The Hidden Power of Compounding (and 4 Ideas for Harnessing it)

Ways to take advantage of this powerful and often-overlooked force for improvement 

Ever wonder how successful people reach such heights? Think of a wildly successful person you admire. How did they get there? 

The typical answers are hard work, innate gifts (personality, natural ability) and luck. These factors play a role, but the most important factor is left out: they leverage the power of compounding.

What is Compounding?

For compounding to occur, only two things are required:

  • Growth: Something must be growing by some percentage each year
  • Time: The growth process happens over multiple years

You’ve probably heard of a specific type of compounding: compound interest. In this context, compounding means that growing your money by some percentage every year eventually snowballs into huge results if you give it enough time. 

For example, say you are able to earn 7% per year on your money. That doesn’t sound like a lot: if you invest $1000, that’s $70 in a year. Seems pretty modest.

Yes, you’ll earn $70 in year one, but in year 2 you earn $70 (7% of $1000) plus 7% on the $70 of additional money in your account that grew from year 1. As time passes, that 7% per year pumps out bigger and bigger piles of cash:

  • In Year 10: You’ve doubled the size of your account ($1,967)
  • In Year 20: You’ve quadrupled the size of your account ($3,870)
  • In Year 30: Your account is now almost 8 times your original investment of $1,000 ($7,612)

One lesson from this exercise is to save and invest some of your money. Your future self will thank you. 

Another lesson is the earlier you start, the better. More years means more opportunity for exponential growth. 

But there’s an interesting corollary to this exercise that is less obvious, and much more exciting: compounding isn’t just something that happens to your bank account – it applies to many other areas of life. 

“We’re all sort of blundering fools, but if you just get some rate of improvement and let it keep compounding, you can do pretty well…You always want to be on some sort of curve where you’re compounding.”

– Tyler Cowen, on David Perell’s Podcast

All you need for compounding is growth and time – there is nothing about dollars or bank accounts mentioned in that definition. If you can get some percentage growth rate in some area of interest every year, you’ll eventually reach heights you never dreamed possible.

Think about some area where you want to excel. As an example, let’s say you’re in sales. If you improved at sales 10% every year, you would be twice as good in 7 years, four times as good in 15 years ten times as good in 25 years, and seventeen times as good in 30 years. In any given year, you’re not making tremendous improvements, but over time persistence leads to tremendous outcomes.

Also, keep in mind that although 10% growth is a great rate for a bank account, who’s to say this is a good rate of growth for your sales career? Maybe a reasonable growth rate is much higher. If that’s the case, you can expect much more dramatic results. 

I believe this is how extraordinary people like Elon Musk reach rarefied heights: achieving a high growth rate in an area (e.g. managing a private space company) through intense focus and then relentlessly persisting to maintain that high growth rate over many years.

4 Ideas for Better Compounding

There are lots of ways you can compound in an area you want to improve. Look for anything that 1) gives you growth by some percentage or 2) helps you maintain that growth over multiple years. Some of the obvious ideas here include reading, taking lessons, attending talks, working with a mentor, and just simply doing work in the area you want to compound.

That being said, I have a few other tips that can both increase your percentage growth rate (ideas #2 and #3) and ensure you stick to it over the years (ideas #1 and #4). 

Idea #1 – Have a plan

The key to compounding is consistent, focused effort over multiple years. It’s hard to do that without being clear about where you want to improve. If you don’t have clear goals, you’ll forget them or lose discipline, stifling your compounding efforts.

So, I recommend writing down the areas you would like to compound over time. Check back on this list regularly (I check weekly) and make sure that every year you’re making some effort to improve your abilities by some percentage.

For example, here’s a list of areas I’m personally focused on compounding over time:

  • Data science
    • Statistics / math
    • Programming
  • Communication
    • Writing
    • Speaking
    • Sales / persuasion
  • Managing teams / project management
  • Personal brand / developing followers on my blog and email list
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Cooking
  • Drumming

I keep a Google document of this list and keep track of specific things that I am doing within each category to propel myself forward. 

Idea #2 – Use spaced repetition

You’ve probably had this experience: you read a book or take a course and you want to retain it and apply as much as you can. Inevitably, the precious knowledge slowly exits your mind and 6 months later it feels like you didn’t learn anything in the first place.

Spaced repetition is a solution to this problem.

Spaced repetition is quizzing yourself on knowledge in increasing intervals of time. It’s extremely effective and time efficient. I have flashcards in my spaced repetition system that I just answered that I will not be quizzed on again in 2 years. This spacing allows you to hold tens of thousands of flashcards in your mind while only reviewing tens of flashcards a day. 

For more information about the science behind spaced repetition, check out this great summary by Gwern Branwen.

I have been a long-time user of spaced-repetition tools for committing things to long-term memory. During my university years, I wrote cards in Supermemo for all of my courses, and it was the secret weapon to my performance. Today, I use Anki, and it continues to be a key tool for compounding my knowledge in data science and retaining the vast amount of information required for success in the field.

I’m so excited about spaced repetition, I even have a feature on my website that I built to share my data science Anki decks with the world, organized by source: Download my Brain! I’m also running a Spaced Repetition Newsletter that will provide the latest news and links related to Anki, tips on using Anki, and ideas related to spaced repetition and productive learning.

Idea #3 – Keep a commonplace book

A commonplace book is a place where you store wisdom or interesting things you’ve read or heard from others, or have thought about yourself.  I’ve written previously about the benefits of keeping a commonplace book and a summary of my personal commonplace book system that involves a spaced-repetition-esque component (I wrote code to email myself 5 randomly selected commonplace book notes from my collection). Lots of others have written about them as well (here is a good article from Ryan Holiday, which is where I first heard about this idea). 

A commonplace book is similar to spaced repetition in that it’s a tool to help you retain more of the important things that you learn. It also provides you with a body of material you can draw from, which is particularly valuable if you are a writer. 

I personally use my commonplace book system to hold long-form wisdom that doesn’t lend itself well to flash card quizzing.

Idea #4 – Use commitment contracts

Once you have a plan for compounding in your improvement areas, you need to follow-through with that plan. Over the years I’ve tried many strategies to help deal with this issue of staying motivated and sticking to a plan, and the most effective tool I’ve found are commitment contracts. I’ve used commitment contracts to read and write more than I ever have in the past, despite being busier than ever with a full time job and a 3-year-old at home.

Commitment contracts are agreements where you commit to doing something, and failing leads to actual consequences. For example, I have a commitment contract to spend a minimum number of hours each week on various areas of interest. I track my time during the week, report back each week, and if I’m below my target I’m penalized $5. 

I have found this surprisingly effective, especially considering the low stakes. It doesn’t take much of a penalty to provide enough motivation to follow through with your targets. I think this may be tapping into our inherent loss-aversion: we are irrationally repulsed by a loss, much more than the size of the loss would indicate. Of course, you can make your failure penalties higher if you want, but I personally don’t find it necessary. 

The specific tool that I use for commitment contracts is StickK. I highly recommend it. 

Conclusion

I think these tips will help you out, but the most important point to remember is compounding only requires two things: growth and time. Growth ensures you make progress, and time is what allows you to reach heights you never thought possible. In any given year, you may not be making huge improvements, but over time your persistence leads to huge outcomes.

If you want to commit this article to long-term memory, download the Anki deck I put together for it here. If you are a user of Anki or other spaced repetition tools, you can subscribe to my Spaced Repetition Newsletter for the latest news, tips, and ideas about spaced repetition, using Anki, and improving your learning speed.

I made a speech based on this blog post that you can find here:

This is a speech version of this post from my local Toastmasters group

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