Small Wins – why little steps are the path to big rewards

Updated to Habits, Life on June 28, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

It was a cool July morning in the forest of Snoqualmie Valley, Washington. Just me and about 300 other nervous people in shorts – all about to run a marathon. 

It had been 15 years since my last marathon distance race. Back then, I was in my 40s, and long-distance running was a normal part of my lifestyle. Just like stretching was for sissies and a ‘gel’ was for sore muscles, not something you ate.

My goal was the Boston Marathon – the big daddy of marathons – one of the few you have to beat a qualifying time to enter.

Here’s what I did to prepare.

I started by learning as much as I could about qualifying – what races gave me enough time to train and had the highest percentage of qualifiers.

I found my marathon, signed up, and paid the fee. I was committed.

Next, I downloaded a training program that would become my bible for the next three months.

Over the first few weeks, I invested in new shoes, a running app that gave me verbal feedback on my pace (I chose the chummy Boston accent – “Soooo, whatcha say you and me grab a beer after this?”), and loaded up a new Spotify playlist.

By the second month of training, I’d adjusted my diet (you eat a lot when running the equivalent of 1-2 marathons per week), was surviving interval training on the track once a week, and getting regular deep massages to keep everything working.

Fast forward three months and I was standing at the start line, ready to run my marathon. Sure I had a big goal. But that’s not how I got there.

I got there with small wins.


We live in a world that celebrates success. 

We celebrate athletes who beat the competition, authors who write a best-seller, and hard-driving business leaders who build an empire. You either win big or you’re not a ‘winner’.

But, that’s not how life works.

Success in life – in all areas – happens from small, often insignificant, ideas and actions that move us closer to our goals

I call these small wins

A small win is a single step, requiring little time or effort, that moves you closer to your goal. And when you experience a small win you feed a progress loop that is hungry to seek the next small win. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday,” writes author Teresa Amabile in a recent HBR article, “the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The trick is to shift your thinking from what you want to what you can do now, in the present. And to be okay that it may not feel like much progress. 

In fact, it is progress.

From wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon to standing at the start line, every small win got me closer to my goal. And the first small win was awareness.


Reducing an ongoing frustration or goal into a small win is made easier by following three simple steps. I use this process to sort through business decisions, travel planning, scheduling my week, and especially for tackling those seemingly insurmountable goals that I seem to attract.

It goes like this…

Aware – pay attention to daily stressors, barriers, time-wasters, and interruptions that get in the way of getting more of what you want. Define them, journal about them, and measure their impact on your life, work, and health. Now choose one to focus on.

Ask – the secret to all change is asking the right question. Asking “Why am I always so stressed out?” delivers reasons why you are stuck. Instead, ask “What is one thing I can do right now that will move me closer to my goal?” The more specific, action-oriented the question (remember SMART goals?) the better.

Act – take one step. It could be a one-time solution, or the start of a routine – either way, take the step without hesitation. You are moving forward, learning, and exploring what it feels like to get closer to your goal. And don’t worry if it won’t rock your world – the goal is just to give it a shake.


Here are a few examples of small wins to get you started.

More time

If you feel your day is lost in a wave of appointments, emails, interruptions, and family demands, try blocking time just for you. This is sacrosanct, non-negotiable time – even as little as 20 minutes – that’s all yours. You can go for a walk, read, knit a sock, or just take a nap – whatever makes you feel good.

More control

If you want to reduce overwhelm at work find something you can do in 5 minutes or less that makes you feel more in control. Once a week I clear my desk of notepads, project files, bills, and half-read books. Five minutes and I feel more in control.

Better health

Maybe you want to exercise more often, but past efforts have all failed. The solution is small wins. Get a physical exam, read a book about exercise, (I recently read two books about building muscle and aging), build 15 minutes into your morning routine for exercise and start recording every time you successfully exercise.

Your next small step might seem tiny or inconsequential at the time. After all, this is only one step—you still haven’t reached some ultimate goal. The reality is that your next small step is exactly what you need to take to reach that ultimate goal. 

It’s the only thing that ever has.


PS. I did qualify for Boston!