How to Use the Concept of Small Wins to Develop Long-Lasting Habits

Jon Hawkins

A philosophical guide to taking control of your habits to create the life that you want.

We all have a rough idea of who we want to be. And if we’re lucky, we might even know what habits we would need to get there. But, unfortunately, we’re not always clear on how to cultivate those habits.

According to Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, habits can’t be taught through word of mouth. Rather, the only way they can be cultivated is through practice. In his own words:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Developing habits takes conscious effort. Waking up early every morning, eating healthily or hitting the gym regularly — doing these things as a one-off is pretty easy, but practicing them day in, day out is a hard slog.

According to some Philosophers, as humans, we’re susceptible to weakness of the will. That means that:

  • We could identify the life we want, and the habits we need to form to achieve them;
  • we could identify certain actions that will help us to form those habits;
  • we could want to perform those actions, and not have any distractions preventing us from doing so…
  • …and still not perform them.

A lot of the time, the reason we don’t practice or develop habits is that we’re too lazy, get distracted, and end up fixating on the easy short-lived pleasures, over long-lasting but difficult to achieve ones.

Most of the time, you have the capability and opportunity to cultivate these habits — you simply lack the willpower to attain them. One of the best ways you can regain that willpower is by incentivizing yourself to perform the actions that are habit-forming.

Create small tasks each day that are on the path you want. Take each task seriously, and congratulate yourself if you hit that target. Because lots of small wins make for a big change.

Small, Consistent Actions Yield High Rewards

In his book, The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg uses “small wins” to illustrate how small behavioral changes can reap heaps of outsized rewards.

Good things don’t come easy — and that makes good times more appreciated and cherished. But it’s very easy to lose sight of the rewards when you’re working towards them and they’re a million miles away.

In fact, day to day, the habits your practice can seem pointless — as if they won’t achieve anything at all. It’s only when we look back in retrospect that we realize the benefits of practicing these habits and the good that they do.

Let’s talk through an example. According to Ryan Holiday, the best advice for writing a book is to produce two “crappy pages a day.” Sitting and producing rubbish content every day feels like a pointless task at the time. But it’s by sticking to it and practicing the habit of writing that a book is created.

After all, according to Hemingway:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

It’s only after years of practice, editing, and honing our craft that a masterpiece is created. The same is true for habit-forming. Waking up every morning and making your bed, going to the gym, or eating healthily might seem like pointless tasks that you don’t want to do. But if you stick to your guns and do them, the results will make all the hard effort worthwhile — even if those rewards aren’t obvious right now.

Choosing to Focus your Efforts

I’m going to make a controversial claim. With the right amount of effort, anyone could become successful in anything.

I don’t believe success comes down to intelligence or grit. Because a lot of people have both and don’t succeed. Instead, according to entrepreneur David K Williams:

‘Success isn’t down to effort, it’s down to focused effort.’

So to achieve what you want to achieve, you need to make sure that you’re practicing the right habits. Simply practicing any old habit isn’t enough. But how can you be sure that the habit you’re practicing will lead to the end you want?

Well, three easy ways to do so include:

  • Observing other people who are in the position that you want to be. Learn and copy their habits.
  • Rationally reflecting, and coming up with a plan outlining the actions that need to be taken to get where you want to be. Identify habits based on those.
  • Talking to a friend or family member about their perception of you. Compare how you are perceived (and are) to how you would like to be and ask yourself what changes need to be made.

Condition Yourself to Habit Form

I’m sure you’ve heard of classical conditioning; Psychologists have been going on about it for years. The theory, established by Ivan Pavlov, states that you can condition others into performing certain actions through various stimuli.

To give an example, knowing that dogs salivated whenever presented food, Pavlov underwent a conditioning phase — where he rang a bell every time he gave them food.

Over time, they began to associate the ringing of the bell with mealtimes and salivated whenever the bell was rung — even when food wasn’t present. They were conditioned to salivate whenever someone rang a bell.

This principle has been applied to all aspects of human life. According to this theory, through careful practice, you could condition yourself to naturally perform certain actions and habits.

That’s the whole point of establishing ‘small wins.’ By identifying and rewarding yourself for forming the difficult, habit-forming actions, you’re conditioning yourself to associate success and positive emotions with those events. And with that, you’ll find yourself naturally performing those actions.

So condition yourself by rewarding yourself. Every time you wake up early in the morning, reward yourself to a hot cup of coffee. Every time you make your bed, reward yourself to a hot bath. In continually doing so, you’ll be practicing and developing habits — without even thinking.

Translating Small Wins to Big Wins

Continually having small wins that amount to habit-forming will lead to powerful behavioral changes.

According to Aristotle, the practice of these small habits will enable you to develop practical wisdom. Meaning you’ll be able to act virtuously, and identify which actions are the right ones to take — with little cognitive effort.

At this stage, you will have:

  • A visualization of who you want to be.
  • And the habits & behavioral traits you need to get there.

With that, you’re well on your way to becoming the person you set your sights on, and the life that you want. All you’ll need to do is put it into practice.

The Takeaway

Most of us have an idea of who we want to be. And if we’re lucky, some of us might even be able to visualize how to get there and the habits we will need along the way.

But, given we’re susceptible to weakness of the will, actually sticking to our guns and practicing those habits day in, day out can be a hard graft. So hard, that a lot of us just give up on our dreams of who we want to be.

But you can make cultivating long-lasting habits so much easier by practicing and acknowledging daily small wins.

  • Acknowledging that small wins yield high rewards — so seemingly tedious and pointless tasks could create something extraordinary.
  • Condition yourself to associate these tedious tasks with positive emotions. Do so by rewarding yourself every time you practice them — in doing so, you’re celebrating small wins.
  • In doing so, according to Aristotle, you’ll be practicing the necessary habits that will lead you to becoming virtuous. So much so, that you’ll be able to identify to choose the right action — with little cognitive effort.

On the whole, then, these smalls wins have the power to change your life for the better.

After all:

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” — Jim Ryun

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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