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Aggregation of marginal gain
Let start with a story about team sky which is great Britain’s professional cycling team sometime in the mid-2000s around 2010 hired. A man named Dave Brailsford and at the time team sky had a very middle of the road record when it came to performance on the world stage they had one about one gold medal in the last 100 years from 1908 to 2008 they had never won a tour the France the premiere event in cycling and when they hired. Dave rails for they said we would like to change this we’d like to improve our performance would like to reach a higher level performance what’s your plan to help us do that. When they hire Brailsford he said I have this strategy called the Aggregation of marginal gain and the way that he described it was the 1% Improvement in nearly everything that you do. So they started by looking at a lot of things you would expect a cycling team to look at a practice that they did each day. They had their outdoor riders where indoor racing suits because they were lighter and more aerodynamic. The kind of pillow led to the best sleep for each Rider and then brought that on the roads. So Brailsford said if we can actually execute this strategy if we can aggregate all these small changes these little 1% improvements then I think we can win the Tour de France in about 5 years he ended up being wrong they won the Tour de France in 3 just years and then they repeated again the 4th year with a different Rider and then just last year they won for the third time in 4 years. Brailsford strategy really came to fruition at the Olympics in London in 2012 when they won 70% of the gold medals available.
So we need to start us off with is the idea that small improvements actually can add up to a very significant change in a relatively short period of time and this is just basic math right if you get 1% better each day over 365 days you end up 37 times better at the end of the year if you get 1% worse you take yourself all the way almost all the way down to zero.
Also there is a possibility us thinking 1% improvements are nice but clearly no one is going to get 1% better every single day so is that ever enough to accumulate anything considering that we’re not going to be perfect all the time. In fact you can get 10 times better if you get 1% better 5 days a week 46 weeks a year so it’s about 230 days in total that gives you 6 weeks off for holidays illness laziness and just generally not getting things done but you’re still 10 times better at the end of the year
The proposal here is that the way to do this is not by setting better goals for ourselves or at our organizations but by building better systems and obtaining better habits. In fact the goal never changed they wanted to win a tour de France each year they wanted to win Olympic gold medals it wasn’t the goal that made the difference instead of as their system the way that they apply those improvements in a 1% basis day after day.
The Power of Identity
There’s a study done at Yale University on the psychology of aging and it was a 23-year study they talked to people in they basically went into one of two groups. First group had positive views of aging, as they were asked “How they felt about aging or what their expectations were for old age” they had good things to say something like “I would be moving into the prime of my life or I’ll be smarter than I’ve ever been before” with very positive intentions. However the second group was very negative something like “My body’s going to wear down or I don’t have much to look forward to or Everybody get sick while diet some point that type of thing what they found was that of the 660 people they studied the group with positive intentions lived on average 7.6 years longer which is very significant in number of years, things like exercise and diet don’t account for 7.6 years in life expectancy.
So why if your view is positive the reason is because you’ll take healthy actions as a result and if your view is negative you’ll assume that deterioration of your health is inevitable. If you have a positive aging you’ll say something like well I should continue to eat healthy and workout because I feel good about moving into a day just of a lot to live for whereas if you have a negative view of aging you’ll say something like what’s the point in me exercising I’m going to get sick anyway I’m expecting to get old and so on
The point here is that there’s a deeper level of behavior change and habit formation than what we often discuss The way that I would describe it as this The outer layer of behavior change are the results that we get The outcome the goal So that’s the outside layer often we say we need better goals We need better outcomes We need better results We need to hit new sales numbers and so to do that we take one step in on behavior change when we talk about our actions Now the actions and the results are usually where we stopped when it comes to habits and behavior change We say how can we build better habits How can we take action on this particular goal high going to get a result But study would prove this that there’s a deeper level behavior change as well and that level is identity or belief or mindset and take your pick of what you like to turn it.
