Rachel Frederickson, who won season 15 of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” created quite the firestorm of controversy when she went from 260 to 105 pounds—a 60 percent drop in body weight—in just seven months.
During the final three months of the show when contestants are “on their own," she lost 45 pounds by exercising for six hours a day and restricting herself to 1,600 calories. Frederickson herself admitted she may have went too far.
I have a couple thoughts about this:
- Who in the world has six extra hours in their day to exercise?! I thought my hour a day was crazy.
- If you have a big goal—whether it’s to lose weight, be more productive, or pursue a new career—Rachel’s story is a great example of what not to do.
In fact, science says you should do the exact opposite.
In this article I’m going to talk about the power of small wins. If you’re struggling with your health, what I’m about to share with you may just change your life.
The Science of Baby Steps
In 1984, Cornell professor Karl Weick wrote a paper called Small Wins: Redefining The Scale Of Social Problems that changed the way we think about social issues like crime, human rights, and environmentalism.
Weick argued that approaching problems on a grand scale actually makes them harder to solve. His theory was simple: if you want to change the world … stop trying to change the world.
He cited historical evidence from the gay rights, feminism and environmentalist movements that showed how most large-scale problems (that previously seemed impossible to tackle) could gain positive momentum with a series of “small wins."
Weick stated: “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win."
Teresa Amabile, Harvard professor and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, conducted a multi-year research study about what makes people happy, motivated, creative and productive at work.
She found a single factor that had the greatest impact on days study participants rated as “best": simply making progress on a meaningful task.
Amabile stresses there’s always some progress you can recognize in a given day, even on the most challenging or discouraging days—and these baby steps are what lead to great achievements when compounded over time.
If you have 21 minutes to spare, her video below is worth watching.
Small Wins and Your Health
Now let’s talk about how you can apply small wins to your health.
Let’s say you struggle with exercise. The thought of spending an hour at the gym makes you cringe. After a long day at work, it’s the last thing you want to do.
So why not try breaking it up?
Researchers at Arizona State University found that breaking up your exercise into three 10-minute sessions can actually lower your blood pressure more than one 30-minute session. Here are some other ideas:
- Do 25 pushups right after you wake up every morning.
- Stretch for five minutes right when you get to work (I do this every day).
- Take a short walk on your lunch break.
- Walk on the treadmill or do a few lunges or squats during commercials when you’re watching TV.
Short bursts of exercise are great for kids too. A 2011 study found exercise intervals as little as five minutes provided heart healthy benefits and made kids less susceptible to risk factors for obesity.
When it comes to changing your diet, taking baby steps is imperative. Most diets fail largely because they demand drastic lifestyle overhauls that just aren’t realistic for most folks.
Instead, try one thing at a time. Focus on cutting out soda. Or eating more real foods instead of processed food. Or ordering a salad instead of fries today.
Just keep doing these little things every day … even if you don’t think you’re getting results.
Take a minute or two to track your progress each day as well. In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Dan and Chip Heath say keeping a journal of accomplishments can drastically increase your odds of reaching your goals.
There’s plenty of research to support this. One study showed that women who kept a food journal consistently lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not over the course of a year.
Small wins are also important and applicable to your personal life and emotional health.
In his book Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns says focusing on small wins can help people struggling with depression.
Burns suggests that rather than trying to overhaul your entire mental state at once, you should break it down into “small, discrete, manageable units which you can complete one step at a time."
It may not sound like much, but taking it one day at a time and finding the silver lining in crappy situations actually works and can help to reverse years of negative tendencies. You have to give it time though.
Throwing Caution to the Wind
Setbacks are an inevitable part of life. They can have a massive effect on your progress—if you let them.
It’s admittedly difficult to get excited at times about one tiny win. Successful outcomes often happen as the result of hundreds of small wins.
That’s why consistent, daily, action–no matter how small—is so important.
Every action that is easy to do is also easy not to do. So remember: success builds on success.
Paulo Coelho said:
There is only one way to learn. It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.
Here’s how to start taking action today.
How to Get Start Started
Pick one thing you want to change this month that you know will have a positive impact on your health. Commit to 5-10 minutes each day. Some days you’ll do more. The important part is making the commitment small enough that you’ll do it every day. Here’s a list of some ideas.
1. Replace all liquid calories with water and tea.
2. Eat two pieces of fruit each day.
3. Try a new vegetable every week.
4. Fill half your plate with vegetables every night for dinner.
5. Stop buying products with trans fat.
6. Drink two liters or more of water every day.
7. Eat a salad for lunch or dinner each day.
8. Don’t buy foods with more than five ingredients.
Final Thoughts/Action Steps
So here we are—you’ve reached the end (assuming you didn’t skim through to reach this point … in which case you should ask yourself: is that going to help you achieve your goals?).
Let’s review. You’ve learned:
- The science that proves small wins can reap great rewards.
- How making small progress is the single most important factor in achieving your goals.
- How you can start applying the concept of small wins to your health today.
This isn’t a sprint my friends … it’s a marathon. Pace yourself. Changing a behavior takes time—66 days on average and sometimes longer.
And that brings us to your final mandate: start now.
Too often we wait for the big inspiration and never actually begin. Starting small helps build momentum that leads to larger changes that stick.
Pick one small thing and start doing it. Then do the same thing tomorrow. And the next day. And so on.
One day you’ll look back and realize this stuff isn’t that hard. Sometimes you just need to stop thinking so much and just frickin’ start.