This is the second article in our productivity series. To check out the first instalment on quick wins click here.
In this article we’re going to look at lasting change. Making larger changes to the way you do things is more time consuming and helps net you that final 20% of the results (looking at pareto principle). It is not for the faint hearted, however, as creating lasting change means making some differences not only in the way you do things, but also in the way you think.
To clarify before we get into this case study, I’m not a cyclist and am not an expert on cycling so please correct me if I get any of this wrong! The story is fascinating though, and provides a lot for us all to learn from.
Back in 2003, the British cycling team were not world leading. In fact, they had won 1 Olympic gold medal in the past 100 years and had never won the Tour De France. Enter David Brailsford. Brailsford was brought in as the new coach for the British team. He instigated a process of marginal gains. Something that can be reflected in everything we do ourselves. The idea is simple. If everything we do was 1% better, then those changes would add up and we’ll be vastly ahead of where we are now.
“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” – Sir David Brailsford CBE – British Olympic Cycling
So what did he do? Well they started with some of more obvious things like increasing training on athlete’s specific weaknesses. Improving the overall performance of an athlete by raising the lowest performing areas. Next they moved onto the equipment. Looking at clothing they found that of the indoor and outdoor team kits, the indoor kit provided better aerodynamics. Everyone moved to wearing kit made from the same fabric. Bikes too got a once over, they experimented with using rubbing alcohol on the wheels to improve grip and worked with each athlete to improve their seat. For endurance races like the Tour De France, comforts are low, but any improvement to comfort would enable better endurance and allow the athlete to focus on their race. The inside of the bike truck was painted pristine white as well, so any dust or dirt could be seen and the bikes could be maintained more easily. Moving onto recovery, they tested different massage gels on the athletes, to see if any of them provided better recovery speed than the others. Heated pads were used for warmed up athletes as well, by keeping athletes’ legs warm before a race they enabled them to start a much higher performance point. They also looked at pillows and sleeping habits. Athletes brought their home pillows with them on the road to prevent the need for adjusting to hotel pillows whilst on tour. A surgeon was also hired to come in and discuss the correct handwashing technique (something we’re all aware of now!). The mindset here was the better you wash your hands, the less time you spend ill, and more time training. It seems pedantic but ask anyone on the starting line of a race if they’d like an extra few days training and I doubt you’d get many turning you down!
This is just the stuff we know about as well, I’m sure there were even more changes made in the way they did everything. There is an old adage that is really reflected here:
“The way you do anything, is the way you do everything”
What effect did all this have? Well it was significant. David Brailsford didn’t become Sir David Brailsford for nothing. In 2008 the British cycling team won 60% of the medals at the Olympics in Beijing. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour De France in 2012. The team set 9 Olympic and 7 World records in the 2012 Olympics. Between 2007 and 2017 they won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic and Paralympic medals and 5 Tour De France wins. That is an enormous change in 15 years.
What’s important to takeaway here too, is that behaving like this starts to change the way you think. Approaching everything with this attention to detail, for 15 years, will absolutely shift your way of doing things. Having lasting change like this is playing the long game.
Interestingly too, if you were to improve by 1% every day for 1 year. You would be around 38% better by the end of the year compared to where you were when you started. Now a 38% improvement over a year sounds pretty good to me!
The next question we have to ask ourselves is how do we implement these changes ourselves? What can we do to have this kind of impact?
Our Own Long-Term Change
If we are to have lasting impact on the way we do things, we need to change our mindset. One of the simplest ways to do this is to approach things with the marginal gains tactic. Improving everything by 1% and seeing where that takes you. We’ve already seen the power it can have! Maybe that isn’t the approach for you though, different things work for different people. As we discussed last time, productivity is a personal journey we all have to go on and it is a skill we can attempt to master. Sadly though, as Daniel H. Pink discusses in Drive, mastery is an asymptote. A line that never quite reaches zero. We can never truly master something, but we can improve ourselves in the process!
One of the two areas to help improve our productivity in the long term is becoming more disciplined. Now bear with me here, I know a lot of people are turned off by this idea instantly. Discipline ruins creativity, we enjoy having our freedom, we can’t stick to schedules well etc. I get it! I’d counter by offering this though, who in your life worries about money the most? Is it someone who is disciplined with it? Or someone who isn’t? Jocko Willink (author, podcast host, former US Navy Seal), talks extensively about that idea that discipline equals freedom. By becoming more disciplined in your life, you will create more free time. Having more free time is something that we all want and discipline is the vehicle to get you there. The fact is that motivation eventually fails, we all feel demotivated about particular jobs and things we have to do in our life. If we rely on motivation to get anything done, we can lose whole weeks at a time. Discipline is a tool that doesn’t fail you.
How do we get more disciplined? We practice. We practice every day. Remember we are chasing mastery here, we’ll never be perfect, but the nature of trying to achieve it is that we will improve ourselves along the way.
There are three areas that can help move you to a more disciplined approach to productivity. The first is removing your excuses. Excuses are wonderful things, they got all of us out of all sorts of trouble at school. Some of us more than others I’m sure. The downside is they aren’t something you can really carry over to the adult world, especially when the person you’re giving the excuse is often yourself. You’re shooting yourself in the foot. It’s really easy to do as well, we all do it. Think about the way many of us start a new diet or exercise routine. When does it start? Tomorrow, or next week. Maybe you’ll start on Monday because it makes sense to start these things on a Monday. Does it? What part of our biology is aware that it is a Monday? They’re excuses, delay tactics.
The way round these delay tactics is to start to follow the thread. Dig a little deeper into why something is being avoided. Ask yourself why a couple of times and see where you end up. You’ll normally find there’s a deeper reason behind these things. It’s not as simple as I can’t start that because I’m waiting on a reply from John. Well why are you? Maybe you haven’t chased him. Why haven’t you chased him? Because you don’t like talking to him. Why don’t you like talking to him? Maybe it’s because he makes you feel small. Well suddenly we have a very different barrier to be dealing with. Maybe we need to work on our relationship with John first, before we try and work together. This notion of pulling the thread is very effective to reveal the excuses we are telling ourselves.
Next, I’d recommend getting more serious with your planning. Take some time to organise your day. When are you going to get things done? How long do you really need to do things? When are you going to take a break? How much are you expecting of yourself? Don’t schedule eight hours of repetitive admin work when you know you’ll do two and find reasons to get distracted. Be honest with yourself! Take the time to plan in advance, but don’t be too rigid about it. Accept that things will come up and interrupt you. Leave breathing room between things, stuff always starts late, over runs or takes longer than you think.
Finally try and set some habits and consider the habits you need to remove. There is an experiment I’ve seen done in several forms where people wear an elastic band round their wrist and every time they do the habit they’re trying to quit, they ping the band onto the inside of their wrist. Hurts just enough to start an association between your habit and the discomfort. Or use apps like Way of Life. Way of Life tracks your habits that you set. Positive and negative ones. Track the days you do something positive and track the days you avoid negative things. I’m trialling it at the moment and it’s a good reminder to myself that I’m trying to change things!
Discipline is something to work towards. It is a work in progress, as it is everything we do. No-one is perfect, but moving that 1% closer to it every day will see changes we never thought possible.
Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, although in reality related, is the concept of Flow. Popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the books Flow and Finding Flow. Flow is a concept of focus that we’ve all experienced.
“My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of something else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow
Most of us have felt this feeling. Statistically speaking it normally happens with personal interests and hobbies, more than at work. Although that isn’t because people don’t enjoy work, it’s normally a product of the environment. Flow is a form of focus. Most workplaces don’t provide an environment conducive to serious periods of focus. So how do we get ourselves into a state of flow?
Protecting your time and removing distractions are two huge areas. Be transparent about how you’re spending your time. Communicate it with your team, boss, family, whoever might get in the way. Be realistic too, don’t demand three days undisturbed. Look for windows of a few hours where you can really settle into something. It takes us around 15 minutes to settle into a task, so always consider that when you are planning your time. Turn off your notifications. Set an hour of office, put your phone on do not disturb. Tell everyone you are to be contacted for emergencies only and then when they forget, answer the phone with “Hello is this an emergency or are you just impatient?”. Be serious about giving yourself space to think!
The other part of this is embracing writers’ block. Aaron Sorkin (writer of The West Wing) says he’s been in a state of writers’ block for 40 years. The only cure for writers’ block, or any creative block, is to start. Only by starting and getting something out into the world, or onto paper, will you begin to loosen your mind up. When you start to make something it will be terrible at first, but you can improve it. 1% at a time even. If you never even start it, how can you ever improve it? You’ll never get off the starting block! Better to come last and learn something than still be stood on the start line while everyone else is on the podium. Again, build this time for failure and improvement into your plan. This is where discipline and flow come together. One protects the other!
Pick one thing today and see that as your 1%. What is the one thing you can improve upon today? Then tomorrow, consider what’s next? What’s the 1% tomorrow. If you can get into this habit then you can begin to build up your process of marginal gains and you’ll be winning Olympic gold medals in no time!
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