21 Small Wins that can Lead to Big Wins in Your Life

Updated to Habits, Life on May 4, 2023.

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” -Napoleon Hill

“Our meetings are out of control!” a manager complained to me at a workshop I was leading. 

“I have so many in a day,” she added, “sometimes I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom!”

Dive into the inner working of most organizations and you’ll enter an ocean of dysfunction. Ineffective meetings, overuse of email, domineering bosses, and ineffective systems cripple performance and create unnecessary workplace stress. 

Unfortunately, and in many cases, the dysfunction becomes the culture and is taken for granted. After all, changing internal practices – like meeting protocol – isn’t as easy as writing a memo. It can be a long, drawn-out effort involving committees, lots of (ironically) meetings, and, eventually the blessings of senior management. 

In other words, it doesn’t happen.

“Have you tried blocking time so you are less available?” I asked innocently. “You don’t need anyone’s permission,” I pointed out, “and you get to protect time to work on important projects.”

She looked at me like I was speaking Greek.

Big Wins are Sexy

We all want “big wins” in our life – like wrapping up a project, landing a new client, or losing 10 pounds. Big Wins are celebrated.

Every day social media announces awards won, books published, and jobs landed. Frequent users of platforms like Facebook, or Instagram quickly learn that the bigger the achievement the bigger the response. So, they keep promoting their big wins.

Self-help books, motivational speakers, and TED talks preach that to have success in business, relationships, or health we need to “reach for the stars!” Anything less is a sign we aren’t trying hard enough.

Our idols are famous athletes, coaches, actors, and scientists who beat the competition to be the best at what they do. Add bonus points if they started from nothing.

What we don’t celebrate are the first steps.

That first visit to the gym. The two pages you wrote for your book. The Thank You card you mailed to a client. Or the first time you cooked Thai food for your family.

Those are the Small Wins we should be celebrating because that’s how we make progress. “True life,” Tolstoy wrote, “is lived when tiny changes occur.” 

When you take a single action, however small, that moves you closer to your goal – that’s a small win.

Often these are the changes you’ve thought about before but didn’t act on them. Like thinking about writing in your journal, practicing a new language, or giving feedback to a colleague. 

There was always a reason why the timing wasn’t right, or something else was more important. 

Sometimes, the small win is complete in itself. If you take a few minutes to organize your passwords no other action might be needed. 

Other times, a small win is all you have time for, but it is a small step on a much longer journey to your goal. “If you cannot do great things,” Napoleon Hill reminds us “do small things in a great way.” 

A small win for health could be as simple as moving your recycling bin away from your desk. That seemingly insignificant action means you stand up more often and automatically get hours of additional exercise every year.

A small win for your business could be to cancel a paid subscription you no longer need or to reach out to a past client and thank them for their business. 

A small win in relationships happens when you put your phone down when listening (including online calls.) Now you can give your full attention to the speaker and they can see you value what they are saying. 

21 Small Wins

Here are 21 small wins I have used to move my work and life forward. Some have turned into habits (bonus points!), and some were one-time actions that led to future small wins and, later, much bigger results. 

None took more than 20 minutes.

  1. Order the book. Take the next step to better health, habits, or happiness (or cooking yummy Thai food.)
  2. Book the call. Get the ball rolling to resolve that nagging disagreement with the first toss.
  3. Buy flowers. Guys, I’m sure you can think of a good reason to do this.
  4. Plan your week. Learn from pilots and make a flight plan that takes you to Friday.
  5. Take a typing test. A 5% improvement in speed can mean hours of saved time every month.
  6. Make your bed. Make it a promise, keep it and then notice how it improves your day.
  7. Set an alarm. Turn off the screens, go to bed, and get the sleep you need.
  8. Clean your desk. Give yourself a ‘clean start’ experience without the distraction of unfinished business.
  9. Create an agenda. Improve any meeting by clarifying what will be discussed and what needs to be decided.
  10. Read a quote. Inspiring words of wisdom can set the tone for the music you create, after all, “Well begun is halfway done” (Mary Poppins)
  11. Look out the window. Take in nature so you remember that life is more than Zoom calls and emails.
  12. Say thank you. This is a small win that’s always a win/win.
  13. Lose the stickies. Fewer distractions mean more time for single-tasking.
  14. Watch the video. A quick YouTube video of software tips can save you hours of wasted time.
  15. Dump the book. If it’s been living on your bedside table longer than a month, do yourself a favor and kill it.
  16. Arrive early. Instead of rushing, allow yourself time to breathe, prepare, and be fully present.
  17. Create an outline. Kick-start your writing project with a quick outline that moves it closer to the goal post.
  18. Return to home. After every break, meeting, or distraction, return to your plan for the week, not to your Inbox.
  19. Filter and block. You own your Inbox, now it’s time to ‘uninvite’ unwanted guests. Less is best.
  20. Block the time. Put a pause on procrastination by protecting the time for your Small Win.
  21. Record the run. Celebrate your last visit to the gym, music practice, or meditation by recording it on a paper calendar. I’ve done this for over a decade and I’m still surprised by how good it feels every time I record my progress.

We all want big wins in our life. Projects we complete, businesses we build, or changes we make to our health. All of that happens by getting started. 

“Great success,” wrote real estate mogul Gary Keller in the best-seller The One Thing, “is found by allocating time every day to becoming great.”

A small win might seem small – in the moment – but it moves you in the right direction. And that’s a step on your journey you didn’t have minutes before.

Here are some more posts about small wins:

Why little steps are the path to big rewards

How to finally stop procrastinating on exercise

The fastest way to get more consulting, speaking, or coaching work

Shoelaces Photo by Adiel Gavish on Unsplash

Checklist Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash