The Big Power of Small Wins

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I was in the Marines during the 50-mile hike craze of the 1960s. President Kennedy challenged Americans to walk 50 miles in 20 hours or less. Just to show that he could, Robert Kennedy did a 50-mile walk in freezing temperatures and in his dress shoes. Four of his aides dropped out along the way. Soon, a variety of groups were doing fifty-mile hikes and walks in all kinds of gear. Marines often wore packs.

Even if you’re pretty fit, walking 50 miles can be quite a challenge. That’s the background for some of the best advice I’ve gotten in my life. It came from a Marine Lieutenant. Here’s what he said.

“Don’t think about the 50-mile part. Break the march down into small challenges that are right in front of you. Think about the next mile marker or the top of the next hill or even the next 10 steps.”

That little speech was my introduction to the concept of small wins. I started applying the technique to any big challenge. I’d break it down into small steps and concentrate on getting the next one done. It was a great technique, but I didn’t realize all the benefits of it until many years later.

Small Wins are the Way to Big Wins

Yes, big goals are important. It’s the big goal that tells you where you’re going, like the 50-mile hike. But if you want to be successful, break that big goal down into smaller steps, ones where you can get win after win.

Small Wins Help Build a Winning Tradition

Every one of those small wins makes you feel good. Stringing small wins together can set up a “winning tradition” where each small win builds confidence that there will be another one. That’s good, but there are happiness benefits, too.

Small Wins Make You Feel Good

Small wins have a positive effect on your morale. That’s one of the findings from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s excellent book, The Progress Principle. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize, the Manager of The Year award, or create a blockbuster drug to feel good. You can feel good every day if you put the effort into getting more of those small wins.

Master the Art of Breaking Things Down

The first thing you need to do is develop the habit of breaking big challenges down into small, achievable challenges. Set your goals so that you’re more likely to win. Keep that big goal in mind, but concentrate on something that you can do today to make progress.

Make Some Progress Every Day

You can have the best of intentions and plan superbly, but there will be days when the day’s end looms and you haven’t made any progress. You need a win.

One friend of mine heads off this “day with no wins” problem by making the first thing he does every day an easy thing that he can win at. One of the best salesmen I’ve known in my life used the same principle when he started every day with a call on a customer he knew would result in an order.

Keep a file of things that are easy to do. Another friend of mine keeps a list of small, easy things that he can do that will result in a small win. He calls this his “One Small Step for This Man” list.

I do something similar. I keep a file called “10-Minute Progress.” None of the things in that file will shake the earth, but if I get toward the end of the day without a win in hand, I go to that file and find something that I can do. Everything in the file takes 10 minutes or less and costs little to nothing, but it’s a win that makes progress and helps me feel good.

Bottom Line

Achieving small wins can help you make progress and feel good. Master the art of breaking big projects down into small, doable tasks. Develop a way for you to make sure you get at least one small win every day.

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