Small Wins for Big Gains


Ship in dock

Is your project stuck? Are you working on something but feel like there’s no end in sight? Maybe it’s time to reframe the way you look at wins. We all want big, victorious completions, but sometimes it’s better to scale it down and celebrate the first victories, the small wins.

If you’re building a ship, forget the champagne bottles and marching bands before the maiden voyage. That’s a year away. Celebrate when you finish the blueprints.

Karl Weick, in his influential 1984 American Psychologist article “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems” laid out pragmatic reasons for celebrating small wins. His examples are diverse, ranging from the Apollo 13 mission to the manufacture of Rayon.

Since most of us aren’t astronauts or factory magnates, we need ways to apply this concept to our creative projects.

First, let’s define small wins. A small win

  • is “an outcome of moderate importance.”
  • isn’t necessarily the next logical step towards a goal (i.e. not step 3 of 42)
  • moves you in the general (rather than the specific) direction of your goal.
  • is more easily viewed as a win in the context of a finished project.
  • preserves the gains achieved by other small wins.

Why are small wins so effective?

Weick writes that “once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”

Think inertia here. Getting that first win is difficult, because objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Once you have that first small win, however, you’re in motion, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

When projects and problems are extremely complex, you may encounter some distortion in the steps necessary to reach the end point. Small wins remove this distortion by giving you a clear next step.

I believe this is why Getting Things Done is such a popular methodology for personal effectiveness; next actions are easy, and completing them gives you the feeling of progress.

Small wins are similar to the systems approach because they allow you to break a complex task or operation down into small, discrete subsystems. Weick writes that “a system with fewer interdependent events is a simpler system. It is easier to comprehend, easier to control, easier to improve.”

Small wins are effective because:

  • they build a pattern of action that propels you forward.
  • they simplify complex problems and projects.
  • they give you a sense of completion for ongoing projects. Projects without a definite endpoint require these small wins to keep you engaged.
  • they reduce stress (which increases engagement) by giving you tasks you know you can finish.
  • humans crave and enjoy completion. Imagine not knowing whether or not Frodo reached Mordor with the One Ring.
  • all but the most dour bastards love to celebrate. Small wins give you plenty of reasons (excuses) to celebrate.

Examples of applying small wins:

  • Building a website. Simply setting out to create a site with authoritative content, good design, and plenty of features sounds like a beast of a task. If you start out with this as the primary goal (and its completion as the win you’re going for), you’ll be frustrated. If, instead, you approach this as a series of discrete tasks with each completion a win, you’re more likely to finish the site.
  • Writing a book.  Setting only a goal of ‘finish this cyborg-vampire saga (Vyborgs, hehe) by the end of the year’ is most likely setting yourself up for a combination of pain, disappointment, and frustration. However, a goal of ‘write 500 words today’ is easy. Repeat that for 160 days, do your editing along the way, and you’re sitting pretty at 80,000 words (note: if you do set out to write a novel, be sure to check out Syd Field’s Screenplay and spend some time on Storyfix.

Talk to Me

  • How have you used small wins to propel your projects forward?
  • What are other examples/applications of small wins?
  • Here’s a chance to clarify you’re thinking and maybe get some feedback: If you’re stuck on a project, what could you do today that would give you a small win?

Photo credit: atlih

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JALINEBERRY March 25, 2011, 2:49 am

    This makes me wonder, are you writing a vyborg series?

    Nice post. This is especially handy for writing projects of all kinds. Breaking projects up into manageable parts really works wonders for productivity. I use it frequently with essays. Today, the introduction. Tomorrow, background information. The next day, point 1 of thesis, and so forth.

    Admittedly, it’s easier to finish something when there’s a deadline and a grade attached. Maybe this demonstrates the usefulness of writing groups. I don’t think there’s an equivalent for bloggers or websites (maybe I’m wrong?).

  • Anonymous March 27, 2011, 10:53 pm

    No man, no Vyborgs here. I don’t think Vyborgs can feel love, so that pretty much eliminates the teenage market 😉
    For this blogger, my deadline is pretty much Wed. or Thurs. I have a few regular readers (thanks ya’ll) and my commitment to them helps me meet that deadline. It can be tough at times, as I’ve got a lot going on, but it’s always worth it.
    Setting and meeting your own deadlines is one of the hardest parts when you’re transitioning from school to personal projects.

    My friend Emilie has a good post on this topic of external deadlines. Here’s the link:

  • Anonymous March 27, 2011, 11:02 pm

    Hey Jordan, happy to provide reminders. Consider me your human post-it note 🙂 But seriously, thinking “I have to get this whole thing done!” can be awfully discouraging.

    I remember the first ebook I wrote. I had an outline, but I put off the drafting for weeks. I finally became fed up with myself and decided to forget about writing the whole book. I decided to write just write one chapter then celebrate.

    A week later, the book was finished, all because I wrote one single chapter.

  • Chase Night April 1, 2011, 9:16 pm

    I love Small Wins!

    Maybe too much. I tend to do some small thing, and then celebrate for two weeks. That is an ineffective use of the concept, lol, and does not get novels written.

    If I didn’t violently hate vampires, I would totally cash in on the vyborg idea though, haha! A girl falls in love with a handsome blogger only to discover he is draining her life force right through the screen…