Why “Tiny Gains” is Good in Theory but Always Suboptimal in Practice

By Duff McDuffee on September 18th, 2015 1

What you’re getting yourself into:

  • 2073 words, ~10 minutes read time

Key points:

  1. Linear growth in any area of life is primarily experienced by beginners. Once out of the beginner phase, improvement is non-linear or requires non-linear methods.
  2. “Tiny Gains” (making tiny weekly linear improvements) sounds good in theory, but in reality it simply prolongs the beginner stage.
  3. Tiny Gains confuses psychological motivation with an effective plan for achievement, whereas Mini Habits works so well because it is open-ended, allowing for going above and beyond.


One of the key ideas inherent in the name “beyond growth” is that ongoing success in any area of life is rarely a linear trajectory pointing upwards. In fact, linear growth is primarily experienced by complete beginners. Humans don’t keep growing taller year after year, they have an adolescent growth spurt and then reach maturity (at least in height). Once one has reached the point of diminishing returns in a given area, things get a lot more interesting, and it’s no longer a simple matter of making small improvements in a single variable.

Popular personal development author James Clear recently wrote about a principle often touted in personal development, what he calls “Tiny Gains.” The idea is that if you can make tiny improvements, say 1% a week, you can continue to make tiny improvements effectively forever, or at least reach peaks of excellence in a slow-and-steady manner. By progressing at a very slow but steady rate, the effort required remains easy, and you develop the habits needed for success. Since our willpower is inherently very limited, developing good habits that are progressive in nature is a more wise approach than trying to get there all at once.

There is a lot to like about this idea. It has a certain intuitive appeal going back to the parable of The Tortoise and the Hare. In an obviously unfair race, the rabbit (hare) sprints out in front and takes a solid lead over the slow tortoise. But the rabbit has ADHD and is soon distracted by all the notifications on his Apple Watch, while the underdog tortoise (who doesn’t even have a watch!) plods along and eventually wins the race, much to the hare’s surprise.

The lesson is clear: develop consistent, small habits to win against those who have greater natural talent but less focus or consistency. Or as my High School Cross Country coach put it, “hard work, given time, beats talent.”

Adding one pound a week

In his article announcing the tiny gains idea, Clear gives a personal example, that of doing weighted chin-ups. Chin-ups are a difficult bodyweight exercise that most unfit people cannot perform at all, let alone with added mass clipped onto a weight belt. But with training, a non-obese man can progressively train to do chin-ups with 100lbs or more in addition to his bodyweight.

Clear shares that he decided on a plan on January 7th, 2015 to progressively add one pound per week to his chin-up, performing the exercise three times per week in five sets of five repetitions. As of August 10th, he had worked his way slowly and steadily up to 25 lbs of additional weight for 5×5 (five pounds fewer than the plan would have predicted due to missing workouts from traveling).

This sounds like great progress, but in fact it is very suboptimal. A popular beginner weight training program called StrongLifts 5×5 recommends that one develop the ability to perform three sets of ten repetitions in the chin-up before adding weight and performing chin-ups for 5×5. Adding five pounds of weight each time you successfully complete a round of 5×5 chin-ups until you can no longer make progress, then lower to 2.5 lbs or less to continue linear progression but at a slower rate. You perform chin-ups every other session for an average of 1.5 times per week. Assuming linear progress for one month adding 5 lbs each time, you would add 30 lbs in your first month.

The fact is that if you can perform between 10-15 chin-ups with only your bodyweight, you can already perform weighted chin-ups for sets of 5 with 15-25 lbs. A different program for getting to 100lbs in the chin-up recommends that after achieving 10 bodyweight repetitions, you start with a weight you are comfortable with for five repetitions (their example is 25lbs). Then using a kind of monthly periodization to continue to progress, add 2.5 or 5lbs each week for a couple weeks then deload by going a step backwards, and repeating: 2 steps forward, one step back. They claim many non-obese men can achieve a 100lbs + bodyweight chin-up in under 6 months using this method…a shorter amount of time than it Clear took to add 25lbs, and training chin-ups only twice a week instead of three times. If Clear could already do 10-15 chin-ups, he might have spent 8 months not getting any stronger at all, a progression at least 4 to 8 times less efficient than alternative progressions.

This is an alternate explanation for why Clear has felt weighted chin-ups to be easy thus far, not because his Tortoise-like approach was effective but because it was ineffective. He hasn’t even challenged his chin-up strength yet.

What do you do when you can’t make progress?

Efficiency is of course not the only important value, but there is also no reason to be needlessly inefficient throughout the beginning stages when linear progress is relatively easy. In weightlifting, most beginner programs like StrongLifts use linear progression, where more weight is added each week until the trainee cannot perform the exercise (failure). At first glance this sounds like the Tiny Gains idea, but the gains are usually not tiny but merely small. The real question is what do you do when you can’t make progress. It’s not clear with Tiny Gains — it is implied that you can basically continue to make linear progress forever if the gains are small enough, but this is unlikely.

