The Power Of Small Wins: What The LGBT Community Can Teach Us About Widespread Change


When gay liberation groups started campaigning against homophobia in the late 1960s, their initial efforts only yielded a string of failures.

They urged lesbians and gay men to “come out”, and to dismantle and rebuild social institutions without defined sexual roles. But were roundly defeated in state legislatures.

Teachers tried to create curriculums to counsel gay teens, but were fired for suggesting homosexuality should be embraced.

It seemed like the gay community’s larger goals – ending discrimination and police harassment, and convincing the American Psychiatric Association to stop defining homosexuality as a mental disease – were far from achievable.

Then, in the early 1970s, the American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: Convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71-471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category.

In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the change and reclassified books into a newly created category: HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism – Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”).

It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was profound.

News of the new policy spread across America and gay rights organisations, citing the victory, started fundraising drives.

In 1973, after years of internal debate, the American Psychiatric Association finally conceded and removed homosexuality as a category of disorder, and The New Zealand College of Psychiatry Federal Council declared it wasn’t a mental illness – the first such body in the world to do so. This became a catalyst for widespread change; state laws were rewritten and discrimination because of sexual orientation was made illegal.

Within a few years, openly gay politicians – including Kathy Kozachenko – ran for political office in Michigan, Ohio, California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon; with many of them citing the Library of Congress’s decision as inspiration.

And it all began with one small win. [1]

Introducing Small Wins

In our “bigger is better” culture of IMAX movies, supersize meals, and extreme makeovers, we’re often led to believe that achieving goals is only meaningful if there are large, visible results associated with them.

Unfortunately, big goals require consistent, daily action – and motivation. And unless the behaviours that move us towards our desires are habits, we often run out of steam and burnout quickly.

However, when we track our small wins – obstacles we overcame, personal successes we had and resistance we minimised – we can stay on target.

It’s hard to believe that small wins can lead to big changes, but as we learnt from the LGBT community, they can.

The Power of Small Wins

Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread change.

In his New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Charles Duhigg comments:

Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. [2]

A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power; an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favour another small win”. [3]

How You Can Use This

In her book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile reveals the many benefits of keeping a diary. [4]

A diary can help you strategise how you’re going to overcome obstacles, get distance from negative emotions and, most importantly, record your successes – successes you’d normally overlook.

As Karl Weick, a prominent organisational psychologist, wrote:

“. . . Like miniature experiments [small wins] test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up”. [5]

Saying no to dessert, gaining a new subscriber and improving your personal best are easy to write-off as unimportant, but as we learnt in the choice architecture article, small and apparently insignificant details – like small wins – can have major impacts on our behaviours.

I like to track what I call “Daily Successes” on an Excel workbook, so whenever I feel demotivated, I can look at previous successes – successes I had forgotten about – and remind myself that I’m on track to achieving my goals.

Your wins aren’t based on what others deem significant; wins are individual and based on what’s important to you. And if you look hard enough, you can always find them, so keep your eyes open.

Here are a few more examples:

  • On a diet but struggling to commit to your diet plan? Record the number of desserts you resist, pounds you lose and meals you plan in advance. A study by Claire Adams of Louisiana University and Mark Leary of Duke University, reveals self-punishment after a dietary relapse only leads to further willpower failures, so remember to practice self-compassion and celebrate small wins regularly. [6]
  • If you’re an Internet entrepreneur, celebrate the email of gratitude you received from a satisfied customer, getting things done, the successful launch of a new product and the new contact you made at a networking event.
  • Asking a stranger for their number can be a big deal if you’ve never done it before, so if you’re improving your conversation skills, be sure to celebrate those small wins often. Those small victories motivate you when you plateau.

A Final Word

The effect of small wins can be energetic, so look for keystone habits that can provide numerous, small senses of victory and remember to celebrate when momentum starts to build.

One action, when celebrated regularly, can often be another step in a lifetime of success.


[1] Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

[2] Duhigg, C. (2012) The Right Habits, (Accessed: 19th October 2014).

[3] Center for Applied Research (2012) Small Wins – The Steady Application of a Small Advantage(Accessed: 1st November 2014).

[4] Amabile, T. (2011) The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[5] Weick, K. E. (1984) ‘Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems’, American Psychologist, 39(1), pp. 40-49.

[6] Adams, C. E. and Leary, M (2007) ‘Promoting Self-Compassionate Attitudes towards Eating among Restrictive and Healthy Eaters ‘, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), pp. 1220-1144.

Further Reading:

How to Measure Your Progress: What Zappos Can Teach You about Personal Achievement