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“Aggregation Of Marginal Gains” Good Idea for New Year Resolution?


My wife have asked me the other night. What is my New Year resolution? I did not have an answer and gave her a half-baked, pie in the sky answer. But the question have stuck in my head. There is an obvious need to set up a goal for a New Year. But, I don’t want to have a typical New Year’s resolution that will fall by the way side by January 10th.  This prompted me to take a look at the Marginal Gains Philosophy by James Clear. Clear uses example of Dave Brailsford who have had success with British Cycling and Team Sky pro cycling team. Brailsford claims to have used concept of “aggregation of marginal gains.” The simple mathematical graph to this 1% gain vs. 1% loss was illustrated by Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge.


In the nutshell the philosophy of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains states: Making small changes in every aspect of your life will pay great dividends in the future. On surface the “aggregation of marginal gains” or making yourself better 1% every day at the time makes a lot of sense. But simple things differ from simplistic because simplicity withstands the trial by the complexity. So, I have started my mini trial of this concept by complexity. First I made two simple graphs of 1% a day improvement every day for one year


and 1% of degradation a day for a year.

As you can see in the graphs, aggregation of the gains over a year is huge. I have separated them into to 2 different graphs because the scales vary by a factor of 33. It is almost 3600% a year for aggregated marginal (1%) gain, compared that 1% decline a day will bring you to a loss of 97%. This makes one to jump on the band wagon of 1% gain and run with it. But I have promised the reader a trial by complexity. Let me introduce the complexity of life curve.


Here surprise awaited me.


It is not what I expected to see. In fact the “success” line dips below that of a “looser line” after 48 days all the way to 208.


That is 160 days of under-performing compared to those who “degrade” each day by 1%. There are many points of criticisms toward my method. But it is a clear illustration that “aggregation of marginal gains” fairly contrived proposition. You can leave it here, but then you will miss important conclusions: First, it shows clearly why people easily discouraged when implementing marginal changes gradually. In fact if you start your 1% gain on January 1st, and you live in the northern hemisphere, you are setting yourself up for a seasonal depression in February. Low amount of sunshine, cold weather can be serious challengers to your success. Second arises from the first – don’t use “aggregation of marginal gains” method for New Year’s resolution. If you determined to change all aspects of your like 1% at the time – start in late March – early April, April – May the external influence will be more positive. Lastly, apply your 1% improvements into every aspect of your life until you have reached the point where only your strongest character traits will keep on performing. At that moment, throw all your will power into improving things that continue improving. You can pick up the rest when the negative edge has declined. This way you don’t spend your energy on getting no results, and you stop proverbial digging when already in the whole.

This mini mathematical modeling experiment explains very well the fact: why the “wicked” seem to prosper in immediate time after starting? The aggregation of marginal gains works well in the long run.  If some one claims that aggregate marginal gains is the reason for rapid success, look for other reasons. In case of Dave Brailsford there some strong suspicions of advanced doping program at BC and SKY, but, he is not Russian, I doubt WADA would go after him.

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    1. Tim R. says

      Thank you for commenting Eugene. As you can see I am approving all comments posted on the blog.
      I have zero tolerance for comments that not related to the topic.

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