This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened

In 2010, Dave Brailsford faced a tough job.

No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, but as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), Brailsford was asked to change that.

His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires.

But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.

Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.

In 2012, Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games and dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available.

In 2013, Team Sky repeated their feat by winning the Tour de France again, this time with rider Chris Froome. Many have referred to the British cycling feats in the Olympics and the Tour de France over the past 10 years as the most successful run in modern cycling history.

And now for the important question: what can we learn from Brailsford’s approach?

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

It’s so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making better decisions on a daily basis.

Almost every habit that you have — good or bad — is the result of many small decisions over time.

And yet, how easily we forget this when we want to make a change.

So often we convince ourselves that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, traveling the world or any other goal, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.

Meanwhile, improving by just 1 percent isn’t notable (and sometimes it isn’t even noticeable). But it can be just as meaningful, especially in the long run.

And from what I can tell, this pattern works the same way in reverse. (An aggregation of marginal losses, in other words.) If you find yourself stuck with bad habits or poor results, it’s usually not because something happened overnight. It’s the sum of many small choices — a 1 percent decline here and there — that eventually leads to a problem.

marginal gains
Inspiration for this image came from a graphic in The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.

In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent 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. This is why small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.

On a related note, this is why I love setting a schedule for important things, planning for failure, and using the “never miss twice” rule. I know that it’s not a big deal if I make a mistake or slip up on a habit every now and then. It’s the compound effect of never getting back on track that causes problems. By setting a schedule to never miss twice, you can prevent simple errors from snowballing out of control.

The Bottom Line

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
—Jim Rohn

You probably won’t find yourself in the Tour de France anytime soon, but the concept of aggregating marginal gains can be useful all the same.

Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business or winning the Tour de France as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. Aggregating these marginal gains makes a difference.

There is power in small wins and slow gains. This is why average speed yields above average results. This is why the system is greater than the goal. This is why mastering your habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome.

Where are the 1 percent improvements in your life?

47 Comments

  1. Dear James,

    This is so doable! I love your positive encouraging articles and by applying them I am no longer depressed and steadily advancing both as an artist and keyboardist. Thank you. I look forward to your emails each time. Anne

  2. This is only my second week of receiving your emails. They are just great! Your comment on concentrating on processes rather than goals really crystallized what I am doing. You’re simple truths are food for thought and I plan to put the 1% solution you discuss today into action in my own life. I’m looking toward to Thursday’s email and plan to sign up for Habits workshop. Thank you!

  3. That was the best, most satisfying of your posts. Such a good feeling to be going along patiently watching a project grow rather than thinking “I have to be seeing big change right now” that makes a person unrealistic about how things get done. Modern films always seem to hit people in the head with Cinderella sort of stories. Or, how about the stories where someone gets somewhere with “confidence” alone, that approach is not realistic if you have no talent or experience with a thing.

  4. this post is great for me because i’ve always instinctively been looking for that little improvement in this or that part of my life. no part of my life is off limits! but reading this gives me validation that this really is very constructive and not just the quasi-obsessive fetish of this very detail-oriented person. and now i’m going to take this approach more consciously and in a more empowered and systematic way see how i can apply it in specific areas. another thing i really like about this kind of thinking is that it can be creative and fun to do! i always get a great lift when i think of some tiny way to do something a tiny bit better, and now i know i’m getting more out of it than just a good feeling! i am thinking of applying it in my work, in which i’m successfully established as a freelancer but not particularly stimulated. maybe focusing on this practice can freshen up my work experience a bit!

    thank you james clear. i’m very glad i found you. your reflections are of a higher quality than most of what’s “out there” on your subjects. please keep up your good work.

    • I know what you mean about getting a lift from thinking of a new and better way to do things. I try that all the time. For example: I was sick and tired of bending over and digging to the back of my utensil drawer in my kitchen to find all my numerous cooking spatulas, stirring spoons, measures, etc. So, it suddenly occurred to me that I have been hiding the identifying “business end” of my utensils toward the back of the drawers like all people do, and that was really stupid. So, I turned all my utensils around so I see not a handle when I open the drawer but the actual useful end making it much easier and faster to see the tool most needed at the moment. What a time saver!

  5. It’s not often that I read about a perspective on success that isn’t just a re-wording of commonly known methods, but this is entirely fresh! Major applause for finding this info.

