Go Big or Go Home is the most common appraoch people tend to take to make a big leap or grow. We always set big goals, choose the biggest task and in the end, when we are not able to accomplish them we get demotivated. Our failure is the biggest factor for our demotivation.

If you are demotivated you will lack interest and aspiration to work any further. But what if we are constantly able to work and at the same time stay motivated. The idea is quite simple, making marginal gains. 

If we aspire to make $1000 in savings our goal should not be to make $1000 dollars. But $1 and once we achieve this small goal then we can aspire further. Our focus should not be on the goal, but rather in the system. Building a system will help us to repeat the success and grow.

We humans often tend to seek immediate results, but we forget the growth curve is always exponential. The growth in the initial stages is quite low but over a period of time these small changes compound to give big results.

Consistent marginal gains over a long period of time can provide significant growth. The marginal changes in the initial stages are not even noticeable, sometimes cannot be even recorded. But with significant accumulation of these marginal gains it ends up with a big change in the graph.

I came across the idea of marginal gains while reading the book atomic habits. I have also written a complete atomic habits book summary. The marginal gains rule is explained beautifully with the example of the British cycling team.

Marginal Gain: Story of Britain’s Cycling Team

British cycling marginal gains

The future of the British cycling team was in turmoil in the year 2002. This was the time when the governing body of British cycling decided to hire Dave Brailsford as the director of performance for the team.

In the 76-year of cycling tournaments, the British team had won only 1 gold medal. The performance of the team was so underwhelming that cycle companies would refuse to sell cycles to the team. The companies argued, if people saw the British team using their cycle, people might stop buying them.

Since 1908 the British cycling team had won just one Gold Medal. And in the last 110 years of racing were one of the worst performing teams in tour de France(One of the biggest cycling tournament)

But the fate of the team changed after Dave joined the team as a performance director. Dave had one key strategy, which he blindly followed throughout his time with the team. Dave called this strategy “the aggregation of marginal gains”, which in simple terms means looking for tiny marginal improvements in every aspect of the game. 

Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you break 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 along with other coaches started to breakdown various factors involved in a cycling race. Like what factors are responsible for aerodynamics of the cycle. What factors impact the friction of the tyres, what impacts the speed. After finding all these micro points they started marginal improvement in these areas.

So how did they do these micro changes? They started looking for the smallest improvement in the process they can do to provide better results. Dave started these changes by analysing the aerodynamics of the cycle by putting the cycle in a wind tunnel. They redesigned the cycle seat to be more aerodynamic and comfortable for the riders.

The team started to apply alcohol to their tyres for better grip. Dave also hired a surgeon to teach the riders the best ways to wash hands to reduce chances of catching cold during the races. They increased their focus on health and hygiene. 

They tested different massage gel to see which led to the fasted muscle recovery. They also carried their own pillow and beds so that the riders are in similar conditions even during the races.

Similarly they did many of these micro improvements so that at the end all of them compound to give a better overall outcome. And the trick actually worked. Though initially the results didn’t really give any big results, but as the saying goes consistency is the key to success.

People overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in 5 years.

Dave and his team were able to see results in 2008 Beijing Olympic, where the British cycling team won 60% of all the gold medals. And later on, they went to win 5 Tour de France titles in the span of 6 years.  

It took them over a decade to become dominant World champions. But the small changes had definitely made an impact.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

marginal gains

So how did this idea of marginal gain come into existence? In an interview with the Harvard business review, Dave attributed marginal gains techniques development to his MBA background and his love for kaizen and other process improvement techniques. 

In the core Aggregation of Marginal gains means thinking small improvements and making many of these small improvements. In your lifetime you might have heard many of the people say you “Go Big or Go Home”. But the marginal gains idea proposes to think of the smallest unit which impacts the result. And improve on these micro units in a continuous manner. 

Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.

Too often then not we attribute success to the big movements that are easily visible. But goals are not achieved by hitting a six in the last ball. The big defining movement might have been the winning runs but to reach that position there were many small movements which took place.

The idea of aggregation of marginal gains mentioned in the book atomic habits is quite simple. Make tiny improvements over a long course of time. Initially, these tiny improvements will not be noticeable. But over the period of time, these micro improvements will compound to huge improvements.

Compounding is the biggest factor which comes into the picture of marginal gains theory. If you consider a period of over a year and kept on getting depreciating by 1% at the end of the year you would have gained 0.03% which is almost zero. In the same way if you would have improved by 1% each day, this year you would have become 37% better.

Tiny changes can be seen for over a period of one year from the graph. 1% is a small number if it is calculated for a day or even a week. But if worked consistently with commitment, the number grows to 37% over a period of one year.

Creating a habit to consistently do the work every day will not look at the task as a chore. But remember to improve may use the 5-hour rule to do the same.

How to use Marginal Gains in personal life.

The marginal gains rule can be applied to our all-day to day aspect. From marginal gains rule in business to marginal gains in healthcare. The applications are endless. Even I used this marginal gains theory in my life.

I was overweight with around 10 kg. According to my BMI the body weight for my height should have been around 68 Kg. But my actual weight was 82 KG. So during this pandemic when all the gyms were closed I decided to run. While running I decided to measure my daily km runs. 

But if you are running for the first time you know how repelling it is. But I decided everyday I will run 1 step extra then the previous day. Though many days I was not able to complete it and felt no motivation to run. But it takes time to build up the momentum, not days or weeks, but months.

By the end of the year, which is the time I am writing this article, my current weight is 66KG. Just imaging I had never lost weight in my entire life and today I am in shape. It takes consistency and patience, But let me tell you the end results are definitely sweet.

Final Thought

I am not a person with a lot of willpower and commitment. But I can manage small improvements and while writing this article I realized that’s what most people are. For people like us, we can’t do big life-changing acts in mere days. We take time and the marginal gain theory promises results if time is given.

We cannot achieve things in a day or two but if did consistently over a long period, we will be able to accomplish it. If I can do it, so can you. 


Hey, I am Chetan Poojari the founder of Geeksla. I work as a Product Manager and also an Online Content Creator. A travel and tech junkie who writes articles to simplify complex things.

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