Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Apr

How Small Wins Can Lead to Big Success

It's PossibleThey say it’s the little things, and maybe it is. When we think of health goals (among other objectives), our minds often gravitate toward the dramatic, the transformational. Go big or go home, some even say. While that last point might be pushing it (all positive change is positive), I tend toward the big and bold myself. I believe in the possibility of transformation (the titles of my books are obvious evidence of that). Yet, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Unfortunately, too many people get psyched out by the size of the enterprise itself. They focus on the large expanse between where they are now and where they want to be. That’s exactly where they shouldn’t be placing their attention. Success isn’t built by daily yearning for a distant goal. It’s in creating and celebrating the small wins we can plot along the way.

Inherent to this idea of small wins lead to bigger successes is what Teresa Amabile, author and Professor at the Harvard Business School, calls the “progress principle.” Amabile and her associates studied employees’ daily diaries that her team designed. They found the efforts of tracking small achievements each day (as well as reflecting on challenges) enhanced workers’ motivation as well as creativity. The chance to consider and record one’s progress, she explains, helps us appreciate our “small wins” and boosts our sense of competence. We can then “leverage” that confidence (as well as lessons learned from the reflection) toward subsequent, larger successes. Amabile stresses there’s always some progress to recognize in a day, even on the most challenging or discouraging days.

That notion alone is pivotal. I’ve met a lot of people up against major health challenges or weight loss issues. Among the key things that got them through (while others tended to give up) was the ability to appreciate small changes and celebrate where they were throughout the arc of their progress. They brought awareness to their full journey and focused on the positive every step of the way. Sure, they had difficult days like everyone else, but they recognized a temporary mood and let it pass. They didn’t let it define the future or whole endeavor. Applying Amabile’s suggestion, we can – and should – acknowledge the small physical and mental shifts we experience regardless of how far we may be from our eventual health objectives.

Yet, too often we downplay our progress or even talk ourselves out of it for the sake of guilt, unworthiness, or misguided modesty. Why? We’re taking the wind out of our own sails instead of leveraging, as Amabile suggests, our daily successes toward continuing motivation. Charles Duhigg, author of acclaimed book The Power of Habit explains the durable impact of these small achievements: “A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, and influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.” In other words, it makes no difference how minute our day’s achievement is because – when we allow ourselves to recognize the wins and leverage these “tiny advantages,” as Duhigg calls them – the power we absorb from each small win will always be more substantial than the original event. Progress takes on a life of it’s own – like motivation gone viral within our brain.

This viral principle, however, isn’t limited to the day’s post-mortem assessment. Our day’s routine in and of itself is ripe for subtle but strategic revolution. Duhigg writes about the power of “keystone habits,” those habits that, while seemingly modest and self-contained, have inordinate sway over other choices we make and actions we take throughout the day. Adopting a single new habit, if it’s of a pivotal keystone variety, can enact widespread change in our lifestyle. Among the examples Duhigg highlights is food journaling. In an NIH study of some 1600 obese people, those who were asked to write down a day’s food intake one day a week ended up losing twice the weight as other groups. The request was enough to get many of the participants to extend the habit into other days of the week and, as Duhigg explains, “created a structure that helped other habits to flourish.”

The key here is to discern what habits can become “keystone habits” for your health journey. As the principle suggests, it’s unnecessary to overload yourself with a laundry list of changes to your routine. That’s the principle behind the “keystone” approach: you don’t need to upend your life or turn yourself inside out working toward change. You just need to be strategic about what to shift. Ultimately, it’s about letting these few changes build momentum in your life and then fueling that momentum with the energy of celebrating each small win. It’s the snowball effect at its multidimensional best.  The end result can be achieving that ultimate goal you set as well as successes you may have never envisioned.

Intriguing concepts, I’d say. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I’ll apply them to living Primally with a sizable list of PB inspired small wins and keystone habits. For those of your just getting started in your Primal journey, I hope they’ll serve as a good jumping off point. For others further along in applying the PB, they can perhaps spur you toward tackling new dimensions or refocusing your efforts.

