Marginal Gains Theory

Photo by Hayley Murray on Unsplash

The reason the Start Small method of achieving goals works, is rooted in the marginal gains theory. I’ve only recently heard of this theory and have to credit Joel Cochran for introducing it to me on an episode of the Proclivity Podcast. When I researched it a bit further, there’s a ton of evidence out there that supports what I’ve come to realize; making small gains yields big improvements in the long run. Essentially, the marginal gains theory supports the idea that 1% gains in many areas will cumulatively create a large positive impact.

The research and evidence supports the notion that as you make changes and see positive results, you continue to be motivated to achieve more gains and will look for ways to improve elsewhere. I believe this has the potential to help millions of people and organizations improve their results, so it’s my hope the theory will be taught in schools at scale someday. What better way to prepare someone for the world than giving them a tool to succeed in both their personal and professional lives?

Organizations already use the continuous improvement model but many times they make the same mistake individuals make; they take on huge projects that are difficult to complete and end up failing. If organizations were to take a 1% improvement approach, the projects would be much smaller, take less time to complete, and hold everyone’s interest long enough to make a positive impact. Over time, this could change the culture to one where employees are taking it upon themselves to make positive changes to benefit the organization.

The Start Small method and the marginal gains theory help build mental toughness, just like exercise helps build physical toughness. By being intentional about making 1% improvements, you’re changing the way you view the world and building the confidence that you’re in control of your life. I bet you can make a 1% improvement in your life before the end of the day!

Personal Growth

Personal growth is the best place for using the Start Small method because of the complex nature of working through your emotions and beliefs. The more complex the situation is, the better the method works and it doesn’t get more complex than trying to work through decades of experiences that have brought you to the place you are today, both good and bad. Most of us struggle to make changes because we’re afraid we’ll be judged by others if we fail, so we choose to just keep going with what we have, just waiting for “the right time” to change.

By Starting Small, there’s less chance for failure because you aren’t taking on a monumental goal, just taking the initial step that puts you closer to the goal to build confidence in yourself. How many people want to lose 20 pounds? 50 pounds? They choose a date to start, roll out of bed 2 hours early, run 2 miles when they haven’t run in years, and eat nothing but kale and broccoli, only to find they didn’t lose 5 pounds that week, call this a failure and give up because it’s really hard and they aren’t making large gains. In other words, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Maybe this works for you, great; but it hasn’t worked for millions of people looking to reach their personal goals so those people need another method.

With the Start Small method, I suggest those people don’t even focus on losing weight but on making small changes to behaviors they know contribute to the problem. If you’re drinking a soda every day with lunch, decrease the size a couple days a week for a month, then cut out soda one day a week. Soon, you’ll be losing weight without suffering through the pain of kale and running. You’ll begin to build confidence and making small behavioral changes will become a part of your life over time, ultimately allowing you to achieve success. Build off the small gains, and don’t let the end goal overwhelm your focus on positive daily activities.

The key to this working is to remain intentional about your goals and admit to yourself that going all out on a large goal isn’t sustainable for your personality and forgive yourself for failing, because you will fail from time to time. Accept failure as an opportunity to improve and get back to making small changes. Focus more on the behaviors than the goal itself so the failure doesn’t destroy your confidence. What small change can you make today to get you closer to the goal?