In 2010, Sir Dave Brailsford faced a monumental task.
He had just led the British Cycling team to dominate the 2008 Olympic Games and was now asked to head the new British-based professional Team Sky. To that date, no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, and Brailsford planned on changing that.
His initial goal in 2010 was to “create the first British winner of the Tour de France”, the biggest cycling race in the world, within 5 years.
Brailsford ended up being wrong. It only took 3 years for Team Sky captain Bradley Wiggins to win the 2012 Tour de France, with teammate and fellow Briton Chris Froome finishing as the runner up. A year later, Froome turned the tables to win Team Sky´s second Tour de France in a row, and would later go on to repeat his success in 2015 and 2016.
How Brailsford managed to found a completely new team and make them the best in the world within only 3 years?
The Magic of Marginal Gains
Brailsford, a former professional cycler with an MBA himself, applied an economic concept called the aggregation of marginal gains to cycling – hoping that if he broke down everything that goes into competitive cycling, and then improved each element by 1%, they would achieve significant increases in performance.
His team started optimizing the things you might expect: Training schedules, nutrition, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires.
But Brailsford and his team didn´t stop there. Instead, they looked for 1% improvements that had been previously overlooked as not important enough. For example, he hired a doctor to teach his athletes how to properly wash their hands in order to avoid illnesses during competition. They tested different mattresses and pillows and brought them to their hotels so that their athletes could sleep in the same position every night.
They tested for the most effective massage gels and even painted the floor in the maintenance area white in order to spot any signs of dust. In short, Team Sky looked for the tiniest improvements in any area of cycling that could give them a competitive advantage.
On their own, each one of these small improvements seems unimportant and almost obsessive, but that is the exact point of it: Everyone in competitive sports is extremely talented, and everyone trains hard. The difference often comes not from a totally new training plan, but simply paying attention to small, seemingly inconsequential details that add up over time.
The results of this strategy speak for themselves: In addition to dominating the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games with the British national team, Brailsford´s Team Sky won 4 of the 5 Tour de France races between 2012 and 2016.
How Small Victories Add Up
It is easy to overrate the importance of one defining moment or the “big victories” of life while neglecting the small choices along the way. But more often than not, it is the small choices you make on a daily basis that determine your future.
How do you become a millionaire, run a marathon, or lose 50 pounds? Unless you are lucky enough to win the lottery, these outcomes are the result of many small choices you have to make daily for many months or years.
Our daily habits, whether good or bad, don´t just suddenly occur. Instead, they are built, one decision at a time. You skip a workout once? Not a big deal. It happens again two days later and then again next week? These small, seemingly insignificant choices might interrupt the habit you worked so hard to build.
But it also works out the other way: When you follow through even though you don´t feel like it, go run for just 5 minutes when all you want to do is lie in bed and eat chocolate, or do five more sales calls when you are tired and ready to call quits, you can strengthen your habits and increase your self-discipline.
No matter how small and insignificant your daily choices may seem, they can still have an enormous impact on your life over time. This is the belief of Darren Hardy, former publisher of Success Magazine. In this position, he had access to the biggest library of success advice on earth, and discovered one important principle that goes hand in hand with the aggregation of marginal gains: The Compound Effect.
Albert Einstein once called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world. He was talking about money, but the same applies to every other area of your life.
Most choices you make throughout your life don´t have an immediately visible effect. You work out once or twice, and the scale won´t change a bit. You eat a chocolate bar every night, but you won´t see any real problems for a while. There are no immediate consequences for your behaviors, but that doesn´t mean that they are not there.
Three Friends Who Took a Different Path
In his book, Hardy gives an amazing example of the truly mind-blowing power of the compound effect.
Let´s take three good friends who grew up together. They live in the same neighbourhood, have the same sales jobs, and all make about $50,000 a year. They all have average relationships and average health, with just a few pounds too much. There is no big difference among the three guys.
At some point, Friend No.1, let´s call him Larry, decides to make some positive changes in his life. He doesn´t want to make any big commitments though, so he begins to read 10 pages of a sales book every morning, listens to inspirational audiotapes for 30 minutes on his commute to work, and starts taking short walks every night with his wife.
To get in better shape, Larry also decides to cut 125 calories from his daily diet. No big deal, we are talking a few tablespoons of cereal or swapping diet soda with a bottle of water. He knows that anyone could stick to these small changes, and is committed to following through.
On the other hand, Friend No. 2, let´s call him Carlos, begins to make some small negative changes in his life. He leaves work early twice a week and feels too exhausted from his job to play with his kids, so instead he starts to drink a beer or two in front of the TV once in a while. After all, isn´t it time to have some fun in life?
The last friend, Ben, does not make any changes in his life. He is okay with where he is, or so he thinks, and only occasionally complains about not being more successful in his job and marriage.
5 months pass by, and there is no notable difference between the three friends. Larry continues to read and listen to his audiobooks each day and take walks with his wife every night. They really enjoy the time together, but it is not enough to completely change their marriage. At the same time, Carlos still leaves work early and increases his habit of drinking at night, now averaging two beers. Nothing too bad, he just wants to have some fun. Meanwhile, Ben is where he always was: Okay with his life, but feeling like there could be more to it.
10 months go by, and we don´t see any noticeable differences yet. They all stick to their routines, but they are too small to show an effect yet.
It´s not until we get to month 18 that we see any real changes. Now, Larry´s marriage has improved significantly. His daily walks with his wife led to some short runs, and they began to do some 5k races over the weekend. Also, the daily readings have improved his skills at work, and he now sells more than ever. At the same time, Carlos´ marriage is slowly getting worse. His habit of drinking leads to frequent arguments with his wife who wants him to be there for her and their children. In addition, the calories from the beer begin to stay on his belly, and it becomes obvious that he gained some weight. The differences are not too big yet, but certainly noticeable.
Around month 25, we begin to see real measurable changes. After month 28, there is a sheer explosion in change, and by month 31, the lives of the three friends couldn´t be any different.
Through his daily readings, Larry had not become one of the best sales representatives of his company, and is now earning multiple times more than his original income. His daily walks with his wife have led to their first races, and they are now preparing for their first marathon. In addition, cutting out just 125 calories per day helped him lose 33.5 pounds, and he now feels trim and healthy.
31 months = 940 days
940 days x 125 calories/day = 117,500 calories saved
117,500 calories saved x 1 pound/3,500 calories = 33.5 pounds!
Ben does as he always does. Not quite happy, but also not too worried, he just keeps going with his life, complaining once in a while.
In the meantime, Carlos had hit rock bottom. After too many heated arguments over his daily alcohol consumption, his wife decided to divorce him. In addition, leaving work early once in a while led to a generally bad work ethic, which made his boss fire him. The extra pounds he he gained from drinking beer make him feel fat and tired, and he keeps thinking to himself: What the hell happened? Just a year ago, my life was just like Larry´s. He must be so lucky!
When we see big changes in someone´s life, we often overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the power of marginal gains: Small improvements, over time, will achieve incredibly big results.
If you want to change your life like Larry did, you don´t need to start by running 10 miles a day or cutting out 1000 calories. You don´t need to run marathons in a month from now or have the perfect relationship with your partner next Friday. These results will come, if you learn to be patient and trust the process.
Begin by implementing small habits that are sustainable. Walking around the neighborhood with your spouse each night? Doable. Cutting out 125 calories a day? Doable. Reading an inspirational book for 10 minutes daily? Doable!
Change does not need to be huge to be significant. More often than not, small, consistent progress beats unsustainable all-out effort. Be patient, stick to the process, and the results will take care of themselves!