Thanks for reading everyone. Have a great end to the week.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Very interesing.
    I have been wondering what it was that opened the floodgates in me. I have been struggling, and failing miserably, with motivating myself into excersizing and move more for three months.
    Nothing worked.
    Then I signed up for a zumbaclass and enjoyed the hell out of it. Within a week I had made, and started following, a training plan which involves not only daily laps in the pool (my only excerzise up to this) zumba, jogging 3 km, yoga and hitting the strengthtraining mashines, each excercize twice a week. I have been quite baffled over myself until now. :-)

    Elena wrote on April 20th, 2013
  2. I tend to not make any changes until I am good and ready and then I go all-in. But to sustain my all-in 100% I have to make lots of small choices and recognize my small progresses.

    For example, when I first changed my diet I pretty much went all-in but to sustain it I had to make deals with myself. I would tell myself I will stop in at the shop for some candy after I walk across campus to run an errand. So that’s one little tiny victory right there. Then on the way back, I would pass the shop and tell myself I’ll stop in for some candy next time I run an errand. I would keep doing that until I didn’t even think about the store having candy in it when I went by. Doing this would make me feel like I won a victory every day.

    I’m at the point now where NOT living a primal lifestyle has more negative consequences than doing so, and living a primal lifestyle is easier than not living one.

    Diane wrote on April 20th, 2013
  3. This makes sense because the typical ups and downs in dieting or in trying to reach any difficult goal is not encouraging if you are just concentrating on the end game. You can’t ever get to the goal without plodding ahead through the daily struggles so each day really is so very important.

    Kari Wilson wrote on April 20th, 2013
  4. Excellent post Mark. This can even be directed towards business. I find that if I focus on a few small things they will then lead to my overall goal. It’s when I try to reach that overall goal from the beginning that issues arise. I get more stressed and frustrated. This post reminded me to focus on the small things that will make a big impact. The tasks are more digestible that way.

    Nate Anglin wrote on April 21st, 2013
  5. I’ve been steadily losing weight since the 1st of the year following a Paleo routine. I don’t eat wheat, rice, sugar or potatoes. I also do not weigh myself anymore so I can’t tell you how much weight I’ve lost, but I have dropped 3 pant sizes. I quit weighing myself so that my focus would be strictly on improving my diet and nutrition. I figure if I take care of that then the weight will take care of itself. Anyway appreciate all you do and the great info you provide.

    Fred C wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  6. It is true that small wins can lead to big successes. The problem with some people is that they want to get quick results by making big steps and when they don’t get what they want, they sulk in the corner and drown in their failure. That should not be the case especially for weight loss. This is where the “power of habit” plays an important role. The habit of slowly adjusting your diet and slowly adding exercise to your routine doesn’t provide fast results but if you maintain it, in the long run weight loss success is attainable. That is why you must learn to appreciate and start with small changes because they might be small ones but they bring you the best results in the future.

    Kenley D. wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  7. It is so important when following a diet plan to monitor progress, even microscopic weekly progress, to keep yourself on track. I know many seem to think that throwing the scale out is a good thing, but I think watching it closely as you follow your plan, when you succeed, it gives you the encouragement and motivation to keep going. It is a tough transition for me, since I can no longer run the way I was once able to do, but I keep pressing on with weight lifting and aerobic training of various types. I stay motivated because I stick to a plan as much as possible. I hope everyone has the best of luck and success achieving a desired weight goal.

    David wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  8. I’ve been moving towards the primal lifestyle for the last month after 27 years of eating processed foods and never using my kitchen. establishing a daily routine starting with making coffee helped me get motivated. i was always running late to work and ended up drinking the pot of mud there and starting off a day of just eating whatever was easiest. making myself wake up a little earlier to put on the coffeepot, grinding my own organic beans and putting in a splash of grassfed half and half made me feel better about my morning, and that made me want to eat a better breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Leah wrote on April 23rd, 2013
  9. Hi Mark– I found your blog this morning while looking for a photo to go along with a blog post I am writing on “little wins”…and I am so glad I did! I am going to quote you in the article I wrote– and I hope you won’t mind if I use your photo as well– with attribution, of course.

    Eating clean and healthy is one of my primary goals right now– so the info you offer here will help me tremendously. While this blog is very new- I do have several others and a large social media following– I am sure your blog will be of interest to many of them as well :)

    Denise Gabbard wrote on January 27th, 2014
  10. “Progress takes on a life of its own.”

    So crucial. Once that progress and momentum starts it’s amazing how much easier things start to roll. Newton certainly applies in this regard, “An object in motion stays in motion.”

    Olivier wrote on January 5th, 2016

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