The Power of Small Wins

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Most of us instinctively spend a lot of time and energy seeking the big breakthrough: that magical moment when, after a lot of effort, everything finally clicks: when you play the song perfectly, ace the test, win the big game. Those moments are incredibly satisfying. But they’re also a problem.

Here’s why: focusing on the big breakthrough can cause you to overreach. It can create a steady diet of disappointment (after all, breakthroughs are rare, by definition). Worse, you stop focusing on the smaller, incremental things that really matter.

The best performers and teachers I’ve seen don’t get caught up in seeking big breakthrough moments. Instead, they hunt the little breakthroughs — the small, seemingly insignificant progressions that create steady daily progress. In short, they love baby steps.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explore this idea in their fascinating book The Progress Principle. In it, they analyze 12,000 diary entries from 238 subjects to get a picture of the subjects’ inner work lives. They conclude that the common trait of highly successful subjects is that they are focused on achieving “small wins” — those tiny, daily progressions that  don’t seem like much but which add up, over time, to big things.

The payoffs of a “small-win” mindset are clear: you tend to be less disappointed, and more motivated. You stay focused on the present.  You don’t overreach by taking shortcuts and trying to do everything at once.

Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

A few ideas for a small-win mindset:

  • Keep a daily notebook: Name the small changes you make each day.
  • When you get a small win, freeze: Don’t breeze past small improvements; instead, take a few seconds to acknowledge and celebrate them.
  • Aim for a daily SAP — Smallest Achievable Perfection. Pick one little thing to perfect in a single day — one move, one action, one chunk. Work on it until it’s polished, until you can’t not do it right.

I’d love to hear if you have more ideas for making small wins.


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15 Responses to “The Power of Small Wins”

  1. James H. says:

    Excellent timing, Daniel. I just completed a 120,000 word novel draft last night. How did I do it? I wrote a thousand words a day, virtually every day, until three months had passed. That persistence at the keyboard made all the difference.

  2. Dan:

    Love this post. Especially your idea of “freeze” – few know the power of letting themselves FEEL small wins. As you write, they’re precisely what give us motivation and focus.

    Also love you’re idea of keeping a daily notebook – I’m a huge Moleskine keeper. One of your best posts was about what I think you called “the messy pocket notebook” I’ve blogged about that. Keeping one creates a solid foundation for any effort or project. (So often I’m viewed as such a geek for taking notes wherever I go, and so often I’m later asked for my notes.) :-)

    I know from reading your work that you’re a parent. I wonder if you’ve read Edward Hallowell’s book “The Childhood Roots Of Adult Happiness.” It’s the best parenting book I know of. In it, he talks a lot about the power of the small win. He uses the word “mastery” as a synonym. By “mastery” he means micro-mastery, based on micro evidence that gives us that “I can do it” feeling. We humans love that feeling, Hallowell writes. So much so that once we get a taste for it, we keep coming back for more.

    I see mastery as high octane fuel – it’s a beautiful intrinsic reward. But it’s one we have to know about, because it’s power may not so obvious. Once we know about, we can learn to set it up as a thing to work toward (rather than something extrinsic).

    Mastery is one of the 4 M words that comprise the “mind app” I created. Here’s a link about it, if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/jMD4fK

    I’m going to order The Progress Principle right now. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Again, great post!

    Susan

  3. djcoyle says:

    Congratulations, James! That must feel great. Did you see this story? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/04/books/charlotte-rogan-author-of-the-lifeboat.html?pagewanted=all — it might sound familiar to you. Best, Dan

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hi Susan — You’re too kind! Thanks for the book rec — I’ll definitely check it out. I love that term “micro-mastery.” And a huge thanks also for sharing your site/app — I think readers here (and everywhere) will find it tremendously useful. Best, Dan

  5. Doc says:

    Another good post Dan. I just watched your video on the Tiger Woods trick. How long did it take you from beginning to end? If you said in the video I missed it.

  6. Cody G says:

    I guess I would say not only focus on small wins, but make sure your mindset is not one that will set you up for “setbacks” Its really weird that you posted this so recently as only 2 days ago I re read the synopsis of the progress principle that I had typed out for myself. I was trying to better understand human motivation. One thing it says in the book is that negative events, such as a feeling of being setback towards your goal are 5 times more potent to the brain than a positive event, a small win. I guess the odds of experiencing a setback or a small win depends on what your doing, so sometimes it may be more important to avoid feeling setback than to focus on small wins, other times it may better to focus on small wins, ideally focusing on both. What I have been doing for the last couple of days is been keeping a log of my motivation, where i write down anything that demotivates me, and anything that motivates me, using the principles in the books “The Progress Principle”, and the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth about what motivates us” http://www.amazon.com/Drive-Surprising-Truth-About-Motivates/dp/1594484805/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335390502&sr=1-1 to to better understand them. Here is what I have learned: How you define your goal is really important, if you set huge goals that your not sure you can achieve, your much more likely to feel “setback” along the way, making it very hard to stay motivated. Instead, for me, I want to set a goal that I believe I can do, but is at the same time challenging enough to keep me motivated. Giving yourself a time frame is a good tool to give you a challenge. It can also be used as a limit to make sure you arn’t overwhelmed. For example I needed to cut out 2500 flashcards for school, I felt a bit overwhelmed at the task, but if i break it up into 10 minute segments, I feel I can achieve this, and I don’t feel setback. Also once I do the 10 minutes I see it as a small win and gain confidence and momentum. Like Mr. Coyle said, baby steps. In general I have found vague goals seem to be more prone to setbacks than concrete goals. For example I had the goal to be very persistent and “gitful”, and I defined that as finishing things and sticking with them. But having this as my goal made me focus on finishing things. It was like I was trying to make one big leap of 100 yards that I didn’t believe I could do, I felt overwhelmed and discouraged. However, If I focused simply on starting the task in a fashion that I felt I could do, and not worrying about the finish, just trusting that it will probably come if I focus on one step at a time, it became more like walking the distance, much easier. Also focusing on learning as opposed to performance works the same way, if you focus on learning failures no longer become setbacks, they become opportunities and I daresay small wins. But if you focus on strictly performance, and perfection suddenly anything less than par becomes demotivating and frustrating. Its a fine line to walk indeed. I guess figure out what works for you the best :-) Ill up this long comment with a comment I made on Facebook last night.

