The Marginal Gains Philosophy: How to Achieve Big Results Through Small Improvements

We all want to get better, some more than others, at whatever it is that we do. But, most fail and end up being average. Talent alone won’t make you great, but obsession will. Obsessing about the details, and focusing on getting better everyday.  How?

Sir Dave Brailsford, is one of the greatest winners of our generation. He’s not a known name like Michael Jordan, but he had a huge impact in the sport of cycling. He unlocked the potential of Britain’s Olympic Cycling team by focusing not on making big leaps, but on making small improvements on everything that goes into riding a bike.

Here he is talking about the 1% Factor:

From James Clear’s Atomic Habits on Marginal Gains:

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.

But they didn’t stop there. Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.

As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.

Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.

How to get better everyday

The strategy is about finding 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas; the accumulation of marginal gains. Marginal gains are small improvements that can add up to make a significant difference in overall performance. Here are a few places where you can find marginal gains to improve everyday:

  1. Time management: Look for ways to be more efficient with your time, such as by making a to-do list, setting priorities, and eliminating time-wasting activities.
  2. Habits and routines: Identify habits or routines that are not serving you well, and look for ways to modify or eliminate them. For example, if you have a habit of procrastinating, try setting aside specific times each day to work on tasks.
  3. Health and wellness: Pay attention to your physical and mental health, and look for small ways to improve your overall well-being. For example, you could try eating healthier, getting more exercise, or practicing relaxation techniques.
  4. Productivity: Look for ways to increase your productivity and efficiency, such as by using tools or techniques that help you work more efficiently or by breaking large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
  5. Relationships: Pay attention to your relationships and look for ways to strengthen and improve them. For example, you could try being more present and attentive when interacting with others, or finding ways to be more supportive and helpful.

Remember, the key to making marginal gains is to focus on small, incremental improvements that can add up to make a big difference over time.

Bottom line: Success in life rarely comes from one big leap. Big leaps are sexy and make for a great headline. But what makes the biggest difference is the small 1% improvements you make daily over a long period of time.

Next Article

Embrace Feeling Dumb