How to make big improvements in a small way

There’s a phenomenon which is said to have originated in sport called 'marginal gains'.  According to Sir Dave Brailsford, who became the director of performance for the British Cycling Team in 2003, if you break down everything you could think of that goes into whatever you’re doing, then improve each element (or some them) by 1%, you will get an overall significant increase in performance when you put them all together. It seems this is much more effective than trying to improve one aspect by 100%, and probably less daunting to be honest.

So, when we apply this to our own performance, whether at work, home, relationships, or in sport, how can we make those marginal gains that add up to some tangible change that we can see? As with all change, there need to be three elements in place first;

  • Are we suffering enough to drive us towards the change - do we want it enough? Or is there something powerful enough to draw us towards the change? Being motivated enough to put in the work is essential. How many projects have you started which have then fizzled out because they weren’t really that important? This is especially true where we’re talking about personal change, and most successful change has both drivers (away from something and towards something else) in place.
  • Do we have the self-efficacy to believe that the change is possible? A fear of failure can have a huge impact on our ability to change something. Believing that you can is so important as it stops us giving up if things get sticky. Our belief in ourselves can even impact on whether you start to make the change or identify the goal.
  • Are we committed to being better, and the work that it might entail? There are many theories on how long it takes before we can form a new habit/way of thinking, (including Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers) but there is no doubt that practice is essential. Of course, we have to be practicing what we want to improve, or we’ll get good at something we don’t want!

Let’s assume that all of these are in place, and we want to go ahead. I need to use an example here to demonstrate how it might work. Imagine you have an important interview coming up; you feel nervous because this job’s exactly what you want. How can you make marginal gains to improve your overall performance?

If we split the interview down into all its elements, what would we have? Let’s take the preparation, knowledge, venue, what to wear, and performance elements to start with. I've identified four main areas to concentrate on;

  • Mindset - how can you see yourself fulfilling this role? What’s driving your desire for this role? What would you gain from doing this job? How would you develop in this role? What can you add to the company? What skills and knowledge do you have that will benefit the company?
  • Reflection - what are you visualising? How can you focus on a positive outcome? What will you wear to make you feel good on the day? How can you learn from your previous positive experiences of interviews of something similar? How will you make sure your body language reflects your positivity?
  • Language - what are you telling yourself about the interview? How can you make your language positive, for example, instead of saying 'what if I don't do well', try 'what if I do really well?'. Notice how you can turn your language around.
  • Method - how will you be in the interview? What will you look like? How much time will you dedicate for preparation?  Where will you work best to do your prep? What research is necessary for you to be prepared? How can you make sure your journey is stress-free?

Let’s do another example - who wants to make a change in their lifestyle - giving up smoking for example?

Identify the parts of giving up smoking; making the decision, getting rid of all cigarettes from your home, sticking to your plan. Then apply the same four areas of;

  • Mindset - what’s driving your desire? What will you gain? Be honest about what you’ll lose if you give up (a sense of alliance with other smokers, maybe friends?). What’s your gut feeling about doing this? What’s tipped you to this point, this decision?
  • Reflection - whose advice can you take on this? How can your GP help you? How good will life be like when you’re a non-smoker? What else will you be able to do instead, particularly with the money you’ll save? How good will you feel when you can breathe more easily, taste and smell your food better?
  • Language - change 'I can’t do this' to 'I am doing this'. Perhaps use 'I am a non-smoker' instead of 'when I am a non-smoker'. Instead of saying 'oooh, this is going to be tough and I might not make it', try 'I’ll need will power and the support of friends and family as I do this'. See what I mean?
  • Method - how can you plan life to avoid where you might have smoked before until being a non-smoker becomes second nature? How can you enlist your family and friends to help you, perhaps by understanding that you might not want to go to those places? Can you plan some other treats as you start to feel better and save money?

Sure, this isn’t an exhaustive list of how you’d prepare for an interview, or give up smoking, but you get the gist of how to apply the four main areas. So, for anything you’re undertaking, find out the specific elements that would make success, and apply each of these elements to see where you can make small changes which, when put together, will make a big difference to your performance, or your life. A good coach can help you identify and make the most of those marginal gains.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Prudhoe, Northumberland, NE42
Written by Tracey Hutchinson, MSc, NLP MPrac, Happy Brain Coach/Trainer, Advanced Hypnosis
Prudhoe, Northumberland, NE42

Tracey is an experienced coach, trainer, and facilitator who is successfully helping people make a positive and permanent change across all areas of life. When you're ready to find out how easily and quickly Tracey can help you find your best self, contact her at

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