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How to make your small wins work for you

By Rob Smith on October 26, 2020 in News + Updates

Raúl Soria

Raúl Soria

The internet has inflated people’s expectations about what success looks like — any achievement that doesn’t go viral can seem skimpy.

By changing our perspective and appreciating human-size, human-scale achievements, we can move towards our goals, says educator Mehrnaz Bassiri.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

We’ve heard this chestnut — or seen it in Instagram posts with handwritten fonts — over and over again. But is there truth in this stale nut? And if so, how can we translate it into real life?

Well, it may be time to give this aphorism a refresh and change it to: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single win.

That’s because success can be found when we start to mark and celebrate our small wins, according to Vancouver-based educator Mehrnaz Bassiri. Drawing on the work of organizational theorist and psychologist Karl Weick, Bassiri says, “Small wins have a transformational power. 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.”

Here, she tells us how to turn our small wins into major victories:

Find a better scale.

This approach can apply to your professional or personal lives. Let’s say your big goal is to save money for a two-week vacation. So you start your campaign full of enthusiasm and aggressively trim extra costs from your life. You bring your lunch to work; you stop buying coffee drinks, juices and pricey snacks; and you invite friends and family over for dinner instead of going out to eat.

Then, after a few weeks, you look at your bank account — and you’ve advanced a mere 3 percent towards your desired total. You think, “I’ll never get there” and go drown your sorrows in a double cappuccino.

The problem, says Bassiri, doesn’t lie in the puniness of our accomplishments but in the outsized nature of our expectations. Whether in the news media or in our friends’ and family members’ social media posts, we’ve gotten habituated to seeing major successes — the video from an unknown musician that goes viral and scores them a spot on Beyonce’s tour, the unhealthy person who loses half their body weight and completes the Ironman, the company started by college students in a garage that gets sold for an eye-watering amount.

These stories “have programmed our thoughts and desires to want and expect the same kind of results in our own lives,” says Bassiri. “We’ve started to measure our progress on an oversized scale.” So instead of recognizing our small triumphs for what they are, we view them as failures.

It’s time to adopt a human-sized scale to assess our efforts. For example, try measuring your saving in days rather than dollars. Applaud every day that you extend your no-coffee drink streak. This is a far kinder way of tracking your progress than fixating on the balance in your bank account.

Take note.

Diaries are much more than the domain of angst-ridden teens — in fact, you can reclaim them to serve your growth by using them to chronicle your wins. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile advocates keeping a daily diary of progress because it “helps us to reflect on our days and keep track of all those little achievements that normally go unnoticed,” says Bassiri. She adds, “It helps us to detect and celebrate our small wins even on those frustrating days that we don’t think we got a lot done. Not only that, it also helps us to work through difficulties and find weak areas that we need to work on.”

Tempted to shout your wins from the virtual rooftops? Don’t.

Many of us have to come to believe that we should tell as many people as possible about our efforts, so that their attention might hold us accountable and their encouragement can motivate us.

However, our announcements can actually backfire. “Research shows that when we share our big and important goals with other people, as soon as we receive social acknowledgement and social recognition, our brains get tricked into thinking that we’ve already accomplished that goal,” says Bassiri. “So we become less likely and less motivated to pursue those activities that get us closer to achieving it.”

Instead, she suggests, “select one or two people to act as your support.” Then, when you’ve finally achieved your goal, you can take to Twitter and Facebook and tell everyone you know.

Watch her TEDxChilliwack talk here:


Rob Smith is a researcher for The Audacious Project, TED’s initiative to fund big ideas for global change.

This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Tags: advice, Emotional Health, Goal-Setting, Mental Health