In their book Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen develop the concept of the “20-Mile March.” Imagine you’re setting out on a 3,000-mile hike across North America, starting in San Diego and ending at the tip of Maine. In starting out, you commit to hiking 20 miles a day–no more and no less–no matter what. On the days with nice weather and easy terrain, you do 20 miles. And on the days with inclement weather and difficult terrain, you still complete 20 miles. And around 150 days later, you make it to your destination.
Compare that with the outcome of another traveler who adjusts his mileage to the conditions. He sometimes hikes 30 or 40 miles when the path is easy but makes little-to-no progress when there is inclement weather or harsh terrain. And because such difficulties are part of the journey, he ends up spending a lot of time waiting for conditions to improve. When they do, he tries to make up for these downtimes but ends up only exhausting himself in doing so. The result is disastrous; he’s still only half-way done when you’re finishing the journey.
By committing to 20 miles a day, you didn’t allow your progress to be controlled entirely by external conditions or your internal feelings. You identified something you could do day-in and day-out to keep you moving in the right direction. It became a habit, and this habit helped you achieve your goal.
In their research, Collins and Hansen found that the extraordinarily successful companies they studied had their own versions of a 20-Mile March. These companies identified key metrics that would contribute to their long-term success. And then they committed to hitting them week after week, quarter after quarter, year after year. And they did this, regardless of what the competition or markets were doing.
They also didn’t get greedy along the way, trying to go much beyond what they had committed to. They were content to hit their targets; but they were also committed to hitting them for a long, long time. They were playing the long-game and were not in a hurry. There was no intention of sacrificing long-term health for short-term gain.
It was this kind of discipline over the long haul that often differentiated them from their competition. They identified key practices within their control to focus on. And then they committed themselves to steady, deliberate execution day after day.
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It’s one thing for businesses to come up with their own 20-Mile Marches that will help them succeed in the long-term. But what would a 20-Mile March look like in an individual’s life? What are those things that, if done with great consistency, would help you continue to make progress in–or maintain the health of–the areas you care most about? Maybe it’s your health, your relationships, your finances, your career. What would a figurative 20-Mile March look like in those areas?
The thing about the 20-Mile March is it’s all about consistency over long periods of time. How much you do in a single day is less important than the ability to diligently stick with the plan, regardless of the difficulty or challenges that may arise. You may not control the circumstances you face, but you can choose to be consistent in the midst of them.