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Marginal gains in professional learning and development

In his bestseller Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how the British cycling team became the best in the world after implementing a marginal gains approach and how the cumulative result of small changes has a considerable impact on the overall results. As it sometimes happens in sports, there is more to the story, but this situation does not entirely undermine the marginal gains strategy.

The essence of this approach is the following:

By making small changes in your habits and routine, you will get spectacular results in time, as these small changes or tweaks accumulate.

For instance, if you read ten pages a day, you will read an average of 12-13 books a year, which is a good number, especially if you want to bring back books into your life. It’s far more useful than binging on Netflix every night. If you walk 5,000 steps a day, you will walk about 850 miles a year, which helps you stay in shape or simply live a less sedentary lifestyle.

In learning and development, marginal gains can work miracles, especially when hard work, determination, and patience meet. But where and how do we find patience in our fast-paced society? Perhaps this is a topic for another time. Meanwhile, let’s see some minor changes we can make if we want to become better learners!

Be proactive and look for learning opportunities!

One step at a time. If we get into the habit of wanting to know more, doing more, and being better at what we do, learning opportunities will be everywhere. However, we need to be organized and seek training programs, online tutorials, and experienced mentors who can help us grow. If we dedicate one hour every week to search for learning opportunities, we will surely identify training programs that are right for us.

Read more: 8 Practical skills remote employees need to develop right now

Companies should do the same if they want to stay competitive and have productive workers. Ideally, they should have learning specialists who can identify the best solutions for the learning needs of the employees. In-house learning opportunities should not be neglected, as they can help less-experienced workers learn from experts. For instance, a weekly mentorship program can lead to great results in the long run.

Read more: How many types of mentoring are there?

Create a learning environment at home and work!

If we work from home (as it often happens these days), it is important to create a working environment that can be used as a learning environment as well. Ideally, we should have a separate room for working and learning, as we need to avoid interruptions. If we don’t have this possibility, we should try to have a desk for ourselves and avoid working at the kitchen table or other places that we don’t associate with working and learning.

Read more: How to avoid work from home burnout: A room of one’s own

The same goes for companies that should create working spaces compatible with learning and development. For instance, employees who need deep focus should have the possibility to work in a quiet space whenever they need it. Conversely, if the company needs to boost creativity and cooperation across teams, open spaces should be the preferred choice. People meet more, talk more, and get to find creative solutions together. These are small changes, but in the long run, they will deliver good results.

Read more: 5 Tips on sustaining collaboration in remote teams

Be consistent and don’t give up!

Perhaps the essential advice is this: don’t give up if you don’t see results immediately. In our results-oriented culture, learning processes tend to be disregarded sometimes, although they are the ones that deliver results. If you want to be better at something, you need to practice and keep on practicing.

Marginal gains are all about small differences and a little bit of patience. Even if you move to a quiet room, perhaps it will take a while until you reach that level of deep focus. You redesign the entire floor of the company and allow people to work in an open space environment, but it might take a while until you see new ideas or new solutions.

Final thoughts

Remember the old Japanese proverb that captures the essence of the marginal gains theory: “In the struggle between water and stone, water wins.” It’s the same with small changes: in time, they can surprise even the most skeptical and deliver amazing results — as water does when it carves its way across the mountains.