The Power Of Small Wins

Milo of Croton was a wrestler who lived in the 6th century BC. Famous for his physical prowess he was the athletic poster-boy of his time and earned an impressive 6 victories at the ancient Olympic games. Genetically gifted? Probably. However, according to legend Milo also took advantage of another potent phenomenon to forge his great strength… the power of small wins.

As a young boy growing up in southern Italy, Milo was tasked by his father with carrying a young calf around the family field. Each day he repeated the feat and over time the calf gradually grew in size and bulk making the challenge progressively more demanding. After years of repeated efforts and small triumphs this unorthodox system of training would allow Milo to dazzle the crowds at Olympia by entering the packed stadium with a fully grown Ox on his shoulders.

Whilst this tale has surely been blown out of proportion by 2000 years of Chinese whispers the underlying message holds some important lessons for anyone looking to make positive change.

Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher once said a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In Milo’s world this step was putting the baby calf on his back for the first time. For someone looking to lose weight, it is the first centimeter off the waistline. For someone looking to start a strength program, it is the first repetition. Whilst these steps are small they contain a certain power.

The hardest part in most projects, including transforming your fitness, is simply getting started. This problem is only magnified when the distance between you and your end-goal seems incredibly overwhelming. Small wins on the other hand reduce Everest-sized obstacles into a series of effortless climbs. This makes it much easier to hit the start button and get going. Furthermore each successive win builds confidence and pours fuel on your motivational fire. Like a snowball rolling down a hill these small wins then compound to produce greater and greater results.

I have recently used the power of small wins to embed the meditation habit into my own daily routine. For several years it has been something I wanted to try and thought I could benefit from. However, a busy work schedule and excessive expectations always seemed to derail me after just a few days. Eventually, realising I was getting nowhere, I decided to re-frame my goals, or as Chip and Dan Heath put it in their excellent book Switchshrink the change.

Instead of meditating for 30 minutes per day as was my original target I decided to aim for just 5 minutes instead. Whereas I nearly always failed at 30 minutes, I couldn’t help but succeed with 5 minutes. It was too easy to fail. Over time 5 minutes became 10 minutes which became 15 minutes. Whilst no zen-monk I am noticing some positive benefits particularly when it comes to falling asleep more quickly - something I have often struggled with. Smalls wins, big impact.

Here are some other examples from the realm of health and fitness - there will be many more.

  • Struggling to exercise? Start with the aim of just 5 minutes per day.
  • Struggling to eat a healthy diet? Start with the aim of eating a healthy breakfast
  • Trying to get stronger? Add a very small amount of weight to your lifts
  • Motivation low? Start with the aim of doing just one exercise
  • Trying to wake up/go to sleep earlier? Start with the aim of just 5 minutes earlier

It’s great to set an ambitious fitness or physique goal, but plan to get there one small step at a time. By making small, manageable changes and hitting small, achievable targets you can create a positive tide of momentum which eventually swells into an unstoppable force.

In the words of famous UCLA coach, John Wooden don't look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That's the only way it happens - and when it happens, it lasts.