Marginal Gains

Getting better at something is hard. Like, really hard. Although it has been debunked, the common adage of 10,000 hours of practice being needed to make you an expert at something* demonstrates that significant improvements are not something that come along overnight.

It’s easy to accept this when it comes to learning a new skill, say the piano or ballroom dancing. No-one expects to make massive improvements to their natural talents overnight, or even over a couple of weeks. No, it is expected and accepted that a long time of repeated practice is required to get better, preferably with an expert teacher to guide you along the way.

Which is why it’s always so surprising to me when people start talking with such passion about how they are making massive strides to be better versions of themselves and looking to make improvements overnight that will massively change their lives. Why do they think they’re different to everyone and everything else? What are these miracle upgrades, and why doesn’t everyone apply them?

Making massive changes, or at least deciding to make them, can be exciting. Planning out something which will change and improve everything is intoxicating; knowing that within days or weeks you will be a significantly better you is what we all want to be a part of.

But it rarely happens this way. Big changes are alluring whilst evading most of us.

An analogy, perhaps, is weightloss. One of my very best friends runs a nutritional therapy clinic ( if you’re interested, she’s awesome!) and regularly talks about this with clients who can’t understand why they lose weight so quickly and then pile it back on just as quickly. Quick weightloss is possible, but the more gradual, sustained version is the one which tends to stick around and last, in no small part down to the fact that it’s not just drastically changing diets that does it but a hundred small factors all rolling into one outcome (but which have dozens of positive side-effects too).

These small factors are what is at the heart of the Marginal Gains mindset, popularised by the Team GB cycling team. They wanted to make a significant improvement to the results they were seeing, but instead of trying to make everyone 20% faster (a number I plucked out of the air!) and leaving it at that they took a different approach. Making everyone 20% faster was nigh-on impossible, but they realised that 20% was simply made up of lots of smaller numbers added together. Why try and do the impossible when a hundred possible things would create the same results?

So they did the possible things by the bucketload. They improved the aerodynamic shape of the bike just a little bit. They made the team healthier by teaching them how to wash their hands properly, and had people go ahead of the riders to their hotels to thoroughly clean and sanitise them. They made the team bus more comfortable, and took their own bedding with them wherever they travelled so riders got better rest. None of these things alone came close to revolutionising results, but added together the outcome was astounding.

Riders slept better and were more rested, and got ill less so could train harder. Team GB are now recognised as the global leaders in cycling by a long shot, so much so that the French team once claimed that they must have rounder wheels than everyone else as that was the only way they could be so much faster.

Personally, I try to implement these lessons in my own day to day life whenever I can. My kids are probably tired of me asking them to help look for “the 1%s”; every week I look around and see if I can make a tiny change to my home to make a single bit of my daily life 1% better. Toothbrushes and toothpaste left scattered around the bathroom, making finding it all annoying? Get a caddy for it; problem solved, morning easier. Toys overflowing from boxes and looking messy all the time? Get rid of some old ones and get proper storage solutions. Finding it tricky to make sure everyone in the house knows what’s going on all the time? Write it all on a whiteboard in the kitchen. None of these or a hundred other things are significant, but they all make little improvements which add up massively.

And it works with things like physical and mental health, too. So my kids get a better night’s sleep I take their phones and all screen access away when I tuck them in. I use night mode on my own phone so it doesn’t buzz or ping as I drop off myself. I’ve changed white bread to 50/50, and margarine to butter. We eat at least half our meals up a dining table (again, without screens) so we can talk to each other about our days. The kids have simple chore rotas so they know in advance what they need to do on which day, so are never surprised or argue about it. Little things, massive differences.

Trying to change something major about yourself overnight is, in most cases, impossible. Even over a longer period of time it’s, at best, tough. But making loads of tiny improvements to different elements of your life is more than achievable. Make a better lunch each day. Go to bed ten minutes earlier. Drink one less cup of caffeine. Put up a picture that makes you smile. Call your parents more often. Walk up the escalator. Throw away the tupperware without lids and pens that don’t work. Make your bed after getting up. Don’t snooze; wake up later, but properly so you can enjoy more, better sleep. Buy some flowers. Discover a new band. Use a whiteboard for lists. Stretch.

Before you know it, these marginal gains add up incrementally and you’ll wonder how you ever got by before making them. And you don’t even need to wear lycra while you make them, either. Unless you want to.

*The 10,000 hour thing is sort of true, but the key difference is that it needs to be at least 10,000 hours of focused, targeted practice with guidance, support and learning goals along the way rather than just doing something for 10,000 hours. In fact, depending on what you want to do it might even be as low as 500 hours or as high as over 25,000 hours. If I went to a golf course and played for 10,000 hours then I’d probably be better at the end of it, but still wouldn’t be an expert by a long stretch. There. You’ve learned something new.

marginal gains meme

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