Most of us instinctively spend a lot of time and energy seeking the big breakthrough: that magical moment when, after a lot of effort, everything finally clicks: when you play the song perfectly, ace the test, win the big game. Those moments are incredibly satisfying. But they’re also a problem.
Here’s why: focusing on the big breakthrough can cause you to overreach. It can create a steady diet of disappointment (after all, breakthroughs are rare, by definition). Worse, you stop focusing on the smaller, incremental things that really matter.
The best performers and teachers I’ve seen don’t get caught up in seeking big breakthrough moments. Instead, they hunt the little breakthroughs — the small, seemingly insignificant progressions that create steady daily progress. In short, they love baby steps.
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explore this idea in their fascinating book The Progress Principle. In it, they analyze 12,000 diary entries from 238 subjects to get a picture of the subjects’ inner work lives. They conclude that the common trait of highly successful subjects is that they are focused on achieving “small wins” — those tiny, daily progressions that don’t seem like much but which add up, over time, to big things.
The payoffs of a “small-win” mindset are clear: you tend to be less disappointed, and more motivated. You stay focused on the present. You don’t overreach by taking shortcuts and trying to do everything at once.
Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”
A few ideas for a small-win mindset:
- Keep a daily notebook: Name the small changes you make each day.
- When you get a small win, freeze: Don’t breeze past small improvements; instead, take a few seconds to acknowledge and celebrate them.
- Aim for a daily SAP — Smallest Achievable Perfection. Pick one little thing to perfect in a single day — one move, one action, one chunk. Work on it until it’s polished, until you can’t not do it right.
I’d love to hear if you have more ideas for making small wins.