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Most people believe that celebrating small wins is:

  • At best, useless
  • Or worse, egotistical

What’s true?

Celebrating the small wins is key to progress. And what comes from progress, is big changes. 

How do we reach our goals? We show up, put in the effort and tick off boxes. We put small steps into action. And by small, I mean really small. 

A few years ago I participated in a short study set up by Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics.  Every evening I was asked what my exercise plan was for the next day. And every day, I had to start my day off by drinking a small glass of water. At the end of the day, I was asked to tick off if I had completed drinking my water and followed through with my exercise intention. The cycle continued with answering what my exercise plan was going to be the next day.

I still remember the tick boxes.

Two key process for success

Three key processes were happening here: habit stacking and celebrating the small wins. Starting off my day with drinking water – that smallest, easiest step – encouraged the next good habit. It was a habit stack, with the smallest, easiest win in the beginning. What’s more, each night, I ticked both accomplishments off. 

This is the process of achieving goals. It is a system. Does it sound monotonous? That’s because it is. The small wins lead to big changes. 

The myth of motivation

When do you want to see big changes? We want big changes, and we want them now! We’re constantly looking for immediate rewards. The whole point of putting in a new change is to see results. Otherwise, our motivation fades. It gets harder to put our good habits in place, and before we know it we’re back at square one.

Motivation is a push factor. It’s an external force that is compelling you to take action. What we’re looking for is a pull factor, a driving force that propels you from one step to another.

Motivation is fleeting.

This is exactly why it’s hard to make habits stick. We don’t see immediate results, and our gratification is delayed. 

Now that we know this is a problem, what can we do about it?

Look for small wins

“The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

In an ideal world, we’d feel fantastic right after we’ve put a habit in place. In the real world, this doesn’t usually happen. Losing weight and putting in place a new way of eating is difficult and you don’t immediately see results. 

You’re not going to be your ideal healthy weight tomorrow. 

I coach people to develop healthy lifestyle habits. Developing a healthy habit takes time, and you have to follow a process. 

Early on, we’re sacrificing. In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track and this is why celebrating the small wins is essential. They keep you excited while the delayed bigger changes accumulate in the background.

Here are some examples of small wins: 

  • You incorporated one more exercise session in this week 
  • You stuck exactly to your carb count two days in a row
  • You logged every single meal for four days
  • You planned out every meal for three days in advance
  • You only drank water for a week 
  • You fasted more than 14 hours twice this week 

Some of these sound stupid. “Big deal, I logged every meal for four days in a role. Isn’t that why I’m working with you?” 

It is a big deal. 

Celebrating a small win makes it more likely you’ll do it again. It gives you fuel to keep going. It makes an action in line with your health goal, satisfying. 

All these small wins added together are compounding. Before you know it, you’re looking back from where we once started. You realize how much you’ve gained. 

Embody the win, and let it sink in

Those small wins are what is going to get to you your goal. Celebrate them! A fist pump, a high five, an intentional smile. Let it sink in, like a drop of food colouring into a glass of water.  Be with it for a few minutes, and really let it infuse. Share it with your family or a friend, or write it down in your journal. Allow yourself to embrace the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. 

This is what leads to big changes.