Small wins are possibly one of the most important aspects of progress, motivation, and confidence in our lives that are overlooked. The reality is that they are the building blocks, the steps, the brush strokes to building a masterpiece. No one suddenly has a big, flashy achievement. They are the many steps to get there that build resilience and character, not the achievement itself. The irony is that a lot of people feel silly when they acknowledge something small or simple. We tend to rank small or simple tasks as not impactful or not important. The reality is that small wins matter a lot more than you’d think. Their impact propagates much further than even the context of where that win was experienced. The theme and power of small wins comes up repeatedly with all of my coaching clients- they are often surprised at the significance of completing small actions. It has come up in many podcasts I’ve recently recorded as well so I thought I’d pull the topic out on its own and talk about it.
An even bigger question is how do you define progress?
The dictionary.com definition of Progress is 1 : to move forward : proceed. 2 : to develop to a higher, better, or more advanced stage.
Ok, so progress is forward motion, improvement, advancement. The next question is how do you measure it? Progress is not the same as the outcome or the overall achievement. It would only make sense that you measure progress by tracking small wins… so progress IS small wins. The irony is that we often don’t take a moment to celebrate or track them.
You may be thinking, “this sounds a lot like the adage ‘it’s the not the destination, it’s the journey.'” While it’s true that small wins (as well as wiggles and failures) are the journey, it’s the wins that impact intrinsic motivation, the trust you have with yourself, and the perception of your capability to reach for more. What about the failures? Treating yourself with self-compassion when you do have failures and setbacks is the key to bouncing back. That was a topic of one of my recent newsletters. More specifically, how self-compassion is not the same thing as letting yourself off the hook (that’s self-indulgence) and how self-esteem is unstable compared to self-compassion.
In a meta-analysis of 138 studies assessing the relation between progress monitoring and goal attainment found that “progress monitoring has a robust effect on goal attainment and constitutes a key component of effective self-regulation.” The question of should you track progress is an unequivocal yes. If you don’t do that, I encourage you to try it. It can be on your own in a notebook, putting x’s on a calendar, using don’t break the chain type of measurements (like with apps), with a coach or accountability partner. If the idea of accountability annoys you, look at it as a celebration of what you’ve done, not the constricting feeling of accountability. Back to the meta-analysis- if you’re interested, there were several different ways of monitoring progress (measuring behaviors, measuring outcomes, whether it was public or private monitoring and more).
“The great victory, which appears so simple today, was the result of a series of small victories that went unnoticed.”Paulo Coelho
How Small Wins Matter: Identity and Competence
I’ve discussed why it’s important to track small wins and how to define progress. I’ve noted that small wins increase intrinsic motivation, but HOW does it work?
A more nuanced point is that the way you feel about yourself after the small win is actually way bigger than the actual actions of small win. It affects you in other areas of your life. Here are some examples.
It’s Not Just Clutter
Say you want to tidy up your house because you want to be the kind of person who is organized. As I’ve mentioned, goals are about identity. You may celebrate that you hung the wall art that’s been sitting on the floor for months or that you tidied your closet. But really it’s how you feel every time you walk in the room and see the art on the wall or your organized closet. The aftereffects are greater than your house looking nicer. You internalize that you’re the kind of person who follows through with what they want to do- that you can depend on yourself. The feeling of your house being more tidy also gives you more mental energy. Every time you see that pile of stuff, your brain internalizes it and on a subconscious level, it might cause stress or mental clutter. So when you hang that wall art of pick up that pile of papers and unopened mail that’s been sitting there forever, you actually free up space in your mind to be more successful and easeful in other areas of your life. It’s not just the clutter.
It’s Not Just Starting a Routine
Many people are surprised that they thrive with some kind of routine. Many people aspire to adopt some form of morning routine of exercise, meditation, journaling, making the bed, or doing something to start the day that sets them up for success. Note that routines are not limited to the morning. If someone does their routine, again, it impacts their sense of identity and capability. It’s not just the small task of answering one journal question or making your bed, it’s about how doing that one simple thing impacts how you function the rest of the day. The dividends are huge.
