Marginal adjustments: the winning strategy for language learning & more

Let me share with you one of my favorite TED talks on language learning, mountain hiking, yarnbombing and beating Guinness records. That’s the best preface to this post because nobody will explain the power of marginal adjustments better than Stephen Duneier:

Ideas that work find their application everywhere in the life.

Stephen Duneier doesn’t talk only about his strategy of learning German. He talks about the strategy that has helped him to win in every aspect of his life: graduate from a top world program in economics and finance, rise to the post of SEO of a successful investment company, learn a foreign language, write a mind-blowing book on decision making and finally become a holder of a Guinness record.

All this – with the same approach called marginal adjustments.

Marginal adjustment: the power of 1%

How would change your life if you improve anything and everything you do just by 1%?

What if I tell you that just this one percent made winners out of losers?

The Tour de France is one of the most prestigious bicycle races in the world. It was also an impossible-to-win competetion for Team Sky, the professional cycling team from Great Britain. Impossible, until Dave Brailsford came to the post of General Manager and Performance Director of the team. Dave proposed a new strategy: if the team manages to improve every single aspect of life related to cycling even by 1%, the aggregation of marginal gains will make them unbeatable. According to his plan, Team Sky would come first on Tour de France in five years.

They did it in three.

In the same 2012, the British cycling team celebrated their first smashing success in Olympics where Team Sky won 70 percent of gold medals.

What if I concentrate just for 5 minutes?

“Because of the continuous and compounding nature of all those millions of decisions that we face on a regular basis, even a marginal improvement in our process can have a huge impact on our end results.”

Stephen Duneier

But let’s return to Stephen Duneier. What did turn a C- high school student who couldn’t focus on a single task into a bright A+ graduate of a top Finance and Economics program in the States?

Just five minutes of focus.

We all have a trouble concentrating on boring things, so had Stephen. But these things has to be done, you want it or not, and the only thing that you can change is your approach. So instead of again trying to conquer another pile of assignments at once, he decided to focus on it for just five minutes. Then he went to play for a few minutes. Then he returned to his desk and focused again.

These five minutes were his marginal adjustment. Five minutes here, five minutes there, these periods of focus accumulated into hours of intensive study. And the latter – into a stable academic success.

Marginal adjustments into marginal gains

It’s very easy to underestimate these five minutes of focus or these 1% improvements. It’s a small change, after all. Often, even an invisible one. But the gains (or loses) tend to accumulate over time and bring results, whether positive or negative.

This is how habits work. This is how that chocolate chunk cookie from your favorite coffee shop slowly adds centimeters to your waistline. But this is also how your morning run adds years to your potential lifetime.

Now, what the hell does all this have with language learning, you think.

Quite a lot. Language learning, like any skill, requires you to invest some time into it. When you make a marginal adjustment to your daily routine so that it includes language practice, you automate this investment. Weeks after, you get your first “compound interest”.

How marginal adjustments can help you to learn a language?

By now, we have seen two ways of approaching the strategy of marginal gains.

1. It can be applied to life in general

That is precisely what Stephen Duneier tells about in his TEDx talk. It’s not about learning German in three months, not about getting straight A-s or becoming a world-record yarnbomber. It’s about making all and every effort possible to make your life better, yourself smarter, and your free time more meaningful.

If you follow this strategy you’ll learn a foreign language almost painlessly – among all other things that dust in your “Someday/Maybe” list.

2. It can be applied to a specific discipline

If you want to brake a lock, you should apply your force to a lock, not to the whole door or walls around it. The same is true for accumulation of marginal gains. If you want to win in a specific field you have to scrutinize the way you practice, find every single spot and fix it. This way marginal adjustments bring astonishing results, as the Team Sky successfully proved to the whole world.

So if you want to master your target language or become a polyglot, choose the second strategy. If learning another language for you is just a way to improve your life (and there are a number of reasons why it is a good way to do so) go with the first one.

Pick up a language on your way to life success (#1)

You make a decision and then you make a marginal adjustment.

In the case of Stephen Duneier, it was a decision to listen to Pimsleur German language program instead of his usual playlist on his way to work. 45 minutes one way, 45 minutes way back: here’s an hour and a half. After 90 days, or three months, he’s got 135 hours of speaking practice in German.

Considering the fact that Pimsleur is one of the top ranked language learning programs that heavily implements neuroscience, it’s more than enough to start speaking confidently.

There’s nothing magical in what Stephen has done. But there’s one element in his approach that can easily be omitted: he didn’t leave himself the way out until he completed his goal. How?

He deleted all music from his iPod.

The importance of burning the bridges

I understood the temptation very clearly when I tried to repeat Stephen’s feat and learn French during my usual evening walks.

And it’s very easy to slip back to the usual music-listening routine because it’s less demanding and more fun. Language learning, on the other hand, especially with Pimsleur, demands your attention and active participation.

