How Marginal Gains Can Bring Big Results by Kait Nolan

The UK has won 3 of the last 4 Tour De France races.  Prior to that?  They’d never won a single one in the history of the race (which started in 1903).  The secret to their success?  Well, according to Matthew Syed’s interview with Sir David Brailsford,  “It is about marginal gains,’ he said. ‘The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver huge increase when you put them all together.”

What does that mean exactly?  Well, Syed goes on to say (in his book Black Box Thinking):

“The marginal gains mentality has pervaded the entire Team Sky mindset. They make sure that the cyclists sleep on the same mattress each night to deliver a marginal gain in sleep quality; that the rooms are vacuumed before they arrive at each new hotel, to deliver a marginal gain in reduced infections; that the clothes are washed with skin-friendly detergent, a marginal gain in comfort.”

I first read about this in on of Brian Johnson‘s Philosopher’s Notes (a fabulous little, distill-it-down email about some of the greatest books of our time) and the idea stuck with me.  I’m all about breaking things down into manageable bits so that a project doesn’t seem so overwhelming, but this is something else entirely.  This is about all the little things that you probably DON’T consider have an impact on your goal.  In our case, writing.

  • Like, making sure that we have a comfortable chair with adequate back support.  This means I don’t waste time fidgeting because I’m uncomfortable.
  •  Swapping those God-awful compact fluorescent bulbs to something with a more pleasing hue.  Not being annoyed by my lighting, means I can focus better on the task at hand more quickly.
  • Being sure to have a big, insulated glass of ice water right there and ready before I get started.  It’s insulated, so it stays colder longer.  It’s huge, so I don’t have to get up to refill it as often.
  • Putting on my headphones with instead of just letting it play through the laptop speakers.  This helps me block out distractions more effectively (even though I don’t have full-on noise-cancelling headphones).
  • Picking a candle scent to go along with a particular WIP.  I picked this one up from Tawna Fenske.  Lighting it and having that scent cue primes my brain for that particular book.
  • Getting up a few minutes earlier every day.  I had though I’d need to get up a full hour before my normal wakeup time.  And during NaNo, I did (because I was establishing a new habit).  But I’ve learned that if I get up just half an hour earlier, I can usually crank out between 500-almost 1k words before my morning workout.  Doing that every weekday means my total word count for the week is 2,500-5,000 words greater than not getting up.  (Of course, now that Daylight Savings Time is upon us, I’m in the process of slowly rolling my body clock back and cursing profusely the whole time).  Even fifteen minutes of writing is worth getting up because it starts my day in the story and means that I can stay in it a lot better, regardless of what else I happen to face the rest of the day, which makes my evening writing session far more productive.
  • Using Write or Die 2 instead of just drafting on a normal blank screen.  I didn’t realize how much difference this would make.  Man, that red screen of threat is hella motivating!

There are oodles of things that can feed in to our ability to get focused and stay focused, and I encourage you to give some thought to what little things you can do to achieve marginal gains in your writing.  Those marginal gains add up over time, making the effort (which really isn’t that much) well worth it.


Kait Nolan

2 thoughts on “How Marginal Gains Can Bring Big Results by Kait Nolan

  1. Your timing is perfect! I was stuck deciding what to write for the A-to-Z challenge, and your column tipped the balance in setting me up to recognize 1) what my writing priorities are, and 2) how to look for those ‘marginal gains’ that will help me achieve my goals. Thank you! And I don’t like the red screen of death either!!!!

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