But the identity that we hold drives the actions that we take in the results that we get. So in the Yale University study the people have a positive identity when it comes to aging They believe that they should take positive actions and thus they get better results in the long run we’ll take a common example when it comes to personal habits weight loss. So losing 20 lbs or 10 kilos of the next 6 months that’ll be the outer layer okay that’ll be the result that you’re going for. In order to lose those 10 kilos you need to move in to the actions that you take and so that would be something like working out 3 times a week or eating healthy. But most people stop there so for example in this case the identity might be I want to become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts and the argument is if we focus just on the identity do you become the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts if you become the type person to exercise and consistently and only focus on the core of behavior change it ripples out to the other layers anyway. So the key idea here is that a shift in mindset leads to a shift and daily choices and a shift and daily choices leads to significantly better results in the long way.
The word priority came into the English language on the 1400s it was singular it meant the first or very prior thing and it stayed singular for the next 500 years only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities illogically we reasoned that by changing the word would get been reality and somehow we would now have multiple first things You hear about this a lot in organizations they’ll talk about priority one priority too priority three priority four everything is a priority everything is an urgency even though it’s not possible for us to focus on more than one thing at a time. You can also call a ruthless elimination and when it comes to building better habits and changing behavior and organizations and our personal lives we have to be ruthless about the things that we focus on
Now this idea is a psychological concept called decision fatigue or ego depletion and the point here is that the more decisions that we make over the course of a day the more your willpower and focus gets the teeth. It’s kind of like a muscle right If I were to pick up that weight and do curls for a little while I can do them for a minute or two but if you catch me 30 minutes from now I’m not going to have much left and that’s how our willpower works as well So the key idea is your brain only has so much capacity to provide your willpower’s like a muscle and similar to muscles that gets the teeth.
All right let me give you some practical ideas on how to do this It’s great to say that we need to simplify but how do we actually make that happen in the real world war and buffet one of the most famous investors of our time he adheres to a concept that I’ll call the 25 rule and this story comes from a man named Mike Flint who was worn but for its private pilot Mike Flint has flown multiple US presidents he’s also the pilot for and buffet so he said a very successful career and he came to Warren Buffett one day and he said Warren I would like to fly this particular type of plane I think whenever we upgrade we should get this new one.
Then Warren Buffett said Mike you know if you’re working for me in 10 years and we buy a new plane then I probably have failed you as a boss so here’s what I’d like you to do and this exercise that I’m about to share you can do on any level you can do it for your career you can do it for the things that you or your team need to get done this month you can do it for the things you need to work on today or this week and you said I like you to take the 25 things do you want to achieve in your career and write them down on a list so Mike Flint goes away right sounds 25 things he gets done and he says all right great.
I want you to circle the top five things on that list so spend some more time he circles the top five priorities he says all right tell me what your strategy is at this point Michael said well I have my top five things so I’m going to work on those first and he’s a great what about the other things on your list he said well those will be the things I do on nights or weekends or when I get tired of board or you know a project stalls or work on that and Warren Buffett said Mike got you all got it wrong, the things that you’ve circled are your priorities the other items on your list number 6 through 25 this is your never do under any circumstance list.
The reason is because it’s so easy for us to rationalize spending time on things that are good uses of time but not great uses of time it’s items that 6 through 25 on your list that take up time and space and energy because we can justify why we need to do them they’re on the list for a reason they just don’t happen to be the best users of our time I call this the three hours of habit formation. But the basic ideas that no matter what happened you’re working on there three main steps based on the research
- The Prompt
- The Routine
- The Reward
The Prompt or the queue or the trigger it’s like a reminder the thing that signals that we should do something. So if my phone buzzes for example that’s a trigger the next piece is the routine this is the behavior itself the actual habit that you’re going to perform so my phone buzzes that’s the trigger we answer the phone that’s the routine the third piece is the reward this is the benefit you get for doing the behavior and it’s important to note that all habits good or bad have some kind of benefit or reward associated with them take smoking for example will often label smoking as a bad habit so what’s the benefit what’s the reward of it while there’s some kind of physiological reward there’s a hit of nicotine that’s associated with it and then they’re often social rewards so I get to share smoke with a friend or a colleague something like that so regardless of how we label habits of behaviors.