You can see how this might apply to other small wins like cooking one healthy meal, signing up for a race, doing research on a new school or certification program, drinking only one beer instead of three, etc. Again, making sure you are noting and celebrating these wins regularly will be fuel to fire and to your momentum.
Some of these small wins are actually keystone habits that affect everything else that you do.
“Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes.”― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change
Self-determination theory is the backbone of motivation. The three elements are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. So you can see how this competence piece fits into motivation and momentum in progress.
A quick check-in you can do with yourself when you are tracking your progress is answering- “I am becoming…”
“Look for small victories and build on that. Each small victory, even if it is just getting up five minutes earlier, gives you confidence. You realize that these little victories make you feel great, and you keep going. You realize that being paralyzed by fear of failure is worse than failure.”– Arnold Schwarzenegger
Small Wins Boost Confidence
I mentioned that following through with your commitments is proof that you can depend on yourself. The more you do the thing you said, the more confident you will feel when you want to do something. If you had a friend who made commitments to you and constantly broke them, you probably wouldn’t think that friend was very reliable. You’d probably be frustrated and not want to make plans with them. The thing is that we do the exact thing with ourselves all the time. We say we’ll do something and then we don’t do it. The repeated cycle of breaking a commitment and the internalized distrust that comes with it breaks down confidence.
Doing the thing you said and then celebrating it and acknowledging or tracking it helps reinforce that you in fact do keep commitments to yourself.
Following through instead of procrastinating or never actually getting around to the thing you said you’d do is a muscle that builds upon itself. The more you do it, the easier it is to get it done. There are many reasons why we lack follow-through.
Remember that getting started is usually the hardest part. Motivation follows action– get started to feel motivated instead of waiting for the motivation to get started.
Takeaway: Small Wins are Essential For Momentum
Here are some reminders and metaphors that may resonate.
You Only Climb a Mountain One Step at a Time
Yes, it’s awesome to get to the summit of the mountain. When we look back, it’s always amazing how much distance we covered and see where we started from. Each step of the way (and overcoming the feeling of wanting to turn around and give up) is what got us to the top, and yet we often just celebrate the top. What mile markers or lookout points can you create on your mountain?
The Small Wins are the Defining Factor
I mentioned that the wins, as well as the setbacks are what define character and create resilience. When you achieve something, you become a different person on the way there. You are not the same person you were when you started. It’s the definition of progress in human form: “to develop to a higher, better, or more advanced stage.” Another point is that even if you don’t make it to the summit, you have still made progress. I did a TEDx talk in 2015 about defining success at the highest mountain bike stage race in the world. It was about this exact point- success is doing your best and the person you become on the way there. How many people have tried to climb Everest and had to turn around even with the summit in view? The answer is a LOT but they still made progress in their human journey.
How to Celebrate a Win
Celebrating wins is something I struggle with. People often celebrate bigger wins with going out to dinner, buying something special, or a bottle of wine. When it comes to celebrating small wins, it doesn’t have to be a big show. It can be as simple as telling someone that you are proud of what you did and having that person be happy for you. I’ve made a habit of telling my husband when I’m proud of something I did and he has started doing the same thing. I also did it on social media recently. For me, saying out loud that I am proud of my effort and even expanding on how that effort is changing how I might view myself or my competence feels really good. That’s how I celebrate wins. Pausing to celebrate, whether it be alone, with a person, or even with a special treat of some kind helps to put a spotlight on what you did. Trying a few ways of celebrating wins to find what works for you may take some time. A lot of people who are achievement-driven struggle with celebrating wins and they move on to the next thing quickly. Or, they’ll invalidate their achievement in some way. That is one symptom of impostor syndrome which I covered in detail. I also covered why we belittle our success in that article.
“Celebrate every little thing you can do in life no matter what that is. Celebration gives you this freedom to try things. It gives you freedom to fail.”
– David Roche
I hope you can now understand the impact of celebrating small wins and that you’ll give it a try! It’s not just that small wins are the building blocks to the big goals. It’s bigger! The small wins change who you think you are, what you believe you are capable of, how you interpret new challenges, and how you carry yourself moving forward. Send me an email to celebrate your next small win with me!
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