Normal Distributions and The Power Of 1σ

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 5 min read

Today, let’s talk about behavior change, learning, and growth.

Everything that you do can be quantified and graphed…if you really wanted to—I’m not about to suggest you do that, if you don’t want to.

What’s more important for today’s lesson is that you’re able to mentally picture any behavior on a normalized distribution, a bell curve. This can include things that you are already doing, or things that you want to do.

Normalized Distribution

If you’re looking at one of your behaviors graphed, it probably looks like this. When plotting most data sets, especially related to activities or behaviors, there’s a good chance that you will get a normalized distribution.

There is a cluster of data points that represents the most common values or frequencies, and will be be distributed between -1σ and +1σ. From there, you’ll see points plotted further out from that center representing times where something happens more or less often. This is a normalized distribution.

Here’s an easy example to make it real…

Let’s say that you drive to work 5 days per week. If we were to plot the time it takes for you to get to work, you’d probably end up with a bell curve like the one above.

Chances are, that there is a particular route that you take the vast majority of the time. Every once in a while it takes you more time to get to work, either because you need to make a stop along the way, or you encounter traffic, or just feel like going a different way for a change of scenery. Sometimes, you leave a little early and even taking your normal route gets you there much faster.

If that were plotted on a normalized distribution…

  • the top of the bell would be your normal route with normal traffic
  • the points to the right would be the instances where there was no traffic at all or a shortcut was made available
  • the points to the left were when you forgot your laptop at home, hit traffic, or stopped to get coffee at the Starbucks drive-thru and there was a long line.

Got the basic idea? Ok, here’s the point.

Sustainable Change

If you want to change anything in your life, you need to understand that you have a default setting and it exists inside the bell. It is your personal 50th percentile. It is highly unlikely, that you are going to jump from there to the 99th percentile because that would require you to dramatically shift your normal behavior.

A better way to change any behavior, learn something, or grow is to focus on moving one standard deviation from your current self.

“I do pushups in the morning.” I put that in quotes because even though my goal is to do 25 per day, which is a modest goal, most mornings I do zero. Some mornings, I do 25. On a rare occasion, I’ll do up to 50. If I try to move from 0 to 50 everyday, I will likely fail, in fact, having been through this I have failed. But, I know if I can get myself to do 5 everyday, and build that habit, then I will be capable to extending it to 10 per day. After I get to 10, I may shoot for 15-20. You get my point.

I’ve spoken with people who are trying to change all sorts of things in their lives.

  • I know people who are trying to eliminate filler words such as “like” or “um” from their pattern of speech. Trying to wholesale eliminate that is much different than focusing on 2-3 fewer times per day which over time creates a mindfulness habit that will ultimately lead to those filler words rarely being used.
  • I know people who are trying to get better at sales, so they try to memorize every single sales technique and use them in every scenario. The better way is to pick one area of sales to improve on, and work that until you get it. Then, move onto the next one.
  • I know people who are trying be more productive so they go into their task list and clean everything up, and a few days after feeling on top of the world, they feel inundated with uncertainty and overwhelmed by their task list. Instead, they could look at their task list once more per week, plot actions on their calendar, and start to feel more comfortable with their systems, bit by bit.

We should know this by now…

And yet, much of my coaching work is focused on encouraging people to slow down and make tiny incremental improvements. It’s about highlighting the importance of patience. It’s about reminding people how unlikely dramatic changes are to be sustainable.

You want to be more confident?

You don’t need to become confident, you need to become more confident.

You want to be better at marketing?

You don’t need to become a marketing guru, you need to become a little better at strategy, or SEO, or Social Media.

You don’t need to be an entirely new person.

You just need to get one standard deviation better from where you are today.

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