The important thing is to note that all of them have some kind of benefit neurologically associated with them now so my phone rings that’s our reminder I answer the phone that’s a routine and then I get to satisfy my curiosity your find out who’s calling that’s the benefit and what ends up happening is that if that reward is positive then it tells your brain hey remember. Next time this reminder happens next time this trigger comes along we should repeat that pattern and once you make it through the cycle enough times it becomes a habit it becomes ingrained so how can we leverage the first part of this the trigger or the reminder let’s say that I wanted to start meditating. I could say right in the morning I make a cup of coffee and so for this new behavior I could say when I make my morning cup of coffee I will meditate for 60 seconds and so the current behavior the things that you’re already doing become the trigger for the new behavior that you’re trying to build and the reason that this is important is that you’re current behaviors things that are already habits have this neurological network build into your mind they already have like an on-ramp in your brain so you’re just kind of tapping into that.
So you can tag the new behavior and link it to something that’s already strongly correlated your mind do you want to master machine learning and skyrocket yoke career what it is not helped thousands of people just like you the two minute rule there is no habit that we’re going to work on that takes less than two minutes to do but nearly any habit can be started and under two minutes so if you take exercise for example you know often people will get home from a long day of work and they say I’m too exhausted to go for a run or try to exercise so I never get around to doing it because I think about I have to run 5 km or whatever some long distance it seems overwhelming to me.
So rather than focus on the whole thing that you need to do, I would encourage you to focus on just the first two minutes so what’s the first two minutes of that habit I put my running shoes on I get off the door and I locked the door and if you do just that it doesn’t matter if you take another step. But what you find is that motivation often comes after starting not before we often think that motivation is something that we’re supposed to have before we do work but motivational will come as a result of doing some small bit of work and then we can trust that the rest of the process will flow easily but the point here is that the motivation needed to complete a habit is at its peak at the beginning of the behavior the greatest amount of friction for any type of task is that in the beginning is in the starting so the key idea is make it so easy to cancel here’s another way to do this it’s concept called pre commitment it’s been very well researched and we can call these kind of like instant willpower improvements there’s things that seem very simple but we often ignore or don’t put into practice and if we do put them into practice they result in immediate boost and willpower.
Here’s one study random sample of a business with 3,282 employees the business wanted their employees to get their annual flu shot now to do this they sent them a flyer that said you need to get your flu shot. But then they send another version and that other version said you need to get a flu shot your appointment has already been scheduled for April 22nd click here or you know send this little message here to choose the time that you want to attend and what they found was just by selecting a date just by picking the day when people would get it there were 2.4 times more likely to fall through. But then they send a third version and they said you need to get your flu shot you’ve already been scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on April 22nd if you need to change the time you can click here and do so and the people who have the exact time and day schedule for them were four times more likely to fall through simply because they were pre-committed and we often think oh we should give people more options we should let them choose whatever they want to do. But if we’re trying to incentivize behavior if trying to make it more likely for people to fall through pre-commitmentsis a great device for doing this implementation intentions is another method very similar to pre-commitments.
A slightly different and this is the study that I like that shows this, so there was a study that looked at different groups and they’re motivation and ability to stick with exercise. So there are three groups in the city the first group they brought in and they said we want you to track how often you exercise over. The next two weeks so that’s good point group two we want you to track how often you exercise and we’re going to show you this motivational video about the benefits of exercise why you should do it. So group two was the motivated group then the reserve three group three got the exact same treatment as group two never told the track they’re exercising or giving them motivational speech they were equally motivated but they did one thing differently and that one thing is they filled out this sentence that said “During the next week I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on this day at this time at this place”. What they found when they looked all the analysis at the end of the study is this is what happened group one 38% of them worked out of the next two weeks and control group no motivation group two remember they were the motivated group and a motivation faded almost immediately as soon as they walked out of the research lab. So 35% of more doubt and grew three it was almost double or even triple the odds that they would work out over the next two weeks 91% of them succeeded in exercising.
