The Pros and Cons of Marginal Gains (so 2012)

Listen to any management guru or performance coach and they’ll bang on about the joy of marginal gains, an over-generalised theory adapted and exemplified from models used by David Brailsford at British Cycling.  Sure, every little thing you do contributes incrementally to your success.  Many of us know this.  We make the most of it, within reason.  We try to be our best, whatever that is!

The theory of marginal gains is nothing new.  And yes!  You can sense my eyes rolling!  The thing is I’m an old hack at this optimising, multi-tasking lark.  There’s no way you can be a full-time working parent (or indeed any kind or worker or any kind of parent) without working out efficiencies.  And the more you have to juggle, the greater the pressure to be superman or superwoman.  Incrementally the good habits stack up.  Bad habits are not really an option in the short, medium or long term.

In reality, marginal gain theory, like leverage theory, essentially relies on outsourcing a team of people to tweak your environment.  That’s fine and a good option if you have the money to pay for valuable services, often covering the messy kinds of things we are not used to paying others or ourselves for…nutrition plans, child care, cleaning, organising.  If you want those things – and we all do – it is worth paying for any support you might need to get you back on track.  Working efficiently, either physically or mentally, is all very well too but it is unrealistic to expect that body or brain work can be done well for a sustained period. Please, don’t be too hard on yourself this January!  Rest and beware of burn-out.

Pros – good old fashioned common sense:

Let’s say you’ve got all the basics under control.  You’ve got a team around you, you are on the up, you are learning something new every day.  The key to marginal gains is learning and reflection. Day after day after day.  Do this and when you succeed, spread the love and help everyone and anyone you can.

Cons – don’t obsess:

The real Con is this:  For some there is no end to marginal gains.  Seeking marginal gains ad infinitum can lead to obsession and greed.  And that obsession can be unhealthy.  What happens when a cyclist is near the top of his game?  Doping.  Other forms of cheating.  Lying about doping.  Rage.  Loss of reputation.  Shame.    

So sure, implement the theory, but acknowledge the limitations.  If marginal gains are the solution: why did management at British Cycling have to face a Commons Select Committee on charges of over-zealous management and doping?  Ask questions and tread carefully. 

One. Step. At. A. Time.  #nomagic  #noshortcuts

p.s.  When I had training on this at work in 2017 (so 2012) I managed to keep my mouth shut and lips zipped.  In my head I considered asking for performance-enhancing drugs!  When you are doing the best you can do and that’s not good enough, something’s got to give. Don’t let it be your mental health! I don’t want to be a superwoman, I want to be a slow-cyclist!

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