The 1% Challenge: Applying the Principles of Marginal Gains to Business

The 1% challenge: Each day, implement an improvement that makes a process, system, workflow or constraint at least 1% faster, easier, or more effective.

I live for optimization and tweaking. It’s my geekery. And while I have no problem researching and implementing relatively small changes, I know that I fall down when a major overhaul is needed, or when something needs to be built from scratch.

This is sometimes called perfectionism, but I don’t like that word because I think it implies an anxiety about imperfection, which I don’t have. What I think it’s more about is getting a job completely finished so that it can be safely stowed away and you can move onto the next thing. This is about reducing your mental overhead so that you can focus on the task at hand without trying to think about when you’ll get the chance to document the new workflow after you’ve kneaded the lumps out. I have enough on my plate without trying to project out 3 weeks into the future.

So, to recap: I am amazing at tweaking a pre-existing workflow. Starting from scratch, however, has certain structural problems that means I can’t sustain my focus all the way through the process.

How Can I Do More Of What I’m Good At?

So what if I focused SOLELY on tweaking? Would that cause me to abandon much-needed overhauls, or would I just start breaking them down into mini-processes that could then be tweaked?

Luckily, I’m not the first person to have thought about this. Here’s an article from James Clear:

“Brailsford [Great Britain Cycling Team coach] believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of the riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat and the weight of the tires.

But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.

Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in 5 years time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.”

So– it’s one anecdote, but clearly this has worked for someone.

How Do You Make a Habit That’s Not A Habit?

I suck at habits. I suck at routine. People ask me how I got so good at systems and processes? It’s because I can’t stick with a routine to save my life unless it’s written down. Studies show that we default to habits because then the brain can coast and save its effort for novel situations; my brain apparently feels that’s too easy. But because I don’t get into ruts, I’m a good candidate for this kind of optimization. People who are more easily settled into habits have to work a lot harder to nudge themselves along a slightly different path.

But, 1% every day still means it’s a habit. A habit of thought, perhaps, but a habit.

Not Too Big, Not Too Small

The next trick with habit formation is to make it small enough to do that your resistance to completing the habit is as near to zero as you can get it. The Tiny Habits guy, BJ Fogg, says that if you want to get in the habit of flossing your teeth, you should instead commit to flossing one tooth. By the time you’ve got the floss in your mouth to tackle that one tooth, it will feel ridiculous not to tackle the rest.

But since my habit is, as I mentioned a habit of thought I can of course commit to thinking about what a 1% incremental improvement might be. But I’m busy and I might forget because my brain is crowded with other thoughts.

So in this case, BJ Fogg recommends a habit trigger. You have a pre-existing habit that triggers the new Tiny Habit you want to implement. For my money, finding a good habit trigger is probably the hardest part of this whole process, since of the few things I do habitually, I do few of them on a daily basis.

But in this case I’m going to add a daily reminder to my Inbox, which I (mostly) review every morning, unless I’m on the road. Sometimes I just start work because I already know what has to be done, but I will open my inbox at some point every day and see the reminder.


1%challenge (1)Accountability

The final puzzle piece is accountability, or as I like to think about it, “being an example to others.” Can you tell I’m an eldest child? Basically, I see quite a few upsides to being transparent and public about this challenge:

  • Knowing that I have to post a note about what 1% improvement I made today will remind me to actually do it. At the very least, I’ll have to show up and explain what I thought about doing (the Tiny Habit).
  • Moreover, I know from years of coaching people on this very topic that implementing systems and processes are hard, and there’s a lot of tweaking involved. So much tweaking, in fact, that people often ask me what they’re doing wrong that the process isn’t coming together for them. So showing people what it really looks like to pursue these little tweaks will be helpful for many.
  • Hopefully people will want to try their own marginal gains, and experience firsthand the impact it has.
  • Knowing people will read my processes always makes me a lot more thorough about them. So having to write them up, while potentially time-consuming and therefore an implementation hurdle, will be a net benefit.

Rules and Regulations

Any good challenge has to have a set of rules in order to provide structure and hard edges. This is what I have so far:

I will complete my 1% challenge weekdays in January, with an option to extend. There are 20 weekdays in all, which I feel is a decent test period for the first iteration.

  • I will post my accountability reports on both G+ and my long-neglected Facebook page.
  • I will not differentiate between personal marginal gains and professional gains. I don’t differentiate them as a rule, since I believe that they each contribute to each other. That means sleep optimization is totally on the table.
  • 1-shot improvements that require little follow-up are obviously ideal, but 1% improvements towards a larger charge are permissible. (This is the difference between buying an ergonomic keyboard to avoid RSIs and trying to go for a walk every day.)
  • Periodically, I’ll review the improvements I’ve made in a separate post in order to show long-term implementation prospects. Sometimes you make an improvement and then immediately forget about it because it was so necessary and you can’t even imagine going back. And sometimes they get replaced by a subsequent iteration. And sometimes there’s an invisible cost associated with that implementation that means it’s not an improvement at all, so it gets dropped. These are things you can only see after some time has elapsed, so I’m not sure how frequently these updates will be posted, but with the running record I’m sure that it won’t be too difficult to implement them.

I’ll be starting this challenge on Monday, January 4th, so if you’d like to see my progress, please Like the Change Catalyst¬†Facebook page.