dynamic Bell Curve

I’ve been tracking and improving a lot of things recently, from my time under a cold shower, to the amount of water I’m drinking. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when I have a clear goal, and I review and track it regularly, I tend to seek out resources for improvement. A really small and simple example is that once I started tracking my water consumption, and it started to increase, I investigated how much water we’re actually supposed to be drinking per day.

Another area where I’ve noticed this tendency of a goal driving investigation is handstands. I want to be good at unsupported handstands. For this current 30-day period in my lifestyle challenge, I’m tracking the longest unsupported handstand I do each day. Because I’m focused on getting better, I’ve been watching YouTube videos about how to do handstands.

Over these past ten days of practicing handstands, I have increased my maximum time from four seconds (on the first day) to 30 seconds (today). During this process, I have noticed that my longest hold has tended to be an outlier, while the average length of my holds has seemed to go up steadily. I actually experienced a drop from 24 to 23 seconds between days 38 and 39. I find this a little bit disheartening when it’s not tempered by my general sense of overall improvement.

So today, I decided to create a histogram of my hold time for each attempt, to see how they were distributed. I found that there were a few immediate benefits to doing this:

  • Updating the chart gave me a rest between attempts, which was good for pacing.
  • Seeing my progress, both in the shape of the forming curve and also by having a tally of attempts, encouraged me to persist.
  • It brought awareness to psychological aspects of this training.

We know from statistics that with enough samples (assuming I never got tired) given the complexity of the process, the histogram will lie under a gaussian, or bell, curve. This curve is clearly skewed to the left, with a long tail reaching out to the right, to the higher hold times. When I only record the maximum hold, I’m only capturing the one sample that happens to fall somewhere far down the long tail. Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot going on in the other parts of the process.

Although I haven’t measured it yet, I have a sense that the hump in this curve has been moving to the right. When I started ten days ago, holds over ten seconds were extremely rare. In fact, it took me three days to get even one hold over ten seconds. Being able to see all of this data, day-by-day, would be much more motivating, especially on the days when I happen to not get a sample far down the long tail. When my longest hold time goes down, and that’s all I’m measuring, it looks on paper like my ability has reduced.

The other thing that I discovered was that, at least until I noticed it, the distribution was bi-modal. There was a group of times up to ten seconds, and a group of times between 10 and 16 seconds. This made me aware of a psychological factor. Ten seconds had taken on a symbolic meaning for me, and I found that I became tense as I approached ten seconds and then relaxed after passing ten seconds. This led to a lot of holds lasting for ten seconds, and then very few holds ending just after ten seconds. This effect seemed to disappear once I became aware of it.

I’ve been noticing this theme in several of areas of my life, especially as I persist with these lifestyle practices. When we keep doing things that make us more capable, sometimes we “win” and sometimes we don’t, but overall we keep moving to the right on that chart. I see this in our business, with getting contracts: sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don’t, but the underlying processes that lead to those final outcomes are steadily improving.

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