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Celebrate Small Wins

celebrate small wins

❝The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.❞ -Lao Tzu

As I walk back to my desk with a cup of coffee, I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get all this work done. It's January 2009, and that means that not only do I have my day-to-day job to do, I also have quarter-end work to do. On top of that, I have year-end stuff to do. Oh, and we're also in the middle of a significant market downturn, adding to the list of things to do.

I have so much work to do I don't even know where to start. My phone rings, and our marketing director is on the other end of the call asking if I've updated some of the data she needs to send her marketing reports to some of our largest partners. After telling her it's not done, she asks when she can expect it. I tell her I'll prioritize it and get to it as quickly as possible.

I hang up the phone with her and look up to see our compliance officer waiting for me. She asks when the compliance reports she needs for her filings will be ready. I don't know when they will be ready, but I tell her that I'll prioritize it and get to it as quickly as possible.

I get back to work but barely get my computer program open when my boss yells out to me, asking me to come into his office. He's disappointed that I haven't calculated performance numbers yet. He has a call with a client soon but doesn't have any numbers to give them. I tell him I'll prioritize it and get to it as quickly as possible.

I'm starting to prioritize so many things that I don't think I know what the word means anymore. I'm paralyzed. I can't figure out what to work on because I can't see past all the work I have to do.

Then the marketing director talks to me again, this time stopping by my desk, and I finally come clean. I tell her I don't know how I can possibly get all this work done.

She tells me, "One thing at a time." She helps me understand that I don't have to think about getting everything done at once. All I can do is put one foot in front of the other and be happy with my progress. My boss overhears and offers his support, as well.

I'm encouraged to celebrate small wins and not be intimidated by trying to do everything at once.

your reality is what you pay attention to


Your genes were passed to you from your parents, who got their genes from their parents, and so on. If you follow this chain back long enough, you'll get to your ancestors whose primary focus was on survival. Things were different when survival was our main focus. We were hypersensitive to threats.

For example, if you saw a stick but thought it was a snake and ran away, the worst that would happen to you was that you might get embarrassed. But you would survive so that you could be embarrassed again tomorrow. That's a win when survival is your aim. On the other hand, if you saw a snake but thought it was a stick, you might not survive.

If we think something's positive and we're right, that's good. If we think something is negative and we're right, we can do something about it. The problem is that we can't be right all the time. And if we're going to be wrong, from a survival perspective, we need to err on the side of being overly cautious.

This condition is what author and psychologist Rick Hansen calls our negativity bias. And since our brains can't keep up with how quickly our world changes, this is the brain we inherited.

negativity bias


It's easy to think that people would change if they had enough information. Upon further inspection, though, we realize that people can have all the information they need to make a change and still not do it. It turns out that in addition to having enough data, people need to feel ready to change, have confidence in their ability to make a change, and think it's important to change.

In fact, there are various stages of being ready to change, and if we're not ready to change, our aim should be to move to the next stage of change rather than try to tackle the whole process of change in one big step.

Here is a breakdown of the various stages of change:

Precontemplation: You don't even know there's something that might benefit you. You aren't considering making a change because you don't even know that there's a change to make. If you've never heard of umbrella insurance, for example, then you have no idea that you might want to consider it.

Contemplation: You've heard that something exists that might be helpful, but you aren't quite sure if it's for you or not. Your desire to keep things the way they are is stronger than your desire to think about doing something different. For example, you may have heard of healthcare directives, but you are uncomfortable thinking about a time when you cannot function, so you avoid thinking about it.

Preparation: You've committed to making a change. You're now thinking about how you might do it. You know it might be a challenge, but you want to come out on the other side. You might even set a New Year's resolution to make a change in this area. For example, you resolve to spend less money on takeout during the coming year.

Action: You're ready to go. You have a plan. You've been implementing your plan. You're starting to implement habits that help you get to where you are going. You are comfortable asking for help, either professionally or from friends. For example, you have implemented a system to track your spending to see where your money goes.

Maintenance and Integration: In the maintenance phase, you live your new world, but it still takes cognitive effort. In the integration (sometimes called termination) phase, you've integrated the new process into your life, and it's now a part of you.

This isn't always a linear process, and everyone moves at different speeds, but this is the general process for making positive change in your life.

stages of change


If you're unaware of the process of change, or if you didn't know about your negativity bias, it will feel more natural to think that in order to succeed, you have to make big changes. Anything less than a big win feels like a failure. Big wins are like big goals, and you'll allow yourself to be happy only after you hit your big goal.

There are, in my opinion, several things wrong with this way of living. The first is that, although hitting that big goal will feel good for a little bit, that shot of joy will soon wear off, and you'll have to set a new big goal to try to find some happiness. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation - the idea that we quickly get used to our environment.

The second is that waiting for a big win won't feel like a big win. Along the way, you will be making incremental progress toward your goal. The final step that accomplishes your big goal will feel like a small incremental step. Thus, what you think will be a huge wave of joy will feel underwhelming.

The third is that if you spend your life focusing on the future, you avoid letting yourself live in the moment. You're always in the present moment, and waiting for the future to be happy means you will never be happy in the present.

Finally, aiming for big wins is intimidating, making it more likely that you'll give up. Looking up at a big win can feel impossible. If things feel impossible, or even difficult, it makes it much harder to move from the contemplation stage into the preparation stage of change.

forcing big wins


The alternative to forcing big wins is to celebrate small wins. The point is to enjoy the process rather than wait for a particular outcome. Effectively, it's about having systems instead of goals.

Celebrating your small wins along the way helps you be happy in the present while still working on meaningful projects for the future. When you enjoy the process and celebrate your wins along the way, you'll be less worried about a particular outcome. Ironically, though, it makes it more likely that you'll get to your ideal outcome.

When you celebrate small wins, you build momentum. With each step along the way, you build more and more momentum, giving you the confidence you need to make it to the next step. It's like compound interest - the more you do, the more you can do. It takes something that was intimidating before and makes it easier, and possibly fun.

celebrating small wins


Celebrating small wins helps you practice gratitude. There is a lot to be grateful for; you just have to notice it. Our lives become what we pay attention to. If we constantly focus on what we don't have, putting off our happiness until some magical time in the future, then we're training ourselves to never be happy with what we have.

Gratitude helps you open your awareness to the things that are going well around you.


Forcing big wins focuses your attention on what you don't have. It's intimidating and forces you to put off your happiness until a future that may differ from how you imagine it.

Celebrate when things go well. Appreciate your small wins. Hunt for gratitude. You'll be happier for your trouble.

You get one life; live intentionally.

With gratitude,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

McKeown, Greg: Essentialism

Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Miller, William & Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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