Everyday we’re faced with decisions. Some of them easy, some hard. Some decisions we make for ourselves and some decisions are made for us.
When looked at under the microscope the decisions made daily, hourly, by the minute don’t add up to much. However, if we start to look at the decisions made over a month, a year, a few years the small choices we make can have a huge impact.
Enter Dave Brailsford. In 2010 he was named the General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team. Up to that point no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France and it was his job to change it.
His approach was simple, yet complex. Dave believed in the theory of aggregation of marginal gains. In other words, a fancy way to say continually making the right decisions, no matter how small, watching the impact of your decisions on performance over a longer period of time.
He believed that if you improved all the areas related to cycling by just 1 percent, then they would add up to remarkable improvement. He started by making the obvious changes: the ergonomics of the bike, the weight of the tires, the nutrition of the riders, and their training program.
But he didn’t stop there. He continued to look for the 1% improvements that everyone else overlooked. The best way to wash your hands to avoid infection, a sick rider is useless during training after all. He was on a mission to continually seek out the most effective recovery habits. Going as far as to find the pillow that offered athletes the best night’s sleep to bring while they traveled.
They even found beans that helped with performance.
Most of that was factual. We made up the part about the weight of the tires.
Brailsford and his team believed that if they could make the small daily changes and successfully execute his strategy that Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years.
They were in it for the long haul. Fortunately, for all involved, he was wrong. A member of Team Sky won the Tour de France in 2012, in only 3 years’ time.
That same year Brailsford was the national coach for the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games. They dominated the competition, winning 70% of the gold medals available.
Proving it wasn’t a fluke, a member of Team Sky won the Tour de France again in 2013. Solidifying their mark on the impact 1% improvement can have over a longer period of time.
The important question for us to ask as ourselves is this: What can we learn from Brailsford’s approach?
Enter the Aggregation of Marginal Gains
It’s easy to overlook and overestimate the importance of one defining moment and to underestimate the value of making better decisions on a daily basis. Every habit that you have, good or bad, is a result of multiple small decisions repeated over time.
And yet somehow we continually forget this when we want to make a change.
Often we convince ourselves that change is only worthwhile or meaningful if there is some visible, large outcome to associate with it.
Losing weight, Winning a Championship, Securing a Collegiate Scholarship, we put too much pressure on ourselves to make grandiose improvements that everyone will talk about.
Meanwhile, improving by one percent isn’t notable or even necessarily noticeable, but it can be just as meaningful. Especially when you consider the bigger picture.
The scary part of this is that this theory is invertible. Meaning if you find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle of making bad habits you’ll find yourself on the aggregation of marginal losses continuum. A place none of us want to be.
Initially, there is no visible difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. Meaning that it won’t impact you very much today, but as time goes on those small improvements or declines will compound and you’ll suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions daily and those who don’t.
This is why it’s important to have contingencies set into place. Set a schedule, don’t make bad decisions twice in a row (cake and lunch and cake at dinner!!!). If you have something set into place you can prevent simple errors from becoming habit.
The End Game
“You need to be content with small steps. That’s all life is. Small steps that you take every day so when you look back down the road it all adds up and you know you covered some distance.” – Katie Kacvinsky
You’re probably not going to find yourself on the podium for the Tour de France anytime soon, but the concept of aggregating marginal gains or losses is still pertinent. Most people like to talk about success, but we often leave out the steps that lead us there.
An Olympic athlete doesn’t just wake up one day with the skills and attributes to be the best in the world. Similarly, someone who is morbidly obese doesn’t just wake up one day with 300 extra pounds to lose. Rather, it’s the sum of moments when we choose on a daily basis that make a difference.
There is power to be gained in the small wins. This is why Rome wasn’t built in a day, why average consistency yields above average results, and why mastering your habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome.
Where are the one percent improvements you can make in your life? Write them down, get ahead of them, and continue to better yourself as we move through the Challenge.