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Fast-Tracking Progress With a Quarterly Review, Part 1: Proximal and Distal Causes

4 min

(Photo credit: Giuseppe Grimaldi )

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Making progress can be very hard.

If the goal is big enough, it can be complicated figuring out if we're even moving in the right direction.

Are you on track to be happier over the course of your lifetime?

Is your relationship getting stronger or weaker over the years?

Changes, both positive and negative, tend to accrue slowly over time. Think of the last time you saw a cousin or nephew you hadn’t seen in a while: you immediately noticed how much they had changed, while their parents, who see them every day, hadn’t. Small changes seem invisible when you’re in the thick of things, even if the overall cumulative change is large.

While there are many reasons for this, one is simply that we are not at dealing with non-proximal causes.

A proximal cause is the event that occurred immediately before the effect in question (“proximal” simply meaning “next to”).

Imagine two dominoes standing side by side. If the first domino tips over, knocking down the second domino, the first domino falling was the proximal cause of the second domino falling.

Our brains seem highly attuned to proximal causes and we are always seeking them out. If an event occurs and we don’t know why, we tend to look in the obvious place: what happened immediately preceding the event?

But proximal causes aren’t the only reason things occur. There are also distal causes.

“Distal” means “far away,” and distal causes are triggering events that culminate in the effect we're trying to explain, sometimes with many other events in between.

To return to our dominoes example, one domino knocking over the other is a proximal cause. But if those dominoes are in a chain of hundreds of dominoes, all of which are arranged to knock each other over, then the very first domino that gets tipped is the distal cause and the domino immediately preceding the domino we’re examining is the proximal cause.

The domino immediately before ours knocked us over, sure; but it wouldn’t have happened if that very first domino hadn’t been tipped. If this was an event we wanted to prevent, it'd be best to focus our attention on making sure that very first domino never gets tipped over.

Understanding the difference between distal and proximal causes is important because proximal causes are often simply surface-level expressions of much deeper issues.

As a personal example, I’ve been having mood issues lately. Specifically, I’ve found myself being grumpy and irritable around my kids, yelling at them more often and being far less fun in general.

If I look at the proximal causes of my mood swings, I might focus on my kids behavior. I could argue that I was grumpy because they were jumping on the couch, or (ironically) asking too many questions. If the kids’ behavior is the cause, then that suggests that I might solve the problem by punishing them to change their behavior.

But the kids were simply the proximal cause. What if something else is going on?

After all, my kids jump on the couch a lot, and I don’t always yell at them over it. In fact, haven’t I been getting grumpier over time? It doesn’t seem like my kids are jumping on the couch any more than usual, so what explains the increase in incidents?

When I sit down and think about it, I find myself less and less sure my kids have anything to do with it. My mood’s been worse, I have less energy, and I’ve had trouble focusing at work.

When did that start happening? Maybe a month or two ago.

Did anything change around then? Hmmm...that’s around the time I changed my diet, and I’ve been eating significantly less.

Could that be the reason...?

While my kids misbehavior might be the proximal cause of my outbursts, punishing them is not going to fix anything if the distal cause is diet-related. But because I’m not thinking about the dietary changes I made months ago when I’m lying on the couch with a headache, spotting these relationships is very difficult without deliberate effort.

In this short series, we're going to be delving into the quarterly review - one of the single most valuable practices I know in terms of personal growth, achievement, and happiness.

One of the reasons that process is so effective is because it allows you to systematically uncover the distal causes of problems you want to solve.

This means you spend more and more of your time each year addressing the root causes of the obstacles you face.

This results in what appears, to outsiders, to be incredibly fast progress.

Even more useful than that process, however, is understanding the difference between proximal and distal causes.

Training yourself to look backwards in the chain of causation, towards the root cause of your problems, will make you better at everything you do...

...And make your progress seem effortless.

Cool Stuff To Read:

A bit of a time capsule: Anthony Bourdain describes his experience interviewing Barack Obama in Vietnam.

I miss Bourdain. This piece is interesting to me in the sense that the tone feels distinctly "of a time" - this tone feels elusive and outdated to me, now. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it strikes me that the speed at which things become "old-feeling" is incredibly short nowadays.

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