Marginal gains

Marginal gains

Marginal gains is the system used by Dave Brailsford to take the Team GB cyclists to two consecutive Tour de France wins and 70% of the Olympic Gold medals – but how could something like this ever help you in your everyday life?

When Dave Brailsford took over the cycling team he wanted them to challenge for the Tour de France within five years – in fact they won it in the third and the fourth year. This remarkable achievement wasn’t based though on one big idea,  or one area such as improving the bikes or the cyclists’ fitness. Instead he based it on marginal gains, and the aggregation of small improvements.

As he explained it “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 improved it by one per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

This didn’t just mean looking at marginal improvements in the tyres, or the saddle, or the grip on the handlebars. It meant looking at what pillows the cyclists used, in order to improve their sleep, and improve their performance. It meant looking at the antiseptic hand-gel they used in order to reduce their illness and improve their performance.

So how can you use this in your everyday life? It’s actually very easy. It doesn’t mean having to look at everything at work or at home and finding a 1% improvement in it. It can start today just in the quality of the decisions you make about pretty much anything.

The theory of marginal gains is explained best perhaps by Jeff Olson in “The Slight Edge”. “In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1% better or 1% worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t.

For instance estimates about the numbers of people who regularly forget to take long-term medication range from 30% to as high as 75%. Simply taking it regularly every day is a marginal improvement on a daily basis, but leads to something much greater in long term health.

It’s the same with not having the extra fries, or a bar of chocolate with a cup of tea; with parking further away, and walking the extra distance. It shares a lot of its success with the idea of “no zero days”.

The idea of these is that improvements don’t come from one huge breakthrough, but through the accumulation of daily efforts. This means that you don’t have any days where you make zero progress towards your goal – instead, no matter how marginal, you do something everyday.

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