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Like many people I tend to be impatient when it comes to my personal productivity. I want to to adopt a couple of big changes that will see may productivity shoot up over night. But in many cases we try to adopt a big change, only to fail.

Are marginal gains a more appropriate approach? Small improvements in many different areas may be more achievable, and combine to have a greater impact on productivity overall - similar to the approach taken in sports such as cycling

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It depends on your goals. When you try to become the best, marginal gains are the only kind of gains. Mastery is an asymptote, gains become smaller the closer you get to it.

Personally, I find the productive approach to be sacrificing the multiple small gains for large gains. There's a set-up time to starting anything - e.g. when you switch browser windows, it takes you a few seconds to align to the new content. On the other hand, if you can't dedicate a lot of time to something, small gains help you make progress over a much longer period of time.

There's also a phenomenon where focusing on one large goal overrides a lot of minor distractions. I'm sure there's a term for it which I don't know, but people have found that when they dedicate willpower towards one goal, you have to dedicate little extra willpower to similar goals. If you dedicate yourself to running a marathon, quitting smoking is about as easy as forcing yourself to train every morning.

You might be looking for early victories. A few early victories are essential to starting momentum.

Want to learn to swim? Your first few attempts shouldn't make you feel like drowning. Want to learn a new language? Your first few attempts should be basic communication, not trying to learn grammar bit by bit and memorize a dictionary. Perhaps this is where trying to adopt big changes is failing you?

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I think this question is much more complex than initially intended. I think it is more rooted in psychology and behavioral change

Right, so you want to implement new techniques into your life. Or maybe you want to change some current techniques you use. We can call these habits. To change a habit, you must change behavior. There are so many studies on behavioral modification and so many different methodologies, that's it's near impossible to source them.

You may be aware of classical conditioning to modify behavior (Pavlov's Dog). Let's say that we dismiss this as an option, due to personal preference.

We can move on to operant conditioning which is mostly the work of Skinner based on Thorndyke's Law of Effect -

responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation

If we apply this concept to behavior modification and, in turn, to changing habits, it boils down to a simple process -

  1. State goal
  2. Monitor behavior
  3. Reinforce desired behavior
  4. Reduce incentives to perform undesirable behavior

This structure involves consistent small gains to properly and effectively modify your habits to increase productivity in the long-term.

I think the marginal gain technique is best for increasing your productivity and efficiency, as can be observed through your past experiences. Do people react positively to change, generally? What about changes that companies try to implement, are they slow or fast? Change is difficult, I'd say change is the hardest thing you'll ever do. It takes work, commitment, trial and error, and perseverance. But, nothing worth doing is easy.

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  • All techniques, e.g. for planning, organizing, studying etc, have generally their advantages and disadvantages. There are no perfect techniques.
  • All techniques yield good results but only after a long process of adapting them, practicing them and improving them to fit the context in which it is applied. This phase of adapting the technique requires hard work and patience. In this phase, gradual improvements will pay the most.
  • It is tempting during this phase to imagine that there is a better technique that will get good results with a shorter time and less work. That can explain why some people frequently switch from one technique to another.

In short, big changes are needed when moving from no technique to a certain technique, or when you see that a technique, even when fully applied, will fall short in lots of areas. Other than that, gradual changes is the best investment.

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Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. If I've learned anything from training for a marathon or writing a paper it is that rushing is the worst.

When I started running I tried doing 4 miles immediately. I was thinking that I would make much more improvements from aiming high instead of aiming low. Instead I would get injured from forcing myself to run so soon. After that I just did what I could. If I felt uncomfortable I would slow down. I discovered I made much more progress working this way then aiming far outside my range.

You see examples of big changes failing all the time. Look at the statistics for lottery winners, a large percentage of them go broke. In contrast people that work hard and earn their money a little at a time tend to be more responsible with it.

This was also true in business. In the 90's a ton of dot-coms shot up in stock price and came crashing down just as fast. Companies like IBM, McDonalds and Coke took time to build their business and seem virtually crashproof.

Consistently the slow approach has shown to work and there is no reason why it wouldn't work for you.

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Adding to Muz's answer: there have been several books published recently on how to apply the marginal gains approach (also called Deliberate Practice) to areas where it hasn't been traditionally applied. I suggest:

Talent is overrated The little book of talent The talent code

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