In StrongLifts, the strategy is this: the trainee attempts the same weight again, and if fails several sessions in a row then “deloads” by removing 10% of the weight, and attempts linear progression again. After failing several times, then a trainee may choose to attempt linear progression with less weight added each time (e.g. 2.5 lbs instead of 5 lbs on overhead press, or 5 lbs instead of 10 lbs on the deadlift). Alternatively, they might reduce volume by doing fewer working sets (3×5 instead of 5×5). And eventually this too will fail, after which they may reduce volume further to 1×5. This of course also assumes the trainee is eating enough and getting enough rest. At this point it is thought that the individual has gone beyond the beginner stages of weightlifting and is ready for a more complex intermediate program using periodization. Elite levels are still far beyond this point.

Linear progress is for beginners

This is the real metaphor we should take from weightlifting into other areas of life. Beginning stages of achievement in many domains have a similar structure. Linear progress is achieved through consistent small (but not tiny) gains, occasionally taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back, but mostly just marching straightforwardly upward and onward. But these are just the “noob gains,” the low-hanging fruit, the relatively easy wins that come up to the point of diminishing returns. Then additional linear progress becomes difficult and more complex non-linear strategies are needed.

A person who has never done anything to try to become more focused and productive can double their productivity in a month by learning a few key principles: cutting out distractions, managing technology better, learning to focus on the important tasks. But to double their productivity again is very difficult.

Clear’s Tiny Gains strategy fails even in weight training. Making one’s gains more tiny than they need to be just prolongs the beginning stage where linear progress is straightforward. Past the point of a beginner, linear strength gains cannot easily be made anyway, and periodization and other more complex programming works more effectively. Many people doing a linear progression program consistently with small but not tiny gains have achieved a 250+ pound barbell back squat in 3-12 months time. Adding only 1 lb weekly as Clear recommends, this would take nearly 5 years. There is no good reason to take 4-8 times longer than needed to make these kind of beginner strength gains.

The middle way

Whereas Tim Ferriss confuses achieving intermediate status as fast as possible with achieving mastery, Clear confuses the methods used for achieving intermediate status as applying to the entire path to mastery. I appreciate the love of the process in Clear’s recommendation — he clearly emphasizes the fundamentals which in my opinion is the correct focus both in terms of effectiveness and character. But Clear’s Tiny Gains method is too focused on slow and steady. In the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare, it is the snail.

The middle path between these two extremes in found in pursuing achieving “noob gains” in any new skill in a reasonable amount of time, neither as fast as possible (cutting corners in the process), nor slower than needed (prolonging the beginner phase). But since as beginners we are ignorant as to what the pace should be, seeking expert advice in the field where we wish to make improvements is a good approach. We need not reinvent the wheel, but neither should we seek “hacks” to cheat our way to an appearance of mastery.

Tiny Gains vs. Mini habits

By contrast, the Mini Habits method works amazingly well without these limitations. Mini Habits, invented by personal development author Stephen Guise, is a combination of the “don’t break the chain” habit strategy (aka do something every day) and the “journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step” (aka “chunking down”). Guise came up with the idea when he realized he needed to exercise but couldn’t get himself to start, so he came up with the “one pushup challenge.” As Guise calls it, the challenge is “stupid small” but it works because it is so easy that even with zero willpower you can force yourself to start. Once started, it seems silly to stop at just one pushup as you are already in the pushup position and can easily do more, so intrinsic motivation and habit takes over and soon you’ve completed 10 or more pushups with a minimum of forcing or willpower.

Mini Habits works on the principle that the hardest part is just getting started, and once started it is relatively easy to continue. The limit in Mini Habits is placed on the minimum you need to start, but there is no upper limit to what you might do. The problem with Tiny Gains is it puts needless limits on your maximum achievement. If you feel like doing more weight, reps, or sets that day, on Mini Habits you are free to go for it, but on Tiny Gains you are not allowed. Mini Habits has “autoregulation” built-in, by focusing only on a psychological trick to get you started and avoiding specifying the “best” way to proceed, whereas Tiny Gains specifies the step-by-step plan for making progress and thus will always choose a suboptimal program. It’s only a matter of whether the program is somewhat suboptimal or extremely suboptimal. Within strength training communities, many people think StrongLifts progresses too slowly even because it recommends starting with the empty barbell which is much less than most untrained people can lift in the squat and bench press.

My personal strength is in discovering and thinking about highly effective methods to do things, whereas my weakness is in actually doing those things. 🙂 So for me, Mini Habits provides the missing key. Once I’ve gotten started, I will easily tap into my intrinsic motivation to do things the most effective way I know possible. But even for others who don’t have my struggles, Tiny Gains doesn’t seem to me to have additional advantages over Mini Habits in terms of creating motivation to start or stay consistent. As a psychological hack, it is misleading, because it gives the illusion of perpetual linear gains, whereas these low-hanging fruit only last for a very limited time.

Instead, we ought to first develop the habits of doing something, even if suboptimal, using Mini Habits to get us off our duffs. And then once we have started, we should seek out optimal approaches to reap the beginner gains at a reasonably brisk pace so we can get to intermediate stages of skill where things start to get interesting and go “beyond (linear) growth.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.