4 Ways to Transform Small Gains Into Big Results

Improving ourselves isn’t always easy, but the results are well worth the effort. The great news is that you don’t have to make a ton of huge adjustments all at once in order to see the changes you’re after. Take a few lessons from the school of small, cumulative gains, and learn how they can have a major impact on your journey to self-improvement.

Sweat the small stuff It’s easy to see small improvements as worthless. The British cycling team is proof that small changes matter. In 2002, Sir Dave Brailsford took on the coaching role of a team who had only one medal in 76 years. His unconventional coaching focused on small improvements he called “marginal gains.” At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Team Britain took home seven of 10 available medals that year, and repeated the feat at the 2012 London games.

How did Brailsford’s marginal gains method work? He saw areas where cyclists could make slight improvements — even as tiny as 1% — and these small advancements added up. The changes were all simple tweaks, but 1% improvements in each of numerous areas generated a greater composite change. Apply this to your own life by identifying key areas where improvement will affect overall performance. For instance, maybe you want to run a faster half marathon. You could look at your shoes to see if there is a better pair for your body type and running style, focus on your breathwork, and run short bursts to improve recovery time. Alone, these exercises would give you small results, but together, you could shave minutes off your time. Similarly, if you’re trying to lose weight, add a 10-minute walk to your evening routine, get rid of the junk food stashed in your refrigerator, and drink more water throughout the day; that extra 10 minutes of being on your feet won’t be enough to help you reach your weight loss goals on its own, but combining it with other healthy choices will amp up its effectiveness.

Practice Makes Perfect — In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made the work of Anders Ericsson famous and brought “the 10,000 rule” into common cultural literacy. Ericsson’s work stated that a cumulative 10,000 hours of work at anything will result in expertise. Want to get good at the violin? Go ahead and plan on 10 years of work. Thinking of being a chess master? Practice for 10,000 hours, and you’re in! OK, so the theory is a bit more nuanced than that, but you get the gist. It doesn’t matter if you are naturally gifted at a skill; you must put in the hours. More importantly, the hours you spend should be “deliberate practice,” a type of practice that stretches you to a level of skill slightly beyond that which you have mastered. While a newer study out of Princeton proves gains are unevenly apportioned based on the field of study, the takeaway lesson is still relevant: If you want to get better at something, you’re going to have to work at it.  

Reward better — If you are working hard toward a goal, (especially if it’s going to take you 10 years to get there), it is a good idea to celebrate successes along the way. However, how you reward yourself is just as important as how you get to the reward. It is easy for us to choose rewards that undermine our success. Instead, choose a reward that motivates you to get to the next level. For example, if your goal was to hit a sales goal number at work, you might think of taking the team out for a celebratory drink. Instead, what if you reward the team with a really helpful class during a catered lunch that would help them close even more sales? Don’t look backward — keep good momentum going with rewards that push you farther. The Ivey Business Journal, a trade publication specializing in management practices, suggests that rewards that are meaningful to the recipient are much more likely to keep morale boosted than a cash bonus the employee can’t control.

Say no — Let’s keep this simple: We say yes too often. We say yes because we are afraid we’ll get in trouble if we say no, afraid we’ll miss out on an opportunity, or want to make people happy. If you want to improve your life this year, start saying no. Paula Rizzo, an Emmy Award-winning producer and entrepreneur, suggests that you can say no with class. She also says that saying no allows you to be more productive: It keeps you from becoming overextended, gives you control over what’s happening in your life, and allows you to choose the value of your time and act accordingly.

Each of these tips represent small changes that can make big advances in your life. Be patient; by consistently practicing these skills, you will see great improvements over time.