“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
It’s easy to get caught up in importance of the big accomplishments — promotions, graduations or finally hitting that number in your savings account or desired health goal — but the small wins matter just as much, or more, because they add up and account for much more of our lives.
In fact, research has shown that focusing on small wins is helpful and plays a big part in reaching those big goals, whether they be personal or work-related.
In a 2007 Harvard study, scientists analyzed more than 12,000 journal entries from 238 people across several companies. The survey revealed that celebrating small victories resulted in more motivated people.
Reviewing the entries written about the daily lives of these participants, the results showed that progress was the biggest indicator of a “good” day, whereas even small setbacks could indicate a “bad” day. It was small events — not major milestones — played the biggest role in the study.
“When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously,” researchers wrote. “Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward.”
The study highlights something we all know, but often have difficulty practicing: there’s a sense of beauty in the ordinary.
We might not achieve a major goal every single day, but honoring the progress is necessary and helpful. This ensures you can feel happiness and gratitude more regularly than if you were waiting for a major finish line in order to feel like you are worthy of happiness.
“If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame,” researchers said they found in their surveys.
Recognizing progress activates the reward center of our brains. Neurochemical dopamine is released — the stuff that makes us feel good — and suddenly we’re hooked, wanting more.
It’s a chain reaction and, after enough practice, we’ve eventually reached the big accomplishment.
“Small wins have a transformational power,” says Canadian researcher, educator and public speaker Mehrnaz Bassiri. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion to favor another small win and another small win until the combination of these small wins lead to larger and greater accomplishments.”
Bassiri has found that celebrating small wins has a lot of other benefits, like helping us to find a scale that works for the goal. By celebrating, there’s built in reflection which automatically helps to refine a goal.
That can make all the difference in the long run.
Harvard researchers also echo this in their study, specifically as it relates to meaningful work. If you’re out to make a difference, focus on the small steps.
“Meaning can be as simple as making a useful and high-quality product for a customer or providing a genuine service for a community,” researchers wrote. "It can be supporting a colleague or boosting an organization’s profits by reducing inefficiencies in a production process. Whether the goals are lofty or modest, as long as they are meaningful to the worker and it is clear how his or her efforts contribute to them, progress toward them can galvanize inner work life.”
You may not think there’s a small win to celebrate every day, but dig a little deeper. Did you make a healthy meal? Do something to make your day more efficient? Any number of things can constitute a small win.
Here are 35 suggestions to help you today:
Small wins to celebrate this week
- Learned something new.
- Completed a to-do list.
- Felt inspired.
- Stepped outside your comfort zone.
- Found an opportunity to be creative.
- Trusted your gut.
- Encouraged a friend.
- Made a meeting on time.
- Took a deep breath.
- Had a great idea.
- Hit inbox zero.
- Performed a random act of kindness.
- Completed an act of self-care.
- Focused on the details.
- Ate a nutritious meal.
- Finished a book.
- Didn’t hit snooze.
- Practiced boundaries and said “no.”
- Stuck to the budget.
- Found a silver lining.
- Decluttered your workspace.
- Collaborated with a colleague.
- Spent time with family.
- Felt productive.
- Made it through a hard day.
- Stuck to a routine.
- Talked through a problem.
- Felt focused, avoided distractions.
- Made your bed.
- Practiced mindfulness throughout the day.
- Avoided procrastination.
- Got some exercise.
- Asked for help when you needed it.
- Stayed on schedule.
- Tried something new.
How to celebrate your small wins
Celebrations can be quiet, personal, and small. Not every step of progress needs to be from the rooftops, but a little acknowledgement can make the meaning sink in. Here are some small, everyday ways to give yourself and your small victories the attention you deserve.
Keep a journal of small wins
Perhaps the easiest way to highlight your small wins is to keep track of them, so they don’t float by without any recognition. This is a big tip from Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile.
Keeping a journal helps you reflect on your journey and find little gems of progress that you may not have realized. You may not always want to share your small win with the world, but knowing it for yourself is enough to encourage you to keep going.
Tell a friend
It’s okay to be proud of progress! Share your minor accomplishments with your friends, family or colleagues. Chances are, they’ll be just as proud of you as you are, and maybe you'll encourage them to share and appreciate some of their own too.
Support systems are a major part of achieving goals, and taking yours seriously will help keep you motivated and making progress.
Getting through a hard day or keeping up a routine or finishing a to-do list may not seem like reward-worthy events, but treating yourself when you do can be just enough of a bonus to do it again.
Whether it’s an afternoon latte, a hot bath, or taking a break, don’t forget to reward yourself for doing your best. Even just pausing to acknowledge your commitment and your consistency can be grounding, increase your feelings of pride and gratitude, and make every day feel more amazing.