The Big Power of Small Wins

The “one little forward step after another” is underrated.

Jude King, PhD
Jun 7, 2019 · 9 min read
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Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Think back to the last time you had a big breakthrough. The moment when everything finally clicked. You land the dream job. You reached your weight loss goal. You got the promotion at your job. The cheque arrived in the mail. The concert reached its crescendo and all rise to applaud a breathtakingly flawless performance. The big game was won.

Those moments are beautiful, and you probably savoured them- — as you should. But the problem is when our focus are totally trained on those big moments, and the one-little-forward-step-after-another moments — the small wins — that lead to those big breakthroughs get neglected and overlooked.

Yet, these micro-successes have the potential to be as impactful to our lives as the big breakthroughs if we let them.

For example, building a profitable six-figure business might be the big goal. But there are lots of celebratable progress points on the way, which we often overlook: Making your first sale. Finishing that course on “selling". Making your first $100 even when the overall goal is $100,000. Even the fact that you get to work on your business everyday.

Research by Harvard Professor and Author Teresa Amabile has shown that tracking these small and incremental wins can do wonders for our motivation and boost our self-confidence. Just like the big wins does.

This is because every achievement — big or small — activates our brain’s reward circuitry. The pathway opens up and we get the deeply satisfying release of testosterone and dopamine which leaves us feeling energized, confident and motivated.

Small wins can be as important or even more important than the big ones. And there are two main reasons why.

First, without the small wins, the big one likely won’t happen — we give up in disappointment and frustration before we get to the big win. The small wins hold the key to momentum. They infuse us with motivation to keep going. Second, the big magical moments, that we like to savour happens infrequently. Those big, breakthrough moments that completely takes our breathe away…there are only so much of them in one lifetime. That’s partly why we enjoy them so much. But the small wins are more frequent — what they lack in size they make up for in numbers.

But we often underrate these micro-victories, often to our own detriment. We set our sights firmly on the finish line that we refuse to acknowledge and savour all the moments that got us there.

Acknowledge the small wins a little more in our lives is key. In fact, we have to do more than acknowledge them: we should celebrate them. They hold the key to your eventual big breakthrough because of what they do to your motivation and self-confidence.

Small Wins Is Reflected In How You Set Your Goal

Let’s say, you set a goal in January to lose 60 pounds by the end of the year. All well and good. The only problem? You may have sacrificed the chance to invoke the power of small wins. You’ll have to wait for 12 months to see if you made it. Imagine if you set a goal to lose 5 pounds a month instead? Now you potentially have 12 chances to get those neurotransmitters coursing through your body and get that excitement and confidence going — to get you to the big win.

And it applies in a lot of other things too. The question you need to ask is: How can I break my big goal down into celebrate-able milestones? How can design my goal so that I get flickers in my passage through the tunnel rather than waiting for the one big light at the end of it?

You can even make it better by calling it a win when you follow your system. The system-versus-goal model was popularized by Scott Adams, in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. He wrote:

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal…

One should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavours. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system…

The strategy is to define the action steps that, if followed, will inevitably lead to achieving your big goal and focus on that. Say your goal is to be a published author, the action step might be write 500 words everyday.

Goal: a published author in 12 months. System: write 300 words everyday.

Here, you can create small wins by calling it a win worth celebrating, really allowing yourself to soak it in, IF you stick to your system. Do this, rather than wait for the big outcome at the end.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld understood this power of process-over-outcomes to create “small wins”. Each January, on a prominent wall in his apartment he pins a calendar that has the entire year on one page. On days when he writes new comedy material, no matter how little or what he thinks of the quality, he would draw a big red “X” over that day. Over time, a chain develops. Seinfeld ultimate goal was to be a really funny comedian but his immediate goal wasn’t to write brilliant comedy; his goal is to not break the chain.

Out of the big outcome he hope to reach and celebrate someday, he carved out small wins, little milestones, that he could reach everyday.

As long as he wrote something everyday, he won.

These small wins are all around us, if we stop overlooking them. If you make a small incremental progress…maybe you made that call, you wrote that story, you submitted that job application…on the way to your eventual goal. Those are all opportunities for small wins.

