Big wins are great, but they’re rare and can take a long time to achieve. They might be even rarer in a year like 2020, which has forced many people to rethink what success looks like. In her TED talk, Mehrnaz Bassiri suggests our technological advancements are at least in part to blame for our tendency to measure progress on an “oversized scale”. We have access to stories of people becoming millionaires overnight and the carefully curated newsfeed of old friends and acquaintances, apparently looking their best (and editing out how they’re really going…).

Focusing on larger goals at the expense of small wins might mean that we get disheartened at our slow progress and give up. Progress can be better conceptualised as a combination of slow, steady steps. Consider how learning two new words is a step towards fluency in the goal to learn a new language.

To maintain emotional wellbeing, each of us needs to be able to celebrate small successes in our work and personal lives. Smaller successes may have more clout than we give them credit for.

  • Small wins give you a little hit of dopamine – a feel-good brain chemical linked to motivation. This may be news for people out there who hold on to self-criticism because they think it’s intended to motivate them to do better next time.
  • Small wins can turn into major victories – by itself, a small win might not seem important. A series of small wins can produce visible results! 
  • The way we perceive our progress affects our day-to-day motivation because of the sense of accomplishment and feeling that we can make a difference (Weick, 1984).
  • Making meaningful progress at work boosts emotions and positively shapes our perspective during the workday (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).
  • Small wins provide opportunities for learning. In his seminal article, Weick (1984) pointed out that small wins serve as mini experiments that provide quick feedback so that we can adapt, learn, and improvise.
  • Small wins lower the bar. They scale down the effort required and minimise the excuses we come up with to start a task. Breaking tasks down into smaller, more manageable goals can help with a sense of overwhelm that often leads to procrastination. 

If there are such great benefits to celebrating small successes, then you might be wondering why we don’t do it more often…There are a couple of possible reasons.

Negative events have a greater impact on our brain than do positive ones. As Baumeister and colleagues (2001) succinctly put it, “Bad is stronger than good”. They suggested that our ancestors would probably live longer and pass on their genes if they were primed to pay attention to bad outcomes. In contrast, a person who ignored a positive outcome might miss an opportunity for pleasure, but a similar opportunity would probably arise in the future. While this tilt towards negative might have enabled our ancestors’ survival, it’s less useful in this day and age where many of our experiences are positive or at least neutral, and real threats (that is, of being eaten by a predator if you didn’t pay attention to the signs you were in their territory) are rarer. 

While the importance of negative events is magnified, the importance of something positive is often ignored or downplayed. Picture handing a report to your team leader and they read it, thank you for your hard work, and make some small criticisms. If you are one of the many people who ignores or downplays positive feedback, then you might just return to your desk and stew over the criticism rather than acknowledging the report you worked hard on was generally well received. 

Alternatively, you could return to your desk and dive straight into the next item on your to-do list. Our busy lives are often geared towards squeezing as many tasks as we can into our day. The opportunity to celebrate success can easily be overlooked. Cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman coined the term “hurry sickness” to refer to our attempts to achieve more and more things in less and less time. In case you needed another reason to slow down and adopt a more positive outlook, “hurry sickness” increases our stress hormone cortisol and can cause physical and mental health problems.

There are a huge number of things to feel good about on any given day. Depending on the person and their circumstances, seemingly minor tasks like making it into the office in person, reaching out to a colleague, or asking your team leader a question could constitute progress. 

There are many ways to acknowledge small wins: 

  • try taking a moment to savour the success 
  • use self-talk (i.e. “I handled that tricky question well!”) 
  • share them with a colleague, friend, or family member 
  • write them down to keep track of them
  • keep, savour and go back to positive feedback (e.g. keep a “good news” file) 
  • reward yourself in some way (e.g. unplug from technology for the night, eat your favourite meal). 

You might also wish to discuss this as a team, and develop some team approaches to celebrating small wins, e.g. having a “small wins” board or a round table review of small wins in your weekly meetings.  One of our team loves the sign in her physio’s office: “Small progress is still progress”, and this could be a great new team norm.

The end of 2020 and the tough year it has been provides an excellent opportunity to practise reflecting on small successes from the past 12 months – those ones that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

To explore these ideas further:

  • The power of small wins, Harvard Business Review article by Teresa Amabile and Steve J. Kramer. 
  • Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch (2001).
  • Weick, K. E. (1984). Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems. American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49.
  • Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer C., & Vohs K.D. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.
  • Type A Behavior and Your Heart. The 1974 classic book by M. Friedman & R.H. Rosenman.