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Back in 2003, the British cycling team needed a change badly. They hadn’t won a single gold medal since 1908 (yep — in almost 100 years), and they had never won a Tour de France. You could say they were a not-so-Great British team.

But 2003 became a great year, because that’s when they appointed Dave Brailsford as the team’s Performance Director. He’d been working with them for a while, but only as a consultant. A cyclist himself, his job was to make big improvements to the team. Huge — because they needed that.

Dave came up with an idea he called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Here’s the gist: Step 1: break it all down and improve everything by 1%. Step 2: put it all back together. Step 3: kick back with a green juice and enjoy some serious gains.

There were some obvious tweaks initially — like fitting the team out with biosensors to get performance feedback. But then they started looking at literally everything else they could think of and therefore improve. Like the seats on their bikes. And putting alcohol on their tyres for better traction. And getting every team member to pick the best pillow for themselves and to take it with them on every trip — so they slept better. They even painted the interiors of their team trucks white, which let them see every speck of dirt and make sure everything was spotless.

And it all paid off. Just five years later, in 2008, the British cycling team absolutely killed it at the Beijing Olympics. Out of all the gold medals that were up for grabs for their sport, they won 60%. Then at the London Olympics in 2012, they broke 9 Olympic records and 7 World records. Not bad. And it went on. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, two thirds of the gold medals went to the British cycling team.

In 2012, Brailsford left to work with the Tour de France team. He made similar changes there, leading to similarly epic results.

Instead of obsessing over big unattainable changes, ask yourself: what can you improve by 1%?


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