A Little Makes a Lot

I read an article this week that has made such a difference for me that I’m eager to share it with you.

In This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened, James Clear talks about Dave Brailsford, the General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team.

When Brailsford took the job in 2010, no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France.  Ever.  And it was Brailsford’s job to change that.

Brailsford believed in the “aggregation of marginal gains”, which he’s quoted as describing as a “1% margin for improvement in everything you do.”

Now, 1% doesn’t sound like a lot, does it?  It’s so small, it feels really ACHIEVABLE.

If you take 100 steps, a 1% improvement means adding just one more.

Picture eating 1% less ice cream and 1% more broccoli.  You’d hardly notice the difference.

For the British team, this included things like making little improvements in nutrition and training programs, sure.  But they also did things like finding the most effective massage oil and finding pillows that helped the riders sleep better – and took them along when they traveled.

Just lots and lots of little tweaks across the board.

So I tried it out this week.

I kept in mind making little 1% improvements throughout my day.

For me this included things like holding a stretch just a little bit longer.  Writing one more quick email before I moved on to something else. Re-filing a document on my computer that I saw wasn’t in the right folder instead of leaving that for later.

Not anything huge.  Just thinking, “How can I do this a LITTLE bit better?”

What I found was amazing, though.

I found myself feeling more accomplished.  This may sound a bit funny, but because I was looking for ways to make little improvements, I really noticed the little improvements I was making.

When I thought of a way to serve a client a shade better, I not only felt good for having given better service, but I also thought, “Yes!  1%.  I’m doing better.”

This is very different from how I’ve done things in the past.

I’ll bet I’m not the only one who’s decided to make a Big Improvement – like a radical change in diet – only to get discouraged and give up.

But eat 1% better?  No sweat.

That’s how we work, though, isn’t it?  We think change needs to be Big And Significant in order to matter.  We think CHANGE instead of change.

But what really matters are those little daily decisions.  Are you going to let yourself slide on this little, insignificant thing (What does it really matter anyway?), or are you going to go for that little bit more, that little bit better?  Are you going to stretch for that 1%?  Go that one step further?

And remembering that it’s a 1% improvement helps us stay out of the “perfection” trap.  We’re not looking to do something perfectly.  Just a smidge better.

I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things this week as I’ve played with this.

  • I feel encouraged with a sense of positive momentum.

Each success helps pave the way for the next.  I feel good about what I’m doing.

It doesn’t matter that the successes are incremental.  In fact, I’m surprised that the size of the step doesn’t matter at all.  A step is a step.  A success is a success.

And it feels GOOD.

  • I’m EXPERIENCING myself as someone who accomplishes things, and it’s funny what a difference that makes.

I don’t know if this will make sense to you, but it’s like there’s a little part of me that doesn’t hear the positive things I say to myself – or that other people say to me.  It only knows what it feels and experiences.

Each time I succeed in my 1% improvement, it’s like this part of me feels it and internalizes it.  And it, too, aligns with my sense of being capable of succeeding.  Having every part of me on board with that makes a difference.

So, how did the “aggregation of marginal gains” work out for Brailsford and Team Sky? 

Well, Brailsford’s goal was to have a Tour de France win in 5 years.  It happened in 3.

And then again the next year.

In between, members of Team Sky also won 70% of the gold medals for cycling in the 2012 Olympics.

While I’m not out to win the Tour de France or Olympic gold, I have some big plans and dreams for myself.  And I have faith that my 1% improvements will help get me there.

It seems that the way to CHANGE is through change.

Does this feel doable for you?  What do you think of the idea of compounding small successes?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.


Comments 10

  1. Hi Sara!

    This is so great and so helpful. I’m always trying to change things 100% – or even 200% – and then I get so frustrated with not reaching that goal that I end up with a change close to 0%.

    Wait…wow! 1% is close to 0%. Maybe what I end up with is the 1% change, but with much more struggle and unhappiness in getting there, vs. if i set that as my original goal.

    Ooh, what juicy goodness!


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      I agree, Christina! Aiming for 100% (or 200%) and only getting 1% is a totally different energy than aiming for and achieving a 1% improvement. (In fact, I initially wrote that sentence starting with achieving 1%, but didn’t like leaving it on the down energy.)

      What I found, too, was that I was motivated to keep going, to keep looking for more 1%s. (And I’m pretty sure that it was even higher sometimes – maybe even 5%! 🙂 ) All those improvements add up!

      And now I’m going to read your other comment. (I LOVE it when you comment!)

  2. I had to come back and comment again, because I had a big Aha.

    First I must confess that when I was reading your example, I thought, “Wait – didn’t the British actually win because Lance Armstrong stopped racing? Doesn’t that mean it wasn’t their 1% at all?”

    After sitting with those doubts for the next half hour or so, I heard this wisdom: “We are never alone in the efforts we make. A change of 1% is enough movement of energy for the Universe to start changing things in our favor. And yes, that includes things like dominant competitors dropping out of the race we’re trying to win.”

    It was such a powerful insight that I couldn’t keep it to myself. 🙂


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      This is such a great insight, Christina! Thank you for coming back to share it.

      It really is about the energy and the momentum. It truly makes a difference. And I LOVE the statement, “We are never alone in the efforts we make.” I believe that the Universe really and truly is on our side and is ready – even eager – to help us. When we get discouraged and down, we feel disconnected from that support. We don’t even ALLOW help, much less ASK for it.

      I know there’ve also been times when I’ve asked for it, but didn’t really believe it was going to happen. It was almost like part of me was waiting to say, “See. It didn’t work. There’s no help out there.”

      But the times when I’ve stepped out on faith and trusted…things have unfolded in ways better than I dreamed possible. I didn’t even KNOW to hope for some of the results I got!

      I think that the Universe is always ready to show us that we’re right. When we go into a situation with the thought, “I’m on my own. There’s no one helping me.”, the Universe shows us we’re right. When we have the thought, “I’m always supported and loved!”, the Universe shows us we’re right.

      And you and I both help people make that transition.

      Thanks so much for sharing your Aha here.


  3. Your idea sounds wonderful! It goes along with some changes I’m trying to make in my life right now. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Also, thank you for your “word of the year” concept instead of making New Year’s Resolutions. My “word” keeps popping up everywhere, and I can honestly feel a change. I’ve even talked and sang about it at church!!

    Love you, Sara,


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      How exciting, Joyce, to already be noticing changes so soon! What fun!

      I’m glad you found this inspiring. It’s making a difference for me, so I was excited to share it.

      Love you, too, Joyce, and hope to see you soon.

  4. Am revisiting the 1% thing…makes a lot more sense to me now than when I first heard it from you last year.

    Started today to make those small tweeks, and I’m encouraged.

    Will keep you posted as I continue this new mindset.

    Thanks for the post.

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      Thank you, Monique. I really like Ann Cuddy’s work and am glad you linked it here. Amazing how our minds, bodies and emotions work together and affect each other, isn’t it?


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