How to improve

How to improve

Joseph Darby

How to improve your chances of achieving anything in life

The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003 when they hired Dave Brailsford as their new performance director.

At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured nearly a hundred years of mediocrity. Since 1908, British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympics, and they had fared even worse in cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de France. In 110 years, no British cyclist had ever won the event. The performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. In his own words: “… when we first started out, the top of the Olympic podium seemed like a very long way away. Aiming for gold was too daunting.” What made him unique was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “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 improve it by one percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.

But they didn’t stop there. Brailsford and his team continued to find one percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. Long before this years’ pandemic, they hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of being ill (surprisingly common at international sports events where people from all over the world converge). They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider – then the riders had their own hypoallergenic bedding and mattresses transported from hotel to hotel. They even painted the inside of the team truck white to help them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed that might degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.

As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.

Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.

That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, then went on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years.

During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful period in cycling history.

You might be asking:

  • How did this happen?
  • How does a team of previously ordinary athletes transform into world champions by making tiny changes that, at first glance, would seem to make minimal difference?
  • Why do small improvements accumulate into such remarkable results, and how can you replicate this approach in your own life?

The aggregation of marginal gains

It is easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements every day. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, saving a house deposit, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other financial or non-financial goal, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.

Meanwhile, improving by one percent isn’t particularly notable — sometimes it isn’t even noticeable — but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here is how the math works: if you can get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get one percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.

Habits work just like compound interest.

In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one 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 the people who make slightly better decisions daily and those who don't. This is why small positive choices don't make a noticeable difference initially, but they add up over the long-term and result in a significant improvement.

The bottom line: small improvements

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

You might not be aiming for an Olympic or Tour de France gold medal, but the concept of aggregating marginal gains is the same for anything we do.

Being financially successful, and life in general, is often thought of as an event. The truth is that most of the significant things in life aren't stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all times we chose to do things one percent better (or one percent worse!). Aggregating these marginal gains makes a colossal difference. There is power in small improvements and slow gains.

Where are the one percent improvements in your life?

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