The Myth of The 1% Better Every Day Theory

Every self-respecting self-help junkie trying to master self-improvement has surely heard the theory of becoming 1 percent better every day. After all, it has all the major components to become a buzzword: it’s easy to get, it offers groundbreaking results, and it’s distributed by some of the most famous writers. But does it really work?

Never heard of the 1% better every day theory?

Shame on you.

But even if you did, let’s do a quick reminder…

It all starts with a story about Team Sky. A professional cycling team from Great Britain with average performance. For more than 100 years, the team never won a cycling tournament, and things weren’t looking like they’ll change for the better.

But one day. They hired Dave Brailsford. A British cycling coach who changed everything.

Dave Brailsford was preaching a very simple – yet effective – philosophy in relation to performance improvement. He called it the theory of marginal gains.

In an interview, he explained it as follows:1

“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.” Dave Brailsford

The 1 percent improvement for Team Sky began by using lighter tires for the bicycles. Then better seats. Then, instead of using outdoor suits when riding. Team Sky was now wearing indoor suits because they were lighter. Additionally, Brailsford was constantly measuring and monitoring the conditions of his cyclists and making adjustments to improve their weakest points.

But they also focused on improving in other areas that you won’t expect a cycling team would consider changing.

They tested which pillow resulted in the best night’s sleep for the rider and they carried it around. They were focusing on better hygiene for the members to reduce the possibility of infection.

All of these seemingly tiny improvements – i.e., 1% improvements. Led to top-of-the-game results. The British cyclists won 59 World Championships across different disciplines from 2003 to 2013.2

Not bad for a team that was previously always in the middle of the scoreboard.

What Is The 1% Better Rule?

The 1 percent every day rule means that you choose to get slightly better at doing something. At first, the changes will seem insignificant. But when repeated over a long period of time. These small daily improvements add up to a significant change in just a year.

The math behind this is simple.

If we are to calculate how better you will become vs how worse – if we get 1% worse daily. The results will both excite you and shock you:

Graph showing how much better you become when you improve by 1 percent daily
Mathematically speaking, if you are to become 1 percent better daily considering you are starting from 1. This will result in becoming 37.38 times better at the particular subject.

Look at the arrow showing the 1% daily improvements. It looks so optimistic. It seems that there is never an end to this getting better state. If you just keep making daily progress. If you just keep showing up every day. You will prevail over all the rest of the citizens.

But is this possible in our ordinary days full of stress-inducing struggles and the constant battle to keep our sanity in check?

Let’s have a look.

What Happens if You Get 1% Better Every Day?

If you improve by only 1 percent each day. These small changes will compound and lead to massive growth that will make you stronger than the stronger man who ever lived.

This is what you’ll normally find online.

But what really happens if you try to get 1% better every day?

Well, perhaps like me, you’ve experienced an epiphany when grasping the truth about the 1% better every day rule.

At some point, (and sorry to rain on your parade) you stop improving.

It’s inevitable.

To prove this to you. Let me share what I tried last month.

A daily micro habit of mine is doing 100 push-ups. It’s not a lot. But it definitely helps with keeping my body away from becoming a round shape.

So, if we apply the 1 percent better every day rule. Which will mean that I should add 1 extra push-up a day on top of the ones I’m already doing – and as you will see, I’m adding only 1, not 1% which will lead to a lot more. We’ll reach the following calculation:

1-percent-better-every-day-at-push-ups
This is my daily to-do list in relation to doing push-ups. And I’m not even improving by 1 percent. I’m only adding 1 per day. It will be quite different – and even more impossible. If I want to improve by 1 percent at push-ups.

After precisely a year, on this day. I’ll have to do 465 push-ups. On the next day, I’ll have to do 466. And so on.

As I mentioned, I tried that and reached 150 pushups daily before calling it quits. Thankfully, I didn’t fully abandon the habit. I simply returned to the previous state – doing 100 push-ups daily.

