The Power of Small Wins in Your Work

Goal-setting is a tricky thing. Half the "experts" out there will tell you to reach for the stars and come up with the biggest ideas you can possibly dream up, and the other half will tell you to start small. Kinda infuriating, right?

Thankfully, there are alternative views to the all or nothing approach of big goals. You can still achieve big results in smaller increments, but it will take persistence and focus.

In their book Rework, authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson say, "The longer something takes, the less likely it is that you're going to finish it." Their solution at the software company 37signals is to work in sprints. Use a few weeks to focus on one objective alone in service to the completion of a far larger project.

37signals has gained a strong reputation in the world of software / web development because of their ability to recognize how products and processes need to be streamlined.

Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less describes the kind of focus that we as individuals can use to reap the same benefits as Fried and Hansson.

The way of the Nonessentialist is to go big on everything: to try to do it all, have it all, fit it all in. The Nonessentialis operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

The way of the Essentialist is different. Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

Getting to Minimal Viable Progress

The question then becomes, what is the mindset we need to adapt to weave small wins into our routine? It's great to say that we should just break down a bigger project into smaller pieces, but how does that happen?

McKeown offers one suggestion:

Similarly, we can adopt a method of “minimal viable progress.” We can ask ourselves, “What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?”

In the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman explains another method of finding small wins:

We need free time where we can sustain an open awareness. The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s “full catastrophe”—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open times it flourishes.


The import of such cocoons in time and space emerged from a Harvard Business School study of the inner work lives of 238 members of creative project teams tasked with innovative challenges from solving complex information technology problems to inventing kitchen gadgets. Progress in such work demands a steady stream of small creative insights.

Good days for insights had nothing to do with stunning breakthroughs or grand victories. The key turned out to be having small wins—minor innovations and troubling problems solved—on concrete steps toward a larger goal. Creative insights flowed best when people had clear goals but also freedom in how they reached them. And, most crucial, they had protected time—enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.

In Goleman's case, he is less concerned with the framework of each goal than he is with simply creating the environment that allows for steady, small achievements. (Still sounds a lot like minimal viable progress. Right?)

The point being, create a steady flow of smaller wins to keep yourself focused on the larger goal. It does you no good to accomplish any number of irrelevant tasks if you're not moving in the right direction. You may feel good about being lost, but you're still just lost.

Small wins. Steady focus.

How about You?

How do you create? Are you able to set aside larger blocks of time, or do you squeeze in time whenever you can?

Let us know in the comments below.

WorkflowMichael Roberts