What difference could marginal gains make for you?

Working with people in groups and 1:1, I often get involved with goal setting – and I take my own medicine, setting goals for myself too. It’s been both my experience and observation that we can set the bar way too high, so high that the goal can seem impossible in the time we have set to accomplish it.

So what’s to be done? Should we just give up on setting ourselves goals? Or cheat and lower the bar a whole lot? Not exactly.

I think we’re more likely to a) be realistic and b) succeed when we set both short- and long-term goals and, for the former, apply the concept of marginal gains. This is what Sir Dave Brailsford did as Performance Director with Team GB’s astonishing cycling team, which cleaned up 70% of the available Gold medals for cycling track events at the London 2012 Olympics.

The image was originally posted to Flickr by johnthescone at http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnthescone/577882709/  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

“Marginal gains is more than a process, it’s a mentality.” – Sir David Brailsford

1. Set long- and short-term goals

As Performance Director of Team Sky, Sir Dave predicted that a Brit would win the Tour de France within five years – in fact, it took half that time. Many of us struggle with a longer time frame – we want everything and we want it now – but I think it’s a good sense check to aim for longer-term goals. Then we can plot in the steps we’ll need to reach along the way to stay on course.

When I first started studying part-time for my Psychology degree I could barely imagine six years’ hence (which was how long it took), but the long-term goal was compelling enough for me to stay focused on what needed to be accomplished each year, each month and each week. For example, a short-term weekly goal would be to read 3-4 chapters of a meaty textbook, making notes as I went. This meant doing some reading most days and allowing a chunk of each weekend to catch up if necessary. A monthly goal was to get my written work in on time; annually it was to pass the exam – but these were only achievable if the short-term goals were met.

Make this work for you:

  • What long-term goals can you aim for?
  • What purpose will each goal serve for you?
  • What will change for you when you have achieved them?
  • What are the steps along the way that you can set shorter-term goals for?

2. Use incremental gains to stay on track

Sir Dave’s approach was to get small improvements in a whole host of areas, rather than aim for 100% improvement in one. 100% can be unrealistic and way too daunting. Yet all those small (and sometimes seemingly insignificant) improvements add up or as he put it, aggregate, to an overall significant improvement.

This requires a good hard look at every stage of the task. Team Sky famously travels with their own pillows to get better sleep and even has lessons in hand-washing to prevent infections. Brailsford wasn’t the first to spot the possibilities offered by incremental gains: other sports coaches such as Sir Clive Woodward (remember those tight-fitting rugby shirts and the peripheral vision exercises?) have adopted the approach and you can too. You can see Sir Dave talking about marginal gains here.

I’ll never forget my first degree course tutor taking a small hacksaw to a textbook (shock horror gasps all round the classroom), slicing it down the spine into much smaller sections and telling us to do this too, so that we could always carry just a small amount of reading with us everywhere, all the time. This seemingly small change made an enormous difference and was how I stayed on top of the reading load. People who fell behind with reading, even a few weeks’ worth, were more likely to drop out of the course.

Make this work for you:

  • Marginal gains require a detailed look at all the different elements – of what we do and how we do it. Pay very close attention to each element of something you want to improve, be it your stress levels, work performance or mastery of a new skill.
  • What small changes can make a disproportionate difference? An extra hour’s sleep? A tech curfew several evenings each week? 10 minutes’ practice each day?
  • Which small things help you relax, energize – get into the state you need? Music? A quiet walk? A short meditation?
  • What small habits can you drop, or tasks can you stop doing?

Here’s a Prezi on Marginal Gains.


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

Comments are closed.