Almost every day, I am reminded by the things that I should have achieved but haven’t yet. These reminders come in flocks, blocking my headspace with feelings of anxiety and regret. These reminders are the posts in social media of friends (and strangers, and public figures) ticking another box on their list of goals. They are the job recruitment emails, productivity videos on YouTube, and every single award show.
Modern culture has engraved in our minds that somehow our value is only as tangible as our achievements. To compensate, we start to set high expectations for ourselves. It will feel good for a while; having a sense of direction usually feels reassuring. And then eventually, every single thing we are caught up in doing will be in service of achieving these big goals in the future. Over time, however, it becomes tiring, and any reminder of that goal will appear intimidating. We end up not doing what we need to do in order to achieve our goals. Or maybe we’ll just do it tomorrow. Wait, the day after that. No, the day after that.
Okay seriously, the day after that.
Reinforced by hustle culture, productivity is seen as a virtue, and being anything but that can easily make a person feel stripped of their usefulness. But the simple act of being productive itself is hardly the big evil in this scenario. We need to be reminded that productivity is a process, merely a means to an end, and therefore depends on whatever that “end” is. Here’s where small wins come into play.
Small wins may be an effective replacement of bigger goals on our quest in achieving a productive end. The case of Stephen Duneier makes a point of this. Duneier holds an MBA in finance and economics from New York University, so you might assume he has a successful career in finance. It’s true, he has. But would you assume he also holds an auto racing license, is self-taught in the German language, has the ability to parkour and fly helicopters (among other things), and set the Guinness World Record for the largest crocheted granny square? That guess is a bit of a stretch, but surprisingly still true.
At first glance, Duneier might strike many people as an innately ambitious person; somebody who most likely will not have a hard time dreaming big dreams and achieving them. Notably, his journey has not always been seamless. In his TED Talk, he recalled struggling with his ability to focus on tasks as a student, despite his desire to succeed. He described himself as a “consistent C, C- student” from kindergarten to sophomore year of college. After enduring this for too long, he decided to change his decision-making approach in the face of tasks — by making “marginal adjustments.” To simplify this explanation, this method he has continued to use his whole life requires breaking down complex ideas and targets to manageable decisions. He made a note about becoming “active participants” in our own decision-making processes. Making slow and steady progress correctly in order to achieve desired outcomes.
In her own TED Talk, educator Mehrnaz Bassiri also highlights the role of small wins. She said the issue on the concept made famous by Karl Weick is not about the lack of amount or size of our achievements but in the colossal expectations we set for ourselves. Bassiri emphasized the importance of setting “smaller progress scales”. She believes in embracing human-sized scales to assess human endeavors.
The fundamental purpose of striving for smaller wins is to build momentum and develop a skill of belief. This argument holds a similar perspective to Newton’s First Law of Motion: “Every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.” Attaining a nice dosage of wins can remind us of our own abilities and potential that can motivate us to strive for more and more. In time, we will gain enough rhythm and force to drive us towards our target.
In talking about his goal to hike all 33 trails in the front country of Santa Barbara Mountains, Stephen Duneier said the essential point of his achievement is not about the 33 trails, or even about one single trail. “It’s about those tiny little decisions.” It’s about making the decisions to stop scrolling through social media, putting on hiking clothes, walking out the door, driving to the starting point, getting out of the car, and taking one step, and another step, and then another step. Every single action makes a valuable contribution.
Therefore, it’s one thing when a person is able to set small goals for themselves and accomplish them, but it’s another — equally important — thing to celebrate those achievements. If we don’t see these minuscule accomplishments as having importance, we won’t be driven to reach for more of them. The significant role that small wins play on our path towards success is only as valuable as the worth we put upon them. Celebrating underrated, day-to-day accomplishments might be the boost we need. And it’s also another way to show kindness to our own selves.