What is Avid Weekly Ideas?
Each week I publish an idea or two either from a book I am currently reading or from my backlog of book notes. 📚
Of course, this isn’t intended to replace book notes or reading the book itself. Instead the aim is to extract a key idea or two from a book that struck me as insightful and share-worthy. Then I package it into a bite-sized digestible chunk. I hope these little nuggets of insight will spark some inspiration or ideas in your own mind. 💡
Tiny Habits Make a Big Difference
Today’s focus book is Atomic Habits by James Clear.
I really like this book and I think it’s a fantastic example of how you can take an idea that seems so simple (tiny habits make a big difference) but yet present it in a fresh and interesting light.
The core idea of the book is that many people mistakenly think success comes from one big defining moment, when in fact it is the tiniest things, compounded over time, that bring true sustainable results in the long run.
I think this passage sums it up very nicely.
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.
Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding.
The power of small changes
Clear starts by recounting the story of the British Cycling team. This is a very powerful story and will be my key focus for this week’s instalment of Avid Weekly.
Let’s dive in.
Here is the starting point. This was a team that was below average and struggled with nearly “one hundred years of mediocrity.”
THE FATE OF British Cycling changed one day in 2003. The organization, which was the governing body for professional cycling in Great Britain, had recently hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity. Since 1908, British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games, and they had fared even worse in cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de France.1, 2 In 110 years, no British cyclist had ever won the event.
In fact, they were so bad that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team “because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.”
Enter Dave Brailsford. The man hired to turn things around.
I guess at this point you’re skeptical and you’re wondering what can one manager do when a team is so average? Especially since many people believe that it’s raw talent that wins trophies and by conventional standards it seemed the the Brits were short on raw cycling talent.
Here’s what made Braisford different from previous coaches – he had a…
…relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke 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.”
So what did this mean practically?
Braisford and his coaches began by making a series of small adjustments in obvious areas (the low hanging fruit). Here are some examples.
- They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable.
- They rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip.
- They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout.
- They tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel to find the lightest and most aerodynamic material.
But they didn’t stop there. Having exhausted the low hanging fruit, they continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas.
- They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery.
- They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold.
- They tested out the best type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider.
- They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
Think all these little changes don’t make much of a difference? Think again.
As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.
Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.”
Impressed? There’s more.
“That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would go on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years.
During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history. [emphasis added]
And then Clear concludes with this powerful question that serves to frame the rest of the book.
How does this happen? How does a team of previously ordinary athletes transform into world champions with tiny changes that, at first glance, would seem to make a modest difference at best? Why do small improvements accumulate into such remarkable results, and how can you replicate this approach in your own life?
That’s the question the rest of the book aims to answer.
In next week’s instalment of Avid Weekly, I will share my notes on the practical tips I got from the book.
But the aim of this post is to pause and reflect as well as consider the potentially immense power that small changes and habits can make in your life. If it works at the highest level of professional sport surely you and I could adapt this in some way in our lives, to powerful effect.
TL;DR of key ideas
- Many people mistakenly think success comes from one big defining moment, when in fact it is the tiniest things, compounded over time, that bring true sustainable results in the long run.
- An emphatic example of this is the British Cycling team which started as a team that has struggled with almost a hundred years of mediocrity.
- They hired new management to turn things around, led by Dave Brailsford. He called his strategy an “aggregation of marginal gains” and started making many little changes.
- Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team began a period of dominance in cycling that is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.
- That is the power of small improvements. They can accumulate into remarkable results.
What do you think of the power of small habits and changes? Do you have any examples of how you or someone you know have applied this principle to great success? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments or tweet me @AvidBookReadr.
If you liked this week’s ideas, please consider reading the entire book to get the full context, meaning and nuance. As always, happy reading! 📚
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