How to Make Marginal Gains in Your Research

Marginal gains are small improvements that have the opportunity to compound. They were made famous by the British Cycling Team that competed (and won lots of gold medals) at the 2008 Olympics. But the idea has been around for much longer than that. In some respects it’s the automation and mechanisation of repetitive processes. And, in the hyper competitive world of academic grants, and publication marginal gains can be the difference between on-going success or a series of near misses.


Like I said in earlier articles, you can get marginal gains in lots of different areas. I've already talked about reading, writing, and social media. So, how can we think about how small improvements could be made to other parts of our workflow?

So, first of all let me be clear, marginal gains are not intended to be massive. They're meant to be small changes or maybe even big changes that give you a small gain. And the aim is not to have a small gain but it's understanding that whether your gain is big or small. And including if it's small, you can have it can have a profound effect. Particularly, when you think about doing a process or performing a task that you do potentially every day. If you save a minute on that task, you'll end up saving 360 minutes in a whole year, and that could be the difference between publishing an article, 2 or 3 times a year or publishing it only once or publishing an article once or twice a year.

So how can you identify areas for marginal gain? I think the first step is to have a list of things that you do in a particular day. So, you might start doing a time immersion study where every 20 minutes or every half an hour. You just write down what it is that you're doing and then after doing that for a week, you have a look at that log, and you make a decision on what are the things that I do every week or every day. If you don't want to do that, that's fine. You could just reflect on the you know, each afternoon or each evening. You could reflect on what it is that you did for the day and make that list. And again, think about what it is that you did and how common that is and whether you're doing that all of the time. So, step one is list all of the processes. Step two is to have a look at all of the different things that you do, and which document or highlight or note which ones are the things that you do frequently. That could be more than once a day. It could be once a day, once a week. Things that you do frequently.

The 3rd thing is to take one of those items that you do frequently and write down the process that you currently follow for that. So that if we look at a journal article that might be to get some keywords, to search some keywords, to scan some titles, scan some abstracts, download, print, and then you might start reading. So, if you think about that process for example, you might want to change that up and go rather than do those 7 different things every single time you're wanting to read an article, you might decide that sometimes all you'll do is search, scan, download or print. And sometimes, therefore when you read, all you'll do is actually read, and you'll pick the first article up off the pile. The idea is in these marginal gains is you're removing some friction or reducing decision making often. So rather than deciding what to read, make the decision process easy and just choose the first one off the pile, and read that one, and scan that one. So that's how you might do it say, for the process of reading an article.

The other thing that you could do, you can even just skip that whole thing in general and think well, do I print my articles and read them? Or do I read them digitally? If you print them all the time then, have you got a copy with you the one that you're currently reading all the time? If you don't print them, if you've got them digitally, do you have a copy all the time? And can you look at it? Can you scan it? Can you do your note taking? Or whatever it is that you normally do. Wherever you are so, I'm particularly thinking you know, ask yourself the question, "Could I do it while I'm waiting for my coffee order to be served?". So often, we're all head down you know, scrolling through social media. Could you instead spend that time rather than scrolling to through social media or checking your email? Could you spend it reading a little bit more of that latest article that you've found? You could look at how you deal with email and you know, how you turn emails into actions, into things that you into tasks that you then ultimately do, and you could look at how you write grants. You could look at how you conduct experiments. I think that's a really good one particularly if you're in say, a wet lab where you've got lots of reagents, and you've got to make up reagents that might be a real good way to batch your processes. You know, to do things like rather than making a one-time solution, make a 10 times solution, and then all you have to do is dilute it rather than make it up and essentially the process of making 10 lots of that solution is now condensed into making one lot of that solution. So, there's lots of different ways that you can apply the idea of marginal gains, and it starts with first, identifying the processes that you use regularly. Second, documenting those process, and then finally looking at ways to improve how quickly or easily those processes can be conducted.

Good luck getting a marginal gain!