The Accumulation of Marginal Gains

Meeting one's goals can be a game of hope and disappointment. One begins with lofty intentions, motivation, and a target, but after significant striving finds the goal elusive, hard to obtain, or set too high. What follows is a rule-of-thumb philosophy to compliment goal setting no matter what method you use (SMART goal setting is a well researched method worth looking into), derived from twenty years of competitive athletics, a decade of coaching, the completion of two higher education degrees, and the many mistakes I have made along the way.

Small changes

From my anecdotal observations, it is common for people to set goals in a burst of motivation, often when they become frustrated with their status quo, or hit rock bottom. This is what I would call "the last ditch effort," and it is often a mighty effort, but it does not last. For instance, imagine someone who never goes to the gym, but suddenly sets the goal of going four days a week, signing up for a plethora of classes. This hypothetical character has likely done nothing more than ensure early disappointment and quick burnout. Why? It is nothing less than a revolution. Contrast such a life altering change with someone who for years has regularly gone to the gym two days a week and makes the goal of increasing to three days a week, beginning with only twenty minutes on the third day. This latter gym user has a much higher chance of obtaining their new goal. It is a small addition to a current lifestyle requiring minimal change. When adding a new behavior, start small, be consistent, then build on it.

Gains can also come in the form of subtracting a behavior. Recently I got subtraction wrong in a rather mundane but humorous example: in an effort to reduce the amount of ice cream I was eating (it had become a nightly habit, including fudge and whip cream), I decided to just eat less of the creamy goodness. Often I pulled the container out of the freezer to take a few bites, or serve up only one scoop. However, as my wife observed, I ended up increasing the total amount I ate. I simply consumed a lot of small portions throughout the week, taking bites all day long, or came back for seconds when I was dissatisfied with my small bowl. Committing to skipping ice cream two days a week did work however, and was relatively easy to accomplish. After doing that for a while I went to skipping three days, then four. Contrast this gradual change that is a reduction in frequency over time with one day saying "no more ice cream!" or "I'll just eat less!" When reducing a behavior, start small, be consistent, then build on it.

The accumulation of marginal gains

Adding to the idea of small changes, the accumulation of marginal gains means that one tries to maximize the number of seemingly inconsequential changes so that when taken together, will result in large improvement. In the world of competitive cycling for example, sleeping just thirty minutes more per night, reducing the weight of the bike by half a pound, adding 5% more intensity to workouts, and reducing one's body weight by just two pounds, when taken together will sizably increase race performance. Each change is minimal by itself, but as an aggregate quite significant.

The same goes for meeting a goal like weight loss. Rather than make one massive commitment requiring tremendous willpower, make many commitments to a variety of small changes. A small increase in volume or intensity of exercise, a small decrease in calories, a reduction in the frequency of eating out per week, and an increase in purchasing healthier foods, will when taken together result in weight loss over time. Once you adapt to this new normal, look for more areas to marginally change. In this way, you establish a healthier lifestyle gradually, rather than a complete overthrow of how you are currently living.

Remember your strengths while improving your weaknesses

We all have different starting places. Often we can be ashamed or embarrassed of where that is in comparison to others. For instance, I managed six years of higher education without knowing how to type. I hunted and pecked at the keyboard at a laborious rate of thirty words per minute and with a sizeable rate of error. My wife was astounded when she first witnessed me writing an essay for class. "Didn't I learn to type in seventh grade?" No, I was too busy skateboarding and playing hockey to care. Pride in my writing ability plummeted when I realized the absurdity of using only my pointer fingers and thumb to write twenty five page essays as a graduate student. Watching my fellow students take notes in swift keystrokes with eyes on the professor elicited my envy and discomposure.

That I could not type as a graduate student became a point of fixation and embarrassment. For a time I forgot that though slow, I was a strong writer, having scored 98th percentile on the analytic writing section of the graduate record examination (GRE), published papers, and received high grades on my essays. Learning to keyboard and the frustration of starting over left me feeling doltish and stupid as I struggled to learn. I was severe in my self-criticism, often becoming frustrated to the point of avoiding writing. This only prolonged the struggle. Progress came when I added a meagre fifteen minutes of practice three days a week to my writing load. A year later I found myself practicing almost daily as the task of improving morphed into a fun challenge to hit higher typing speeds.

In sum, it is easy to forget your strengths when focusing on your weaknesses. Don't put yourself through that. Steadily work on improving weaknesses, but don't fixate on them, severely castigating yourself for mistakes. That only wastes time. Get to work and expect to stumble. You might come to enjoy what was once an encumbrance.

RA considerations

Because rheumatoid arthritis imposes many limitations, it is important to keep the perspective that our challenges are often magnitudes greater than that faced by others. For example, exercising with RA is not just a matter of commitment, but also a balance of knowing when to push yourself, often having days when any movement is too painful. Or, handling a full school load can require academic accommodations and may require delays in completion. When setting goals, be realistic about how RA impacts you, building in a buffer zone to allow setbacks or changes in objectives.


Avoid the idea of revolution, where you idealize yourself as completely different three months from now, rid of all your unwelcome habits, and a model of discipline and willpower. Change is a gradual process. Welcome it. Look for many small changes to make that when taken together, will produce sizeable gains. Do not be ashamed of where you are starting from. Remember your strengths as you strive to improve your weaknesses. Get to work and expect to stumble. Realistically take into account how RA may impact your objectives, allowing for a range of error or changes.

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