Why Tiny Changes Make a Big Difference


At GF Fitness, we advocate the rule of 1 percent. When working with clients, we identify areas to work on, and simply aim to improve these areas by 1 percent every day.

“Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable – sometimes it isn’t even noticeable – but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run.” (Clear 2018, p. 15)

1 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but this tiny improvement, compounded over 365 days, certainly adds up. Here’s the maths to back it up:

     1 percent worse every day for one year: 0.99365 = 00.03

     1 percent better every day for one year: 1.01365 = 37.78

This shows us that, “If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.” (Clear 2018, p. 15)

When it comes to making incremental improvements, persevering is very difficult for most of us. As human beings, we love to see tangible results, but when we follow the 1 percent rule, tangible results are delayed. If we commit to going to the gym 3 times per week, it’s very unlikely that we will see any difference after 1 week, but we know that we will benefit from this in the future. After 4 weeks, it is much more likely that we will see and/or feel a difference. After 52 weeks, there’s no doubt that we will see and feel a difference. Unfortunately, most of us give up before we see the fruits of our labour.

For example, let’s imagine an aircraft was flying from one place to another. There would be a specific flight path calculated prior to take-off, to ensure that the aircraft arrives at the correct destination. After take-off, the pilot shifts the route of the aircraft by a few degrees. This tiny change at the start of the flight, compounded over thousands of miles, would result in the aircraft ending up very far away from its intended destination. A slight change in our daily habits can guide our lives to a very different destination. “Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.” (Clear 2018, p. 17-18)

Who we are and where we currently find ourselves in our lives is directly related to our habits. “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.” (Clear 2018, p. 18)

Goals Need Systems

Setting goals are important, because they help with direction, however, systems are best for making progress. In other words, goals relate to the results, whereas systems relate to processes.

If we completely ignored our goals and only focused on the processes, what would happen? Let’s use the goal of losing 5 percent body fat as an example. If we ignored our goal and simply focused on processes such as eating the right foods, exercising, and getting 8 hours of sleep every day, do we think we would still see results and lose body fat? We think so.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, details 4 problems with focusing on goals as opposed to systems:

Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.

“If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers … The goal had always been there. It was only when they implemented a system of continuous small improvements that they achieved a different outcome.” (Clear 2018, p.25)

Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.

If we had a messy room, we could set a goal to clean it. Once we’ve tidied it up, the room would be clean – for now. However, if we maintain the bad habits that led to the messy room in the first place, it’s only a matter of time before we have a messy room again. “You’re left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it … Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment … We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results … In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.” (Clear 2018, p.25)

Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness.

“The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone.” (Clear 2018, p.26) Goals are essential. Without them we have no need for the process, however, we should view the goal and the process with equal importance. You cannot have one without the other. “When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.” (Clear 2018, p.26)

Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.

“When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? This is why many people find themselves reverting to their old habits after accomplishing a goal … It’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.” (Clear 2018, p. 26-27) When we pursue the goals that we set, we are aiming to establish a new habit. Continuously setting goals, therefore, is crucial if we are to achieve the ultimate goal, which is healthier habits.

We as human beings are notorious for the “yo-yo” effect when it comes to our health and fitness. Armed with this information, we can begin to eradicate the bad habits, and replace them with good habits that will last for a lifetime.

As health and fitness professionals we want to help our clients get results, but ultimately, we want to help them achieve long-term behaviour change. The information above is critical for our clients to understand. We facilitate the process, but only the client can take responsibility for their habits.

We hope you found this information valuable. If you’re looking for a professional health and fitness coach to help you on your health & fitness journey, please do contact us

Reference list:

Clear, J 2018, Atomic Habits, Random House Business Books, United Kingdom [Accessed: 5 January 2020].

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