Sure, technically speaking, I can keep going – I’m still not that old. If I were to split the push-ups throughout the day. I can surely do them. But this will mean that for the most part of my day. The only thing I do is push-ups. Totally neglecting all other aspects of my life.

Why The 1% Better Every Day Theory Doesn’t Work?

Even compound interest – if you are to invest money – is not guaranteed. I can’t fully grasp why people falsely subscribe to the religion that they can improve by 1% every day and this will last for a lifetime.

Well, you can’t. Not that you shouldn’t try to make daily improvements in the areas you consider vital. But at a certain stage. You simply have to accept that this is the best you can do.

Let’s return to the cycling team we introduced above.

Once they found the right pillow. They stopped searching for a new one.

Once they found the right tires for their bikes. They stopped searching for new ones.

At some point – while I can’t be absolutely sure – they simply focused on the refined routine that was optimal for their current conditions.

Yes, they probably did make extra adjustments here and there. But, after all, how different it would be to pedal a cycle once you figure out all the right components?

The same applies to the avenues we try to improve in our lives.

The main issue that springs from the 1% better theory is probably because we try to get better at everything by 1%. As opposed to focusing on getting better at one particular subject.

How to Get 1% Better Every Day

One uncomfortable lesson I’ve learned from years of scavenging for advice in the world of personal development is that you can’t improve every side of your life.

And it gets even worse if you try to “become the best version of yourself”.

From the outset, the idea of becoming muscular, and rich, and handsome, and smart, and vegan, and at the same time being a good friend who is always there for everyone who calls. All of this, of course, sounds perfectly normal to strive for.

But the more you abide by these impossible-to-reach conditions. The more you feel ashamed of yourself.

“Oh, today I wasn’t acting in accordance with my desired best version (e.g., Superman). I’m probably not worthy!”

If we look at Team Sky for a moment again. One thing we can conclude is that they focused on making tiny improvements in one specific area: cycling.

However, how do you think the following answers will look for the members of the team:

  • Are the members of the team good partners?
  • Are the members of the team good parents?
  • Did the members of the team did OK financially?

We don’t know. But what we do know – i.e., given that they are humans. We can expect that they sucked in other aspects of their lives.

What I want to say here is that the concept of 1 percent better every day is misunderstood. We think it should be: “1 percent better every day at everything all the time” instead of being more like “1 percent better every day at a selection of things.”

While the former can only lead to self-resentment and self-hatred – because you’ll never reach this perfect state, and the only thing left to do is to loathe yourself. The latter can focus you on one specific area where you’ll be much more likely to improve.

With that in mind. Let’s look at how we can 1% better every day, the right way:

Step 1: Set a Strong Upfront Written Contract

1-better-every-day-step-1

Define the scope of improvement. State exactly what you are going to improve at while also considering the aspects that will remain unchanged.

More precisely, we are aiming to answer these three questions:

  • In what specific area do you want to significantly improve? Ideally, you will focus on one or two topics at best.
  • In which areas of your life you will get better slightly? Here you can list a couple of things that you will want to moderately get better at.
  • Decide what you are going to suck at: Do you feel pressured by social media experts to be on social media? Well, you can decide to suck at social media and stop using the platform altogether.

For example, my personal list looks as follows:

  • Improve: Writing more engaging articles.
  • Get better slightly: Exercising. Eating healthily. SEO.
  • Areas where I will suck: Social media. Trying to look trendy.

Once we have our list. We can proceed with step 2:

Step 2: Disassemble The Topic To Uncover All Aspects Of Improving

1-better-every-day-step-2
In your case, the bubbles will contain different topics. The idea is to figure out all aspects that need to be improved by potentially 1 percent.

In this second exercise. You need to find all components that need improving.

To do that, you can grab a notebook. Write the topic in the middle. From there, try to think of all major components that will basically require improvement.