But if Pimsleur is only thing you have on your phone, you’re a task completing machine.

And if you’re genuinely committed to your language learning goal, leaving a backdoor open would be the act of betraying yourself.

Marginal adjustments: the power of precise application (#2)

The second level is to build marginal adjustments into your language learning strategy. To understand how it works domain-specifically, we can refer to Team Sky again.

What aspects of cycling, do you think, Dave Brailsford tried to improve to bring his team the victory in Tour de France?

You can easily guess the evident stuff: perfecting training programs, enhancing nutrition of the athletes, making seats more comfortable, lightening bike tires… But what about better massage for athletes? Sleeping on more comfortable pillows? Ensuring better hygiene among the team members? Do you see how all this can be related to winning Tour de France? That’s right, no.

And nobody did.

However, the accumulation of all these factors resulted in a better well-being of riders. This led them to being better prepared for training and racing. And the latter caused better performance on demanding competitions like Tour de France.

The power of marginal adjustments beautifully demonstrated by Team Sky
Photo by Simon Connellan on Unsplash

Same story with language learning.

How to find loose ends in your language learning strategy?

If you allow enough time each day for learning a language but results leave you unhappy, your strategy is not optimal. So what you want to do is very similar to what Dave Brailsford had to do in cycling.

You want to rediscover language learning.

  • If you’re learning vocabulary, maybe you’re not concentrating on words you should be concentrating?
  • Maybe the book you’re trying to read in your target language is too boring? Or you simply don’t like reading on Kindle and need a paperback version?
  • What if you should simply stop doing languages with Rosetta Stone and try Pimsleur or Assimil?
  • Maybe your language learning sessions are too long and, therefore, tiring: then why don’t you try studying with Pomodoro technique?
  • What if the grammar book you’re using doesn’t really match your level anymore? Maybe you don’t even need a grammar book?

There are a ton of language learning strategies, programs and courses. But there is an even bigger number of indirect factors that influence your language acquisition.

Out-of-box thinking for more marginal gains

Will you deny that overall well-functioning of your brain is a huge success factor in language learning? What about your memory? Or your fluid intelligence? Or even confidence? What if you work on these as well?

  • What about practicing dual n-back? Or anything else scientifically proven that makes your brain work better?
  • How do you memorize new words? Do you use any memorization technique? Does it work well for you?
  • If you learn a language in the evening, what if you do it first thing in the morning instead?
  • Do you use every opportunity to speak a foreign language or get shy and keep quiet? Why don’t you try going to Polyglot club?
  • Maybe you simply don’t have enough sleep so your brain doesn’t perform really well in cognitively demanding tasks like language learning?

There’s a lot of small things that can hardly be traced back to your language learning practice. But if you make marginal adjustments to every single one of them, you as a whole become better prepared for learning tasks. Hence, the success in language acquisition.

You can note even smaller things by paying more attention to your daily routine, your language learning sessions and your own feelings about all this. Take a minute to think what you can improve now.

You have to begin with marginal adjustments to win the whole game
Thinking here is the most important step.  Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Today or never: how to put marginal adjustments to work

Stephen Duneier is inspiring. Insanely inspiring. But to make it all work, you want to take the next step and transform this inspiration into action. Start with asking yourself right questions.

1. Find a time window

Think, what part of your morning routine you’re ready to sacrifice for the sake of your language learning goal?

For Stephen Duneier, it was his daily commute. That’s the least meaningful part of a day of the vast majority of people. And there’s a 99% chance that you’re among them.

2. Define your ultimate goal

Since speaking German was basically an item from Stephen’s bucket list, his goal was to get to that working proficiency level that allowed him to communicate with Germans. For you, it can be passing a DSH proficiency test.

It all depends on your motivation.

3. Define the daily action

What specific task can you execute daily during that specified time window to move towards your goal? It can be one lesson of Pimsleur program. Or one GermanPod101 podcast. Or one short story in Beelinguapp.

4. Eliminate the obsctacles

The battle can be won or lost long before it starts.

Simply, if you forget your headphones at home, there’s no Pimsleur for you. If you didn’t download the next podcast (or didn’t choose it beforehand) – the same story. If you didn’t delete the music from your phone, you technically left yourself an opportunity to slack.

You want to find all loose ends here, so that you don’t have to painfully rationalize and make a choice between your favorite music and not-so-favorite Pimsleur.

5. Do it and reward yourself

Reward is what makes habits last.

It can take any form: a cup of coffee, or even a song, or a simple check in your habit-tracking app. The point is that the reward creates a positive feedback and the latter makes you feel good about what you’ve just done. And you tend to return to the activity that makes you feel good.


These marginal adjustments are at best invisible on a daily level. At worst they are uncomfortable and pleasure deriving – again on a daily level. But let the months pass, and you will see a result of every single effort you’ve done on a daily basis. And this result will blow you away.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.

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