The difficulty of noticing gradual change

November 20, 2021

When I was a kid, my dad let me have a few sips of beer once. I hated it. Ever since then, I’ve periodically wondered how Future Me would get into drinking, because as much as I despised it at the time, I knew that drinking was something that grownups did.

And Past Me was right. I did end up drinking (a bit). I also started lifting, running a blog, and doing a bunch of different things that I don’t think 7 year old me (or even a 15 year old me) would have ever predicted.

I think I’ve figured out why this is — why we struggle to predict our future behavior or habits. Simply put, we’re pretty bad at noticing gradual change.

You don’t go from never drinking to a raging alcoholic, from a newbie programmer to a full stack developer, or from benching the bar to benching 250 lbs in the snap of a finger. It’s going to take a lot of steps to get there, but every step along the way will feel like it makes perfect sense when you’re at that point.


  • It’s a Friday night, of course I had a little to drink.
  • Huh? Oh, I just had this silly idea for a little coding project, so I’m working on it right now.
  • Oh yeah, I increased the weight a bit — the last set was too light.

Because I’ve written them out (and because I’ve primed you to the topic of this post), I’m sure you can easily imagine how these small shifts in behavior can slowly build up over time. But in reality, I think it’s pretty hard to even notice these little adjustments in the first place, and it’s usually only in hindsight when you actually realize the significance of their cumulative effects.

It’s like observing an hourglass. You know sand is going to fall down, and you can see it happen if you look closely — much in the same way you know consistently working out will make you stronger, and that if you pay close attention, you can track your progress. But you usually forget about it. Then, two minutes later when you look back, you’re like woah, there’s a lot of sand there — or, two months later, you’re like woah, I really did get a lot stronger from when I started.

On a larger scale, we can observe a similar situation pan out in modern technology.

Forty years ago, no one thought we’d have phones in our pockets, virtual reality, or LASIK surgery available — and those who did predict them were probably considered crazy back then. But we’ve since moved towards that very reality with the gradual integration of smartphones and other technological developments. Now, no one bats an eyelash when you tell them about your new iPhone with 52 cameras that can do your taxes and build a Dyson sphere out of thin air.

And as we look into the future, some very smart people are making seemingly ridiculous predictions about the possibilities of AI or exploring space, and surprise surprise, lots of people are calling them crazy. I wonder why.

I think there are two main reasons why we frequently fail to notice gradual change.

First of all, when things are abstract, they come off as incredibly confusing and complicated.

Trying to start investing or coding gets a lot easier if you actually take a second to see what it looks like before making any snap judgments about it. Doing drugs or drinking recreationally feels less foreign or dangerous when you realize that you can do them in a safe and mature fashion (like in the company of trusted friends).

Secondly, I think gradual change is inherently easy to miss because it’s all about nuance — and nuance doesn’t feel like anything.

When I was younger, my parents would periodically measure my height by drawing a line on a wall. Over time, I could see literal proof of how much I’d grown, but it always felt a bit surreal looking at my height progression, because physically growing doesn’t actively feel like something. It just happens.

Or, for another example, I’ve only had soda twice since arriving at college, despite having constant access to it. Given my track record of jumping at any opportunity for soda, this is a surprising shift in behavior, and I can’t fully understand how it happened.

I can guess why I do it (I want to be healthier), and maybe some factors that have contributed to it (a lot of my friends get water, there are many free water refill stations, my sensitivity to sweetness has changed), but there’s never some obvious feeling telling me to go get water or something. It just happens.

When we think of change, we expect it to be big and dramatic. But most of the time, it’s small and fairly unnoticeable.

I don’t think our ineptitude at noticing gradual change is necessarily a bad thing. I just enjoy noticing changes in my life, and the more I think about how I’ve changed (as well as how I constantly continue to change), the more I keep finding myself failing to notice small changes.

Personally, I’m curious to see what other habits or interests I gain, as well as how certain behaviors or mindsets of mine change. Some things I’m especially curious about moving forward: major and career path, personality (sense of humor in particular), marriage, parenting, this blog.