Quantity has a quality all its own

Afterthoughts: This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Being yourself is a myth

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Ingrained in many of us is the preference of quality over quantity, and rightly so. This holds true in an overwhelming number of contexts. Like any aphorism, there are exceptions to the rule, and I take issue with how little the contrary is advocated. An acute focus on quantity has its place, predominantly in the realm of picking up new skills or habits.

A professor teaching a photography class decided to run a little experiment with respect to the assessments. Everyone would be graded on one photo. Half the class would be required to submit a photo every other day, while half the class did not have any requirements to submit photos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who were required to submit photos every other day did significantly better than their peers who just had to produce one photo at the end of the semeseter for the class. This goes to show that quantity has a quality of its own.

When you are learning a new skill, it pays to be the hardest worker in the (figurative) room. One can only go from a novice to an expert by putting in the reps in i.e. by practicing the skill as much as possible for as long as possible. When you reach a level of competency where working longer does not equate to a higher skill, it helps to think of your peers as smart workers. This way, the only way to improve yourself is to outsmart them, working more intelligently instead of arduously. A focus on quantity helps us get up to speed; a focus on quality helps us get ahead.

With regards to habits, a focus on quantity helps to build a flywheel that will ensure its longevity. Technically, you would describe a flywheel is a mechanical device designed to efficiently store rotational energy. In laymen’s terms, it is difficult to get a flywheel to start spinning but once you do, they pretty much rotate by themselves forever. You continue to benefit from them with little effort.

If there is anything I have learnt from reading about habit formation, it is the importance of putting your reps in. Whether it is exercising or journalling, the more often you do it, the more natural it will be. James Clear puts this most clearly in his book Atomic Habits, every rep is a vote towards your identity and self-image. The more you exercise or journal, the more evidence you accumulate for yourselves that you are someone who exercises or someone that journals. After a substantial amount of votes, not exercising or not journalling will feel abnormal. That is when you know a habit has stuck.

In the quantity vs. quality debate, I feel like quantity has gotten bad press. There is a time and place for both.

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