    “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Perhaps if you focus on the destination too much you will feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the journey, but if focus on the step in front of you, and do not worry about the destination too much, trusting that it will come, it will be easier. If this is true, then its never really about finishing, its about starting, not about getting what you want, but loving what you do.”

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hi Doc, I’d love to say it only took a little while (that I was natural-born talent!), but in fact it was 9 months or so. I got kinda obsessed.

  8. Jpeters says:

    This reminds me of a book I listened to called Mindset by Carol Dwek. She discusses two types of mindsets: growth vs. fixed. The fixed mindset says you either got it or you don’t. The growth mindset says if you don’t got it you can grow to get it The idea of working each day towards small wins fits right in with the growth mindset.

  9. Rod Roth says:

    Top notch post, Dan! Especially your suggestions for a small-win mindset. I’ve Kindled the book. Looks to be as powerfull as Jim Collins’ Latest (Great by Choice). Many thanks. I’ve actually just had a breakthrough in what I’m doing. I’m an overnight success, ten years in the making!!

  10. Robnonstop says:

    A teacher once told us this method for recognizing small wins when you get the feeling you don’t have enough success and I do it regularly:

    You Write your latest achievements or any achievements in a cloud like manner on the top half of a paper. See this part as the crown of a tree.

    Then you draw lines to the bottom of the paper, one line from each term on the top, these are the roots of the tree. At the end of each line, you make a tiny list of what you did to get there, what you put in.

    Additionally you can make a list of what you got out of it under the terms on top of the tree.

    Most people are surprised how many achievements they ignored and it helps you to understand how to repeat the process.

  11. I loved this. The focus around goals and goal settings is usually in building consistency and doing things for a long time until they are done. But this post was able to shine light on an easy way of doing just that! I wrote a post on my blog about it and how it will help me with my money/saving/spending issues :) http://www.nataliaalbert.com/2012/05/my-small-daily-goal.html

  12. Dan:

    Thanks for your reply (above).

    Quick update to let you know I’ve read much of the book you recommended – The Progress Principle. Excellent. I wove some of the research into a post about a mindfulness course taught at Google: http://bit.ly/IEum2x Thought you might be interested (you’ll see I cite to you in the Notes section).

    Best,
    Susan

  13. Jon Randles says:

    Thanks Dan good little post. I want to share my recent story of “little wins” from a strength training perspective.

    About 3 months ago I decided to train for a strength challenge that took place last Saturday. One of the events required me to deadlift my max from the floor. At first, I was not able to properly lift from the floor and maintain neutral spine. My first little win was when my mobility I’ve been practicing paid off and I was able to start training with the proper neutral form. The next win was learning how to properly synchronize the timing of the lift for optimal efficiency. After that, little wins were made (and sometimes not made) every week with the increase of the load I was able to properly train with. The max lift I was able to achieve in my last training session before the competition was 275 pounds.

    On Saturday my little wins exploded into a big win when I was able to reap the benefits of my training by lifting 335 pounds off the floor. It was an amazing feeling. What was even better than the big win it self was knowing how many little wins it took to get there and how significant each one of them was. Each one of those little wins was essential to achieving what I considered the “big win” which means that each and every little win IS in fact a big win.

    Thanks again,
    Jon

  14. TJ says:

    We use the concept of small wins at every single one of our individual basketball training sessions. Before each session, I’ll sit down and figure out a skill/drill that the player can’t do yet, but I’m 99.9% confident he/she will be able to do within 10-20 minutes max of practice.

    However, I’ll also sit down and figure out a drill/skill that I know they won’t accomplish within that session. We’ll work on that for 10-15 minutes. I love to see how they handle failure/reaching, especially considering most of the kids we work with are the best on their high school teams. In fact, our interview process to get in the camp is actually just evaluating how a player handles a drill/skill he/she can’t perform. They think we’re evaluating their skills, but we’re really evaluating their response to failure/mindset.

  15. [...] I just found an amazing blog post. The post was in a blog called The Talent Code.  Today on my coach’s Facebook page, I found the link to his most recent post: The Power of Small Things.  [...]

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