On Getting 1 Percent Better

Recently I had the opportunity to hear James Clear speak about what it means to get one percent better every day. He wrote about this idea in his book, Atomic Habits. Basically, the concept is to identify an area where you want to improve in your life and make an active choice to focus on getting 1 percent better in that area every day.  Too often when we look at improvement – whether it is self-improvement or improvement in our farm or business – we see the lofty goals. “I want to lose 50 pounds,” “I want to increase my sales by 25 percent,” “I want to increase our milk production by 20 pounds.” Then we try to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal in as little time as possible.

According to Clear, this often leads to burnout and failure because when we can’t meet our expectations, we simply give up. Instead, he suggests that we should focus on continual improvement by getting 1 percent better at something every day. At first those small improvements don’t seem to make much of a difference. But in the end, he showed how those small improvements can add up to significant changes. Statistically, if you focus on getting 1 percent better at something every day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better at it by the time that year is over.

Athletes often use this concept in their training. They identify an area where they need to improve, and they develop a training regimen to improve in that area. My son who is on the high school football team started out his freshman season weighing 120 pounds and not being able to lift that much. He focused on getting better by doing weight and skills training for two to three hours every day during the offseason. Today, although he is still only 5 foot 6 inches, he now weighs 170 pounds and is getting very close to breaking school records in the amount he can lift. He identified that he needed to get stronger and faster to be a contender on the field, and he focused on getting a little better in those areas every day. In the two-year period, it’s amazing to see how far he has come.

So, let’s apply that to our dairy farm businesses. In Pennsylvania, our average daily milk production trails other states by as much as 10 pounds per cow. That means many of our farms are missing out on the extra revenue that last 10 pounds of milk per cow per day can bring into your dairy operation. In a year like 2023 when profit margins are very tight, that additional 10 pounds of milk can mean the difference between being profitable and losing money.

Details and Consistency

Sometimes that additional 10 pounds of milk comes from just doing a really good job at the details – reproduction, nutrition, cow comfort, and milking procedures. If pregnancy rates falter, that could mean the herd is getting too stale and you don’t have the advantage of maximizing peak milk production. If the ration isn’t well balanced, the forages aren’t high quality enough, or the feed isn’t kept in front of the herd, nutrition could be what’s holding you back. If stalls are not bedded deep enough or there isn’t proper ventilation, cow comfort could be your bottleneck. So, identify what the bottleneck is for you and think through how you could get one percent better at it every day.

Here are the steps that James Clear suggests taking to focus on continual improvement:

  • Do more of what already works. He suggests that we often waste the resources and ideas at our fingertips because they don’t seem new or exciting. For example, farms often overlook how important it is to watch heats every day or, in the case of timed synchronization, administer shots on the right days to keep reproduction in check. We can also often get busy and forget to make sure stalls are groomed properly and feed is kept pushed up in front of the cows. But the difference between getting 1 percent better or 1 percent worse every day with any of these practices is all about consistency.
  • Avoid tiny losses. In his presentation, Clear told us that improvement is less about doing more things right than it is about doing fewer things wrong. What that means is we need to eliminate mistakes, simplify processes, and remove what’s not essential. So, ask yourself what are you doing that is taking away from your continual improvement. For an athlete, this might mean eating unhealthy foods and staying up too late. On the farm, maybe it’s cutting corners with your feed ration or not correcting employees when they are not following protocols. Whatever it is that is holding you back, you need to eliminate it.
  • Measure backward. As a society, we often measure progress by looking forward. We set goals and plan for where we want to be in the future. James Clear reminds us that sometimes looking back can be a more helpful approach. For example, what do you do with your DHIA records that come in the mail each month? Do you look at how your performance compares to where you were a month ago? Are you increasing in milk production per cow or are you decreasing? If you are decreasing, why? Is your pregnancy rate going up? Are somatic cell counts going down? What can you do to correct any negative trends? Clear suggests that measuring backwards can help you make decisions on what has already happened instead of what you want to happen.

As dairy farmers, we are often so focused on just getting the day-to-day stuff done that it can seem overwhelming to set our sights on future goals. But why not start by focusing on getting just one percent better at something every day. If you need some help in thinking through where to start, the Center does have resources to help. The application period for our On-Farm Grant Programs has just opened. The two programs that could help you look at ways to continually improve include the Dairy Decisions Consultant (DDC) Program and our Dairy Profit Team Program. Both offer grant funding to bring in outside consultants to help you identify strategies for improving your operation. To learn more or apply, call the Center at 717-346-0849 or visit our website at centerfordairyexcellence.org/grants.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence