Pursuing the Excellent Life
April 27, 2022

The Power of Small Things: The Small Wins Strategy of Change

In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, Craig discusses the small wins strategy of change, which involves breaking big changes into a series of smaller changes such that each of the small changes has its own value. This is the last of a three part mini-series of episodes on the power of small things.

Weick, K. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems, American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49. https://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2013/01/Small-Wins_Redefining-the-Scale-of-Social-Problems.pdf 

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ 

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:00 

In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, I talk about the small wins strategy of change, which involves breaking big changes into a series of smaller changes such that each of the small changes has its own value. This is the last of a mini-series of episodes on the power of small things. 

Craig 00:28 

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.

Craig 00:48  

Before getting into the small wins strategy, I wanted to let you know that Live Well and Flourish just celebrated its one year anniversary. The podcast has morphed over that year, starting as the Rational Ignorance Podcast, in which my former co-host Andrea and I interviewed interesting people about a variety of topics. When Andrea had to step away due to other commitments, I decided on a new name, a new format, and a new focus. Since the first of the year, I’ve been doing short, focused solo episodes directed at helping you pursue a flourishing life, and I plan on continuing along that same path. A huge “thank you” to all of you who have supported me through this journey! 

Alright, let’s get to the small wins strategy.

Craig 01:29 

The small wins strategy comes from a 1984 paper by management scholar Karl Weick. (I’ll put a link to the paper in the show notes, which are available at livewellandflourish.com.) If you’re not an academic, you might not be familiar with Dr. Weick, but trust me, he’s a very big deal and an innovative thinker who has had a huge impact on management research and practice. 

The basic idea behind the small wins strategy is that large scale changes are really hard to pull off. Usually, you’re better off to view a big change as a set of interconnected small changes that can result in what Weick calls “small wins.” Dr. Weick’s article concerned large scale social changes, but we can apply his ideas to personal changes as well.

Craig 02:11 

Big changes can be tough … really tough. There are several reasons for this. First, big changes are daunting, which can lead you to question your ability to pull off the big change successfully. This fear of failure often leads to a lack of trying; if you can’t be successful, why even try? Second, big changes typically carry big demands on our time, abilities, and resources. Finally, big changes are risky, there can be a ton of uncertainty associated with large-scale changes. Lots of things can get in the way of changes that take a long time to pull off. 

Craig 02:47 

The small wins strategy involves breaking the big change into small, distinct, easier to manage chunks that, when combined, can bring about the big change. Before I get into the specifics, let me give you a trivial, but illustrative example that Dr. Weick used in his paper. Imagine that you have to count out 1,000 sheets of paper. Pretty easy, right? But what if you’re subject to frequent interruptions. If you start counting, you might get to 200, then get interrupted and lose track. (By the way, you aren’t allowed to write down your progress.) So, you start over. This time you make it all the way to 400 before an interruption makes you lose your count. You start over again, hoping for no more interruptions. Now, let’s break this big task into a set of smaller tasks, say counting out ten stacks of 100 sheets. When you get interrupted after 200, you still have two stacks of 100. When the next interruption comes, you’ll have the previous two stacks, plus four new stacks of 100. You’re over half way done! By breaking the task into smaller chunks, you can preserve the “wins” from the stacks you complete between the interruptions. 

Craig 03:59 

Yeah, this is a trivial example, but you can apply the same thing to more realistic scenarios. I’ll give you a real life example, one from my own life. A long time ago I was a huge guy, really huge, pushing 350 pounds. I knew that I needed to drop a bunch of weight, but didn’t have much success. Diets didn’t work, mostly because I found they were so hard to stick to. The prospect of dropping 100 pounds was just too much! Plus, counting points or calories, or dealing with strict food restrictions would be way too hard. I felt like there was no way I had enough willpower to be successful. If failure was inevitable, why go through the stress of trying? 

Craig 04:43 

So, I decided to try something simpler. I decided to give up potato chips. (And I LOVED chips!) That’s all. Just give up chips. That’s really not very hard, and I was successful. No more chips. Since I was able to make that small change, I decided to start walking, not every day, just a couple of days a week. This also went well, so now I had two small wins, which gave me the confidence to try giving up fries. Once again, I was successful. With three changes in the wins column, I decided to start walking more frequently. The process continued, with small changes added from time to time. In the course of a year, I lost well over 100 pounds. Here’s the thing, it was pretty EASY. I started small, then kept adding small, healthy changes, one after another until I was ⅔ of my former self. One small win led to another, then another until I accomplished a REALLY big change … a 100 pound plus change.

Craig 05:49 

Here’s the great thing about the small wins strategy. Even if all I did was give up chips, my health would have improved. Each one of the small changes brought its own gains, and those gains remained even if there were no other small changes. 

There’s a subtle change of orientation with the small wins strategy. Often, when we want to change, we cast the change in terms of its outcomes. For example, I wanted to lose 100 pounds. That's an outcome. My small wins approach of cutting potato chips is an input intended to help build towards the outcome of losing 100 pounds, but it also has a beneficial outcome of its own. And let’s face it, chips are crunchy, salty, delicious treats, but they are not healthy. The small wins strategy also reduces the demands required for making a change. Losing 100 pounds is very demanding, giving up chips is not. 

Craig 06:48 

Small wins projects act as mini-experiments that test theories and preconceived notions. Small wins also provide more immediate feedback, which allows for making corrections if things aren’t going as planned. For example, my chip avoidance project tested my ability to avoid a particular food and I received more-or-less immediate feedback on my attempts to avoid chips. And that feedback helped me in my attempt to avoid fries.

Casting a big change as a series of small changes also provides opportunities for learning. As you conduct your “small wins” experiments, you’ll learn things, things about yourself, things about your environment, and things about the effectiveness of various practices. You can use this new knowledge to make adjustments along your path to your big change.

Craig 07:37 

Another important part of the small wins strategy is that the small wins projects can build a record of success that reduces the fear of failure for subsequent projects. I was able to give up chips, so I should be able to give up fries. I was able to walk two days a week, so I can handle three walks a week. 

Building such a record of success can be a critical factor when undertaking a big change. One reason for this is the relationship between efficacy and performance. Efficacy refers to your capacity to produce some desired effect. Your efficacy related to a task impacts your performance on that task. No surprise there, but here here is something that's a little less obvious. Your beliefs about your efficacy affect your beliefs about the chances of success in performing the task. So, there are really two relationships, the relationship between actual efficacy and performance, and the relationship between perceived efficacy and perceived probability of success. When you believe that you lack efficacy, you’re reluctant to take on a task because you think you’re likely to fail. The reverse is also true, if you think you have high efficacy, you also think you’re highly likely to be successful. The relationship between your self-efficacy (your beliefs about your own efficacy) and performance is cyclical and what Weick calls deviation-amplifying. An increase in self-efficacy increases performance, which increases self-efficacy and so on. The problem is that this also works in the other direction. When you experience failure, it can lower self-efficacy, which can lower performance on future tasks, making you reluctant to take on the future tasks. So, if you take on a big change and fail, your self-efficacy is reduced, and you’re less likely to pursue big changes in the future. The small wins approach can build a performance record that boosts self-efficacy and future performance.

Craig 09:39 

By reducing fear of failure, reducing the demands required for making the change, and reducing the uncertainty associated with change, the small wins approach also lowers the stress associated with change. This is pretty important; fear of failure can bring about a lot of stress, which can make you avoid trying to make positive changes. After all, who needs MORE stress?

So what big change have you been putting off? Can you reorient your thinking away from the overwhelming task of accomplishing a huge change and towards a series of small wins? If you can, you might build a record of small, but meaningful changes that will eventually bring about the big change you desire. If not, well, you’ll still have all of those little successes, which is still a big deal.

Craig 10:24 

Hopefully, what I’ve discussed so far has given you an appreciation of the small wins strategy. The small wins approach works, so I urge you to consider applying this strategy to any big change you may want to pursue. Now, let’s look at three things you can do this week to move towards flourishing.

Usually my “three things” recommendations are pretty tightly tied to the episode’s topic. This one is a bit more obtuse, so please bear with me. As a preface, I’m going to assume that you want the world to be a better place, which may be seen as the ultimate big win project. As I’ve mentioned before, all it takes to make the world a better place is for you to be better. Sure, the improvement will be small, but it will make a difference. And keep in mind that what may be small in the overall sense of the world may be big to a particular individual. So, here are my three suggestions for small wins that will make the world better.

Craig 11:21 

First, be generous. Financial generosity is great, but I want you to be generous of your most precious resource, your time. For an act to be generous, the giver must give something important, and what’s more important than your time? Money can be replaced, time cannot. So, be generous with your time this week. Find some way to spend your time doing good. This needn’t be something earth-shattering; maybe you just read to someone who can't see very well, or pick up the phone and call someone just to see how they are. Whatever. Just be a little generous with your time.

Second, be kind. Make it a point this week to consciously do something kind each day. Again, this doesn’t need to be huge. Remember, we’re just trying for small wins here. Let someone ahead of you in line. Say hi. Thank the clerk in the checkout line. Each time you do this, you’ve racked up another small win.

Craig 12:29 

Finally, be a friend. I don’t know who your friends are, but I'd be shocked if you didn’t have a friend who could use your friendship right now. You don’t need to do anything much, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The most I can do for my friend is to simply be his friend.” Sometimes you just need to be there, you just need to be a friend. So, get in touch with a friend, especially if you have a friend in need. Even if your friend isn’t in need, the mere fact that you contacted them is an expression of friendship. Being a friend is a sort of triple small win, you’ve been generous, kind, and a friend. Three small wins for the world.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Thoreau, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” 

Until next time, be well my friends.

Craig 13:29 

I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com. Until next time.