The Results of the 1% Challenge

The Results of the 1% Challenge

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The 1% Challenge: Marginal Gains Applied to Business

If you don’t want to read the list, here’s the 20 marginal improvements I made over the course of January:

  1. Set up email-based reminders for my bills
  2. Took a big, complicated task, split off the simpler parts, and assigned them to a VA
  3. Bought a sunrise simulator to make waking up early easier (cementing a keystone habit)
  4. Noticed a mental shift from ‘there’s no point in outsourcing this tiny task’ to ‘I’m going to outsource ALL these tiny tasks’
  5. Learned some tricks to use LastPass more efficiently
  6. Injured myself and began the process of overhauling my workstation
  7. Shifted from an all-in-one workspace to two– one digital, one analog
  8. Hired out a couple more small projects
  9. Established the pre-morning routine preparation routine
  10. Tweaked the new digital/analog hybrid productivity system to account for a weekly review
  11. Created some reminders for spring planting
  12. Handed off publishing of the 1% challenge updates
  13. Bought a new pointer device and began integrating it into my workflow
  14. Brought my VAs into my Asana environment so as to manage their tasks better
  15. My stepkids got into a car accident and no balls got dropped
  16. New workstation installed at the correct height for typing
  17. Amazon business achieves near-automation!
  18. Learned Inbox shortcuts to reduce mousing and improve speed
  19. Set up reminders to ask for credit increases at the appropriate times
  20. Weekly Review = 1% improvement ‘hackathon’

That’s all the specifics, but what were the main themes?

Main themes:

  1. A lot of me— stuff completely about me, my needs, and my habits, not things for customers or clients. Partially situational, partly because when you start paying attention, there’s so much about your operations and workflow that can be improved– and you really do have to help yourself before you can help anyone else.
  2. A lot of outsourcing. Sorry. This challenge happened to coincide with a growth stage my business when I was both willing and able to outsource. Don’t worry, this will work without outsourcing.
  3. Setting up reminders. This isn’t reminders per se, it’s because I already have a pretty good immediate task management system, that the only outliers that fit into the system were the small tasks, oddly broken up across a long period of time. More generally, you could call this a category for setting up systems that ensure things get done without needing to remember them, but during my challenge, I really only needed to improve my handling of oddball tasks.
  4. Learning tricks for the tools I use frequently. This is a matter of managing your assets. It’s not about using all the features, it’s about identifying a mild friction point and figuring out how to solve it. These tend to be ‘clean’ improvements in that they don’t require ongoing tweaking.
  5. Experiencing the fruits of labor. Habits are hard to stick to if you don’t see results. I was fortunate in two minor emergencies this month. The first, injuring myself to the point of being unable to work, propelled me into outsourcing with more focus than I’ve ever been able to muster before. Then the car accident that my stepkids were in showed me that I’ve been successful, not just in creating failsafes, but I’m getting far enough ahead in my work that my VA already had everything she needed to do things for me. That was pretty cool.

Mindset over Matters

Remember the definition of a 1% improvement? “An improvement that makes a process, system, workflow or constraint at least 1% faster, easier, or more effective.”

There were two noteworthy effects. The first was how fast things started coming together. One improvement a day stretched my inventiveness and my ability to keep plates spinning, but the momentum was incredible.

The second effect was more lasting. Throughout the month of February, I haven’t continued the challenge in any formal way. But the improvements I put in place in January don’t just continue— they continue to get better.

This is important, because all too often, novel solutions work not because they are good, but because they are novel. They shake everything up and force you onto your toes. This can make you more effective, but only while you stay on your toes. The real test is if you remain effective when you turn your attention to other things.

[Tweet “All too often, novel solutions work not because they are good, but because they are novel.”]

Throughout February, my handoffs to VAs got more and more effective, my new workspace slowly got broken in like new shoes, and the reminders and new tool tricks have been saving me time all the way along. Some stuff has failed– the tablet-as-mouse was a failed experiment, and I’ve been through three more mice since then, but on the whole, the cascade effect has been dramatic.

Tangible Results


The most obvious result is the handoff of tasks to VAs. That’s so obvious it’s practically like cheating. I basically cloned myself, I saved so much time. Moreover, my VAs are so much more effective at the tasks I was doing that they take less than half the time I did and do a better job.