Once you’re done. You have to decide what you’ll do daily to make progress.

For instance, if I want to become a better storyteller – which is a subsection of writing. My first task will be to find sources with great stories. Then, set a schedule to read these stories for a couple of minutes per day. Plus, write down highlights of the story and how I can possibly use them in my own writing – so I can start creating better stories myself.

Basically, the idea is to have a “get better” plan for each component related to the field.

Step 3: Establish Checkpoints of No Return

1-better-every-day-step-3
Set standards for the field you are getting better at. Ensure that you won’t act below these standards. Also, they should be further refined – improved.

As I mentioned above, at some point, you will stop getting 1 percent better at a specific task. There is no point in pushing further. However, this doesn’t mean that you should stop.

The push-ups case I shared above is a great example here.

Instead of trying to get “1 percent better every day” at push-ups, failing at some point and abandoning the task altogether. My checkpoint of no return is 100. Occasionally, I can do 120, or 140 push-ups. But the idea is to do at least 100 a day.

In the area of writing. Since good writing is subjective – some people might like a particular article while others can pelt me with insulting words. The point is to follow an already established process of writing.

Bench pressing is yet another example. How much more can you add to the bench? At some point – if you are not trying to win a medal or something. You will just lift a certain weight and won’t add more because it won’t make sense to hurt your body.

Like car manufacturers have certain quality standards they can’t neglect – for example, having reliable breaks. You should set your own personal standards that you’ll follow no matter what.

Bonus: Track Your Progress and Make Revisions

1-better-every-day-step-4
You can’t get better if you are not measuring what you are doing. Create a system to track your progress and revise it – ideally – every quarter to make adjustments.

Some areas of improvement are easy to measure. If you want to increase your income. You can easily check your salary from last year and compare it to how much you make today.

But what if you want to see how your physique has changed compared to last year?

It will be best if you snap a photo of yourself on the day you decided to make the change. Then, start tracking your weight and how often you are exercising.

All the work you’ve done in relation to improving will be just wishful words if you don’t measure. And, how you will measure things will depend on the subject itself and your preferences.

Personally, I use a habit tracking journal for my regular daily routines. But other forms are fine as long as you can regularly add entries.

Some Closing Thoughts

Just a moment to grab my 1% better calculator to measure how much better I have become compared to last year.

Hmm… not as good as I should be. And, not as good as the other people in the world.

When we compare ourselves to the rest of the universe. We fail at finding things to be proud of. We lose the battle with the constant temptation of needing to be idolized by others.

But one big realization in the area of self-improvement is that you are not obligated to choose others as a measurement mechanism. It’s much wiser – and practical – to compare yourself to who you were yesterday.

Another (also) big realization is that when we start loving the parts of ourselves that are not “excellent”. And when we accept that certain avenues of our life will suck. We will have a much better chance at improving in the area in which we do want and do need to make substantial change.

One notion that helped me overcome the impossible idea of becoming 1 percent better at life is that you can’t get better at everything. And that you can’t constantly improve.

Eventually, you hit a brick wall. But if you did everything right before that. This won’t be a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you are already good enough at this thing. Yes, probably refinements will be needed occasionally. But it’s not healthy for the brain to think that we can forever expand our boundaries in one area.

After you are already enough “1 percent better” at this one thing. Move to something else.


Add to your habits toolset by reading the following:

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

Join Farview: A newsletter fostering long-term thinking in a world driven by impatience. Trusted by over 4,300 thinkers, Farview is a concise, thoughtfully organized newsletter helping you handle the self-sabotaging thoughts trying to corrupt you.


Footnotes:

  1. Slater, Matt (8 August 2012). “Olympics cycling: Marginal gains underpin Team GB dominance”. BBC Sport. On the web: https://www.bbc.com/sport/olympics/19174302
  2. Sky Track Cycling. (2021, August 3). In Wikipedia. One the web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_Track_Cycling
Share with others: