How to apply the 'marginal gains' approach to life and business

Where were you this time last year?

Take a look back at your life situation over the last twelve months. Even without the seismic shift that the pandemic caused, many of us ended up growing and evolving in some way over this period.

For most of us, the small subtle shifts we make in our life are so imperceptible that they’re unconscious, but there is a way to consciously harness this approach so it becomes a transformative strategy in your business and life. Marginal gains is its name.

The power of small adjustments

James Clear, author of the brilliantly useful Atomic Habits, talks about the ‘marginal gains’ approach, and how powerful it can be when intentionally applied.

He references the British Cycling Team, who had spent years in mediocrity. They decided to take a holistic look at their efforts, and focused on improving operations by a mere 1%:

“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 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” - Dave Brailsford, Performance Director of The British Cycling Team
Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

It worked. Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an incredible 60 percent of the gold medals available.

That’s some significant progress. So how do we take this 1% strategy and put it into action?

The marginal gains approach in business

If you didn’t already know, James Clear is an advocate of habits. In fact, he believes them to be more important than goals.

Why? Because success is something that you practice day in, and day out, until it becomes hardwired into your way of being.

If you decided to speak to one new LinkedIn connection request daily, it wouldn’t amount to much if the behaviour was sporadic.

But if you made a commitment to practice this as a habit five days a week, it wouldn’t be long before that became a bit like compound interest, and you’d start to see an increase in the size of your network and interest in your company.

Source: Jamesclear.com ‌‌

It’s important to note that these aren’t earth-shattering changes either - quite the opposite. Think small and simple.

James says:

“If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done”.

PWC have found great success by adjusting their prices by just 1% each quarter. A small adjustment, but with a significant financial payoff.

Another marginal gain you could make in your business is looking at your infrastructure.

Could you speed up some processes by 1% each quarter by automating some of your work? Could going paperless help you make those improvements?

These gains extend to people, too. John Meyer, the CEO of Lemonly, decided to cut his morning meetings in half, which proved a powerful strategy:

“When my company cut our sluggish Monday morning meeting down from 30 minutes to 15 minutes and asked all employees to stand, we got everyone’s week off to a better start and saved $520 of billable time every single week.”

In business, there’s no race to the finish line - you’ll just end up exhausted and frustrated with yourself. To truly make massive changes that stick for the long term, become the tortoise, not the hare.

Making 1% life tweaks

The key to making these habits stick is to not make them feel massively painful or too much of an uphill battle.

Swapping that 2 minute drive to the supermarket for a power walk there and back is easy, but you won’t feel like it’s too much of an inconvenience to your routine.

Switching to non-alcoholic beer on a Friday night may feel weird at first, but it’s an approach you can stick to for one day a week.

These marginal gains work best when they’re not tied to a goal. In fact, in order for them to work best, you should consider them part and parcel of your lifestyle and routine.

Photo by Luke Carliff on Unsplash

The 1% is simply about showing up.

If we want to become better at anything, we need to practice it. That means going to the gym when we don’t feel like it. Or committing to writing one thought-leadership piece per month.

It might even mean going outside of your comfort zone, but just a little. Something like organising a catch up with a new friend and planning a new hiking route where you’ve both never been before.

In the past, you might have lived your life by goals: Save 40k in the next two years. To lose 5kg by Christmas. According to James, goals aren’t sticky enough. They just don’t embed themselves into your mind and life in the way that habits do.

He emphasises the importance of just doing the action, no matter the result:

“The focus is on doing the action, not on achieving X goal by a certain date” - James Clear

So how can we stick to these micro-increments? By scheduling them.

Making time for marginal gains

If you have a big walk in your diary for a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you’re much more likely to stick to it. You can even ‘habit stack’ to make sure this marginal gain is implemented. That means balancing out the pain of starting this new task with something that feels good to you.

For example, if you start eating salads for lunch, you could make sure you watch a funny video at the same time. That way your brain is distracted on the pleasure rather than the discomfort of the new 1%. Or you can find a really fascinating podcast to listen to on your daily walk, alleviating the boredom of seeing the same green spaces.

Our brains often fall back into ‘hedonic adaptation’, which essentially means that buzz you get at the beginning wears off, so find a way to stick to your habits but change up the feeling associated with it.

That might mean you add something to your environment during the task (like slip into your fluffy loungewear every time you do some business reading) or it can be an activity done immediately afterwards that you really look forward to (like having a blast on the Xbox after you’ve done an hour of your online course).

Is it time to make that 1% shift? It may take you by surprise where you end up this time next year.

When it comes to applying marginal gains, remember that small improvements = big results.