Why Only 1% Can Change Everything

Why Only 1% Can Change Everything


Ask yourself

Where are the 1% improvements you could make in your life and work? In 2010, Dave Brailsford, general manager and performance director for Britain’s professional cycling team, Team Sky, faced a tough job. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France and Brailsford was asked to change that. His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept called ‘aggregation of marginal gains.’ It’s the one percent margin for improvement in everything you do. His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just one percent, those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

Related: How to Apply the ‘Law of Accumulation’ to Your Business and Your Life

Searching for 1% everywhere

They started by optimising the things you might expect: Nutrition, weekly training, bike seat ergonomics, and tyre weight.

But they didn’t stop there. They searched for one percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by everyone else: Pillows that offered the best sleep and taking them to hotels, testing for the most effective massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection.

Brailsford believed if they successfully executed this strategy, Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years. He was wrong. They won it in three.

The right kind of snowball effect

In 2012, 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% of the gold medals available.

In 2013, Team Sky won the Tour de France again. Many have described the British cycling feats as the most successful run in modern cycling history.

What can we learn from aggregation of marginal gains?

It’s 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. Yet, how easily do 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. Whether it’s losing weight or building a business, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.

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

This pattern works the same way in reverse (an aggregation of marginal losses). 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 that eventually leads to a problem.

The compound effect

You can see the pattern in action in the graph below. Inspiration for this image came from a graphic in The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.

In the beginning, there’s basically no difference in making a choice that is one percent better or worse – it won’t impact you very much today, but as time goes on these small improvements or declines compound.

It’s not a big deal if you 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.

There is power in small wins and slow gains. This is why the system is greater than the goal, why mastering your habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome. So where can you make one percent improvements?

As Jim Rohn says, “Success is a few simple disciplines, practised every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.”

Marginal Gains

Related: 5 Secrets to Achieving and Maintaining Work-Life Balance

James Clear
Based in North Carolina, James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to share ideas for mastering your habits, improving your health, and increasing your creativity. To receive his most popular articles, join his free weekly newsletter.