I know that people worry about the cost and commitment of a VA. My recommendation would be to pick ONE recurring task to outsource. It might cost a few dollars a week. Once you get your toes wet, it becomes much easier to add another, and another. And it’s easier to keep the costs under control, too.

Updated Workstation

Another one that’s so big it feels like cheating. My workspace before wasn’t even a space, it was a variety of flat surfaces around the house. Apparently when all desks are too big for you to be comfortable, your standards for acceptability are quite low. But all that came to an end when I pinched off a few nerves in my arms — I am all about the supportive posture and ergonomic devices now.

I also switched to a two-station system; one digital, one analog. I find that it feels more natural and creative to scrawl out blog drafts by hand, then edit them on the computer later. I can also correlate this system with a much greater output of writing, although I’m sure it isn’t strict causation (I also have more time to write because of the work I outsourced).

More Effective, Fewer Hours

I spend less time working for practical reasons– my RSI won’t let me. But I still get a lot accomplished. It’s just hard to quantify it. Let me throw down some data.

  • Between them, the VAs are handling tasks that can and have taken up full workweeks of mine. However I also used the opportunity to scale up their responsibilities. I have them do tasks oftener than I ever managed to do on my own.
  • I am making headway on projects long-languishing– the website, for instance.
  • I am writing more, in part because I handed off everything but the writing. I no longer format, create images, etc.
  • I have a firm structure for the day that hardly ever gets away on me. 90 minutes, then breakfast. 90 minutes, then coffee break. 90 minutes, then lunch. Calls, finish up work for perhaps an hour, plan the next day. I leave the office and don’t return until morning. It doesn’t seem like much, it sure doesn’t feel like much, but everything keeps ticking over without me working evenings like I used to.
  • I can focus my attention further into the future, structure projects and line up tasks in such a way that allows me to make effective use of my processes. You and I both know how hard it is to get ahead of yourself and stay ahead. At the end of the challenge in January, I was a day ahead of myself. At the end of February, I’m almost two weeks ahead. I hope to be a month ahead of myself in March and work on staying there.
  • If you grant that the VAs are doing essential work, then I have at least doubled my output (It feels like closer to 2.5x) while keeping my costs pretty manageable. I didn’t make any extra money as a result of their efforts, but I can bear the increase in costs for a few months.

The Wish List

One thing I hoped to have happen, but knew wouldn’t, was more money. Not just because I want more money, but because it’s nice to be able to say: 1% improvements made me $X in just 30 days!

But I knew it wouldn’t, and here’s why: My changes weren’t geared towards making money.

For at least the last two years, I’ve known that *I* was the limiting factor to growth. There’s just not enough of me to go around. So attempting to increase revenues when there’s only me to shoulder the load would have been backwards at best, and a total disaster at worst. There are a couple of ways to make more money without more work, but nothing that would have showed a profit in under 30 days. So I knew that I had to be building the underpinnings — before money came subscribers, before subscribers came platform, and before platform came figuring out how to market, continuously, at scale. With less of me.

I want to point out again — I’ve known this limitation for at least two years. Maybe three. And trust me, I’ve been working to overcome that limitation.

Yet I made more headway in one month than the previous six.

I don’t want to put that all down to the 1% Challenge. For one thing, the previous six months had been almost entirely devoted to bulwarking the Amazon income so that it stopped fluctuating so much. This flattened the feast-and-famine cycles. Not having to worry about the next famine allowed me, finally, to focus on scale. And it just so happened that Change Catalyst was really, really ready to scale.

Your results will vary too, because your business is different. I bet if I repeated this exact challenge, it would be different yet again. A business is a fluid thing.

But the 1% improvements? They were important.

They created wins. They built momentum ferociously. They developed structure, the structure all our businesses need.

So it’s time for Round Two

And I want you to join me.

It won’t be as break-neck as the first round. I’m looking at 1-2 improvements per week, but you can scale up or down to suit your needs.

Do you want see these kind of results in your business? Do you want see dramatic improvements in your effectiveness, your productivity? Your impact?

Go here for more information.