The main problem is that we set our sights too high when starting out of the gate. We start on a goal and set the bar for short-term progress so high so much so that we can’t be delighted with baby steps. The culprit here is often our inability to understand how progress happens.

The key lesson is to create as many opportunities of small win as you can, by redefining wins as incremental progress/sticking to the system rather than pining it on eventual outcomes.

Sticking to your system is the win, whether you reach the eventual goal today or tomorrow doesn’t really negate that fact.

Professor Teresa Anabile analysed more than 12,000 diary entries of over 200 white and blue collar employees to try to establish the most important driver of employee’s emotions and motivation at work.

The finding surprised her.

It was not “recognition” as she hoped. It wasn’t incentives. No, not interpersonal support.

It was whether they were moving forward. Whether they were making incremental progress — however little — in their work. Whether they are getting the small wins.

Making progress had the most prominent positive effect on employees’ motivation.

She wrote:

“Some of the progress the people made seemed almost trivial to us on the outside, really incremental, even mundane, but it ended up having a big impact on pride, confidence, emotions, and intrinsic motivation.”

She continued (emphasis mine):

“These small wins matter more because they are so much more likely to occur compared to the big breakthroughs in the world. If we only waited for the big wins, we would be waiting a long time. And we would probably quit long before we see anything tangible come to fruition. What you need instead of the big wins is simply the forward momentum that small wins bring.

Small Wins And The Discovery of the DNA

It has been argued that the discovery of the double helix, the twisted-ladder structure of the DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, was the most important discovery of the last century. Understanding the structure and functioning of the DNA changed everything as far as science and medical progress was concerned.

Yet, it almost didn’t happened.

Surprising but yes. James and Francis — eventual Nobel Laureates — lost motivation because they couldn’t see progress or breakthrough in their lab work and were inches away from quitting altogether. Until….they had a small win.

Which changed everything.

The ebb and flow before their eventual breakthrough was documented in James Watson’s 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.

After the excitement of their first attempt to build the DNA model, they Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. He wrote:

“Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.” Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.”

They showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues and they found out to their dismay that the model would not work.

Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed.

When they finally made an authentic breakthrough as confirmed by their colleagues, “my morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.”, Watson wrote.

Having sensed progress however small, they became energized and worked practically day and night to complete the work…that would end up earning them a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Even Nobel Laureates are not exempted from the surge in motivation and confidence that small wins can bring — and the urge to quit that setbacks can bring.

It’s so hard as human to keep going without a sense that we are making progress. We are not gifted to act in a vacuum. We lose the will to act when we can’t sense forward movement. This is why you should pay more attention to the small wins. Little glimmers of progress. When you encourage and point out micro-progress in yourself and others, motivation is restored, confidence surge, and with it, higher likelihood of achieving more success.

But the key is to set the bar for progress low enough when starting out, that you can be thrilled by baby steps. Because, take it from me, frustration will dog your every step if your short term expectations of progress are too high.

I had an encounter with a friend from another department the other day. It reinforced that we can find these small wins all around us if we stop overlooking them.

My friend is on track to complete his doctorate degree in about 6 months. So, we bump into each other on my way to lunch. We had met a couple of weeks before and he told me how he’s working hard to sort out a really frustrating immigration/visa issue that could affect his candidature and his PhD timeline.

He was in really good spirits on a phone call when I met him. He paused the call and I asked him if there’s any progress since we last met regarding his visa issues. “Sure,” he replied, “Nothing has changed but I’m alive. And that’s progress.”

We both burst into laughter. But I went away thinking…wow. I see why, for all the turmoil he’s in, which he had explained in painful details, he remain very positive and his spirit seemingly unbreakable. Really, it’s hard to stop someone who can see almost everything as progress and progress in almost everything.

Small wins have big power. And we get them almost everyday. All we need to do is stop overlooking them. Start noticing them. Start celebrating those baby steps and allow them to drive you forward.

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Jude King, PhD

Written by

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +717K people. Follow to join our community.

Jude King, PhD

Written by

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +717K people. Follow to join our community.

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