    On a side note! Your Habits Workshop sounds like a great idea, I know many people that would benefit from it, and I’ll definitely send them the link. The only problem is that for someone that follows your articles consistently, you feel like there may be nothing new to gain that we havnt read in the articles already (because they have been so useful.) Know what I mean? It would sound more enticing if you mention something like it has new info that you can only learn about in the workshop, something unique about the info you will be sharing there. Or maybe focus the selling point more on the question and answer portion, where you can give some insight on how to apply the methods to their specific situations, etc. It basically needs a “sexier selling point,” to draw long time readers in a little stronger. This is just an idea of course! Cheers

    • “…you feel like there may be nothing new to gain that we havnt read in the articles already (because they have been so useful.)” that could be, but why does it have to be something new? there are over 100 articles here with so much helping tipps, methods and inspirations. i think if you just follow through with a few if these great tactics, then you are on the road to success in any field that you want.

      and the workshop could be the spark that lights the fire in you to really implement and use the knowledge on a daily basis.

      about the article: never read anything similar, this is totally new to me and makes me excited. especially since you might find little improvements which give you even more (maybe much more) than a 1% boost…

  6. Thank you for sharing this, James. It is very simple but very powerful concept. And easily executable. I think, though, whenever the numbers are not involved, it is a bit difficult to measure these 1% improvements, but the main idea is to identify the performance factors, I guess.

  7. Great article James, I’m with you 100%, I’ve broken down all of my goals into daily thoughts which trigger the right behaviours. Anything is achievable one tiny seemingly insignificant step at a time.

  8. Great Post. I’ve been overcome by trying to reach my goals in such a short time and feeling so defeated. I can now appreciate how the little decisions I make through the day are so important in reaching my goals! Thank You.

  9. Great article, thank you! I look forward to all your weekly essays.

    I’m curious to know what your favorite books were of 2013 and/or other vehicles of inspiration you found in the last year!

    Thanks again, James!

  10. I love this reminder of small choices along the way being much more important than the big choices. I realized that I have been eating almost all my meals either standing up or in front of technology – a series of daily choices. I have set the goal to sit at a table without technology or reading materials for each meal to be fully present with my food. It may seem insignificant but my sense is that I eat way more calories while distracted and probably am not aware of really feeling satisfied when I have eaten enough. Thanks for the post and the important reminder. This is a great one to consider at the beginning of a new year.

  11. I think this may be your best post yet! It’s great on its own, but also ties in to your posts on habits and processes rather than goals. For me it was timely as just the other day we were looking at some processes and procedures at work and noting that if each stage is about 95% on time (which sounds good), but there are multiple stages then you can end up barely above 80% on time after 4 stages. If each stage is improved just a bit then delivery improves greatly in the end. As a former engineer with a strong math background I know this, but I tend to forget as it applies to my personal life.

    It can be so hard to have the patience to make small improvements, enjoy the process and let the results come. In this day when we can get information (internet), get things (Amazon Prime), get to places (car, planes), etc. so quickly, it becomes difficult to NOT want something done and perfect immediately. Thanks for the reminder!

  12. My 3rd child was born just yesterday, and while reading this in the hospital, I realized that parenting consists mostly of 1% stuff. Also reminded of Jesus’ words in the Gospels (paraphrase): He who is faithful in little things will be given responsibility for great things. 1% is also the only way to build habits — or virtues. The greatest challenges in life are not easily practiced beforehand, so you have to develop the necessary virtues for handling them in advance, over time.

  13. James, when I grow up I’m going to be just like you.

    I better hurry up. I’m already 44.

    This was one of those articles that hit me at the right time. Good timing.

    And stop reading my mind. It’s spooky. (And not in the good way.) ;-)

  14. Great example James! The Aggregation of Marginal Gains is such a fascinating concept.

    In general, I think entrepreneurs can learn a lot from athletes. I remember that when I went on my financial freedom journey a few years ago I struggled with quite a few poor financial habits. Luckily at this point, I had just finished 6 months of Ironman triathlon training so I had some fresh forms of discipline under my belt. For the next few months I translated hard work ethics and good habits from the fitness arena into the financial one. They were small but significant changes – sleep, nutrition, social life, recovery, etc. It worked and I was able to achieve my objective. Thanks for the reminder that most of the significant things in life are not stand alone events. Just shared it my friends. Keep the great work James!

  15. Hello James,

    This one is a beauty! So real. So attainable. I use these principles daily in my work with young horses, and the older ones too. It is always the small steps that are not particularly visible but grow with time and are not stressfull on anyone. Learning is so much easier for everyone. Personally I am so very conscious of this now 2 years after major cardiac surgery, it is the 1% principle! Thank you for sharing with us all.

  16. Thanks James. This is just an excellent article. Any event in life whether good or bad is not a standalone one and is aggregation of our choices good/bad ones.

  17. Excellent article. I have been promoting this type of thinking and more importantly doing for many years. Having worked with elite/professional athletes for many years this approach is much easier (form my experience) for individual athletes to accept than those in team sports — as an individual you have nowhere to hide! The premise of this article and thought process is a major reason why I developed my bodycare/skincare range for active people because “Everything Counts” and taking excellent care of your body through using quality products to enhance recovery and performance is another key in the performance equation.

  18. Nice article, James.

    I’m a firm believer in taking small steps consistently. Over a period of time, you will find yourself taking bigger steps, and eventually achieving what you set out to.

    Funnily enough, I wrote about it (http://browntel.net/achieve)

    It *sort of* ties in with what you wrote here. :)

  19. Most people don’t realize that success is achieved by fine tuning every little detail. You realize at the end that you have changed 1000 different things about your business and that is how you achieved the current bottom lines. That is why it is very difficult to answer if someone asks you how did you do it because they are hoping to hear one magic secret.

  20. The article is inspiring indeed, but I think the example is bad. I think that for an idea to be truly great, it has to have a pure exemple, while Tour de France is far from anything pure, if you know what I mean…

  21. I totally agree with the statement “But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. Aggregating these marginal gains makes a difference.”

    We do it everyday just that we don’t realized and take account for that 1% or more.

  22. “…discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels…”

    Does anyone share what brand pillow that was?

  23. I’ve been using the phrase “everyday good habits” with the swimmers I coach. I even have them shout it out to help the concept stick where it counts.

    In swimming and improving strokes we often work from gross motor skills to finer motor skills And while we suggest and advise on food choices, I have to stress eating breakfast and lunch because sometimes they skip, and when they are dragging in practice – I ask them — did you eat breakfast? And lunch? And often that is the issue of having no energy.

    1% better per day, week or even month does add up. Now the Texas Aggies also like to talk about 2% changes — but not always in a positive upward spiral reference.

  24. Reminds me of my best training regimen ever: I was going to be in a bike race (for fun) and it was spring and time to get out there. It was cold and windy, and I just made myself go for 10 minutes in one direction, then stop and turn around and come back. The next day, I went 11 minutes in one direction, and so on. I didn’t win my division or anything, but I didn’t get the sore butt or stiff muscles that usually comes when you start biking in the spring, and when I finished my portion of the race (it was a relay), I discovered I had enough energy to keep going and wasn’t stiff or sore. By the time I got to a 40 minute ride, I was looking forward to biking, regardless of the weather, and I was then choosing terrain similar to my leg of the race. Anyway, this article makes so much sense! thank you.

  25. Great blog but I agree with the comment above. Having been in cycling my entire life I felt that your example of Wiggins and Froome wasn’t the best one to make your point. There is too much skepticism around cyclists and the Tour. There is a lot more than 1% happening there. Anyway, other than that the point of the blog was great.

  26. Thank you, James. This amazing article reminds me one powerful quote from Bruce Lee.

    “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

  27. I was just siting feeling a little depressed and down, then I started reading your articles and started to not feel sorry for myself as I realised “If It Is To Be It Is To Be Up To Me.” Coincidence, just got good news, job to do over the weekend. Ha…that is what being and having a positive attitude is about.

  28. Wow, sweet article.

    To often I get overwhelmed by the task ahead that I just don’t get started. It’s pretty difficult to look at my journey one step at a time but I’ve recognized it’s required to get anywhere with it.

    Actions over goals. I need to talk less and actually start acting more. No more blog reading for today! Let’s get back to writing that article I’ve been putting off

    Thank man! Appreciate your thoughts deeply.

    Take care.

  29. Tiny one percent makes a huge difference in long run, humm… I have to do something better each day. I liked this article a lot. :)

  30. Fantastic. I will start implementation from tomorrow… similar to Toyota’s constant improvement approach, but more easily grasped for the average person.

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