Why celebrating small wins can help you to feel more motivated

Count every achievement, however small, and you'll soon recognise how they add up to bigger things

Illustration of a woman ticking off a checklist

Small wins in life are big motivators. Learning to recognise small wins for what they are is a benefit that can also help us to overcome frustration, setbacks and disappointment.

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Whether large or small, a win always marks an achievement. An achievement always requires some effort and seldom happens when we are slumped on the sofa. This may have involved making a tricky phone call, exerting ourselves physically, even doing something we really didn’t want to do. A win is also a reward that could be a tangible prize, but very often it’s that small sense of pride, personal triumph or pleasure gained through what we’ve achieved, however small, and that’s something to be celebrated.

The other interesting thing about small wins is that they can sometimes be so small that we could miss the value they confer on our lives. Sometimes we miss how each win fits into and contributes to a bigger picture; and sometimes we only recognise them in retrospect. But wherever we make progress there’s bound to have been at least one or two small wins along the way.

It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by a large project, for example, whether that’s clearing a room of junk, writing a 5,000-word report or applying for a college place. Feeling overwhelmed can be a huge barrier to our confidence, but with each small win this can grow. Many great minds, from Pliny the Elder to Nelson Mandela, have surmised that it always seems impossible until it’s done. And when we look back at past experiences, we can see how this worked for us, which helps build self-confidence. This, in turn, can help us feel confident that each small win not only has value in its own right but can contribute to a larger success.

The beauty of a small win is that it does, in fact, yield its own tangible reward. And in anticipation of that reward, our brains release the feel-good hormone dopamine which, in turn, stimulates our motivation to do it again. The dopamine release creates a pleasure in each small win that actually motivates us further, keeping us on track so we can complete the bigger task. Sometimes we do this unconsciously, but it’s also something we can do mindfully. There’s a huge benefit with starting your working day by tackling those small tasks that help clear the decks or prepare you to focus on a larger, more time-consuming one.

The small wins of dispatching routine tasks helps me gear up for my working day, and because I work from home this requires some discipline. So, I often do a number of what I call ‘two-minute’ jobs to get started, which might mean replying to a couple of outstanding emails, paying a bill online or making a quick phone call. It may be ‘life laundry’ rather than anything more immediately creative, but it’s relatively mindless and clears the decks in preparation.

Also, I like lists – making lists, checking lists and particularly crossing things off lists, anything that gives me the sense that I’m moving things along or, more crucially, that I haven’t missed a deadline. Each is a small win, rewarding me with the sense that life is still, just about, under control!

The other benefit of this reward/motivation cycle of small wins is that it is habit-forming, so even the least favourable tasks become a small win in and of themselves. This is the key to getting into the habit of staying on task and spurning procrastination, and quickly those small wins become much more effective than they might at first seem. Even the habit of spending a moment or two in the morning just straightening your duvet and plumping your pillow is all the sweeter at the end of a weary day when the small win of a tidy, welcoming bed rewards you.

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Illustration by Hanna Söderholm.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 37. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy individual issues online.