Think You’re Doing Yourself a Favour by Celebrating Small Wins? Think Again.


Jill Metcalfe

If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one common piece of advice is to stop beating yourself up and celebrate your small wins instead.

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Not everything that’s worth celebrating has to be amazing and earth-shattering, the theory goes. Every small step you take is part of the journey, and those small steps are worth celebrating.

Celebrating the small things will help you:

  • Stay motivated
  • Build momentum towards your goal, and
  • Stay focused on the progress you’re making, rather than dwelling on the negatives.

Nothing wrong with any of those things.

So let’s make these Small Wins official!

So you create a special section in your journal to note down your “Small Wins!” and settle in for a day of focused work.

Maybe your goal is to set up a new website. You spend hours researching hosting platforms, looking at themes, writing your About page and thinking about SEO. By the end of the day, you’ve spent 6 hours working on your project and you have nothing concrete to show for it. But that’s OK! You have your Small Wins! So you rack your brain and come up with something — anything — you can be proud of.

“Phoned the electrician”. “Got 3 new followers”. “Cleaned the bathroom”. “Went for a walk even though I didn’t feel like it”.

Does it feel a bit lame? Yes, of course it does. But is that a problem?

Yes. I think it is.

The problem with tiny wins

A few months ago, I created a shiny new view in my Notion journal so that I could look at all my Small Wins in one go, and reflect on how much progress I’d made, even if it felt like I hadn’t achieved very much.

This is what I saw:

Small “wins” on my Notion dashboard. Woo hoo. Time to break out the champagne 🍾.

“Paid water bill”. “Swept stairs”. “Cooked soup”. “Made a nice header graphic”.

Did any of these make me feel motivated or proud? Did they boost my focus or supercharge my momentum?


They seemed trivial and irrelevant. Because they were.

They were proof I’d woken up in the morning and gone about my daily life before going to bed. That I’d done a few things that needed to be done, even though I didn’t feel like doing them.

There was nothing in there that said anything about the big-picture projects I’d been working on, or the progress I’d made (however small).

They made me feel like shit.

Progress isn’t all forward motion

The trouble is, when you’re deep in the weeds of something, quite often there’s nothing you can really finish in a single session or a single day. There’s nothing you can wrap up in a neat package and tie off with a bow. Nothing you can call a “win”.

Progress might mean exploring a particular path and finding it’s a dead end.

It might mean defining some next actions that mean you end up with more work ahead of you than you originally expected.

It might mean trying something and discovering that it doesn’t work.

It might be taking two steps forward and one step back.

It doesn’t make much sense to describe any of these situations as a “win”, although each of them represents progress of a kind.

We need to call it something else, and find a different way to celebrate this kind of incremental forward motion, that sometimes looks like it’s standing still or moving backwards.

I do lots of incremental work so I must be making lots of progress, right? … well, not necessarily.

I need to digress a tiny bit, and point out that not all the invisible, incremental work you do counts as making progress.

If you spend half a day browsing Google Fonts, that probably doesn’t count as progress. You can publish your website with the default font. It really doesn’t matter. You’ve just wasted half a day doing what Khe Hy would call “$10 work”. You haven’t moved the needle on your bigger goals.

This kind of work can feel productive while you’re doing it, but it’s usually just thinly disguised procrastination.

So how do we celebrate invisible progress?

The problem with celebrating progress is that, by definition, you have nothing concrete to celebrate. Nothing is finished.

Progress is just what happens between the beginning and the end.

And, as I just pointed out, just because you spent an afternoon doing something tedious, that doesn’t necessarily mean it took you closer to your goal.

So what’s the answer?

I think there are two key elements.

First, focus on output (or maybe input?) rather than outcome. That means, for example, acknowledging the 4 hours you spent working on your website, rather than being disappointed that it’s not yet live (which would be a genuine win, and not a small one either).

And second, make sure your output is aligned with your goal.

To do that, there are no shortcuts. You probably need a written list of actions, and at each stage of the project you need to know what the single next action needs to be. This will keep you heading in the right direction.

And then—why not write it down?

“Spent 4 hours working on my website” is worth celebrating, provided it was time well spent, even if it would be a stretch to call it a “win”.

You might need to dig a little deeper at the end of the day to unearth these nuggets of progress. They might not jump out at you.

But do take a moment to acknowledge the small steps you’ve taken, because that’s where you’ll get the motivation to keep going when you’re deep in the weeds and can’t see the way out.

And what about the small wins?

I’m not saying there’s no benefit at all in giving yourself a pat on the back when you do a thing that’s hard or boring or complicated or awkward or uncomfortable.

That’s what most of my small wins tend to be. They often represent a sense of relief that I’ve got something out of the way, that I’ve averted some dreadful consequence, or that I’ve avoided disappointing myself or someone else.

Those are all worth celebrating, and writing these small wins down does help me to remember, next time I need to phone the electrician, that it probably won’t be as scary as I imagine it’s going to be.

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