The only difference was that they filled out this little sentence and it seems. So basic but by pre-committing ourselves to things we make it much more likely that we fall through implementation and tensions which is what this is called this is an implementation intention. There are over their hundreds of studies on this so it’s improving and a bunch of different contexts it’s very simple and something that actually leads to real results.
you may be saying all right that’s great I should just pick times and places for everything I want to work on but in fact we can get really overloaded by the amount of things that we want to improve they’re all sorts of things you may want to improve on so how do you decide where to start again I’m big on simplicity I’m big on eliminating most of the choices that you can focus just on the very best use of your time If you’re thinking how do I decide what to focus on after this presentation, you need to focus on the keystone habit and a keystone habit is a routine or ritual that ripples into the rest of your life.It creates a cascade of good behavior so for myself my case don’t have is working out I know that if I work out I get the benefits of exercise sure.
But we also need to focus better I have this period of like high-focused workout high for an hour or so afterward I sleep better that night because I’m tired and exhausted and have worked myself physically. Which means I wake up the next day with better energy which means I focus better then and I also tend to eat better just because I feel like I worked out so I don’t want to waste it so I actually eat worse. When I don’t work out any better when I do now and no point was I trying to build better nutrition habits or better focus or better sleep habits or improved energy. All those things happen as a side effect as a result of the one keystone app some other common examples of keystone habits CEOs often talk about their daily meditation habit so they get 10 or 20 minutes of meditation in then the rest of their day flows more smoothly. Artists really been on a daily walk there are tons of famous artists was a great book called daily rituals that talks about the habits and behaviors of many famous artists and scientists and it’s interesting how many of them had a daily walk as part of their routine. But these are some examples, if you just do this one behavior you can trust that it will ripple into other areas of your personal habit. The basic idea here is to share with you is this idea of designing for laziness.
So BJ fog the professor from Sanford University he likes popcorn enjoys eating popcorn he just didn’t want to eat that much of it. So he took the popcorn out of his kitchen walked down the hallway and into the storage room into his garage climbed up on a ladder and put the popcorn on the highest shelf in the garage. Now if he really wants to eat it he can just go out and get it it’s only going to take 60 seconds but if he’s designing for his lazy decision for his default action he’s not going to go get the popcorn. So the idea is how can we design the spaces we live in and the places we work so that the default action the lazy behavior is a better choice.
The most important point is that, there is almost no person consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
Maybe you’re trying to fight the environment that you live and work in all the time it’s going to be very hard to stick with the things that are important to you. If you could design your life exactly the way you want it to be what that looked like what kind of work would you do. Jerry Seinfeld very famous comedian in the US he was on tour doing a comedy tour and there was a young comic name Brad Isaac who’s opening for Seinfeld on stage that night. He caught Seinfeld backstage before the show and he said Mr Seinfeld you know I’m going to spirit in comic I’m a young comic what tips do you have for young comic on how to succeed. He was told well the secret to being a better comic is right better jokes and the secret are writing better jokes is to write every day. So here’s what you should do get a wall calendar where you can see every day of the month in the year crossed out on one page. Then each day that you stick to your behavior of writing for 10 minutes or 15 minutes writing jokes I want you to put an ex on that day at the beginning you’ll do it every now. But eventually at some point you’re going to get a string going 5 6 7 8 9 days a row you’ll have a chain and at that point you’re only goal becomes don’t break the chain doesn’t matter how good or how bad. The behavior is important it doesn’t matter whether the writing makes it into the performance you do doesn’t matter how you feel about the jokes all the matters that you stick to the behavior. This idea that sticking to the things that we want to measure over a consistent basis is what makes the biggest difference is something that I think ties into the point I try to make it a very beginning of this which is that 1% gains when aggregated add up to very significant results.