The Overwhelming Power of Small Wins

During one of his many serious contemplations about suicide, Eric Clapton was saved by only one thought.

If he killed himself, he would no longer be able to drink. [1]

He had brief periods of addiction with coke and heroin, but neither of them were as important to him as his relationship with alcohol. After several times in which he seriously thought about ending his life, however, he finally checked himself into rehab.

After completing rehab, he remained sober for years before one hot summer day.

"My selective memory told me that standing at the bar in a pub on a summer's evening with a long, tall glass of lager and lime was heaven. I chose not to remember the nights which I had sat with a bottle of vodka, a gram of coke, and a shotgun, contemplating suicide." [2]

On that day, Clapton relapsed. He promised himself that he would merely drink "in moderation", but wound up on the same path as before. Binge drinking, doing hard drugs and questioning whether or not his time on earth should come to an end.

Until he checked himself into a different kind of rehab - Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The Success of Alcoholics Anonymous

Every year, thousands of alcoholics check themselves in to AA in order to get over their addiction. They do this because, despite having a relatively low scientific basis, AA consistently outperforms other methods of treatment.

Recently, many researchers have looked into what specific practices AA does differently than the other treatment methods to have such a high success rate. They have found many things AA does differently.

AA attempts to increase the self-awareness of its patients by first taking time to understand why they turned to alcohol in the first place. They also create a sense of genuine support by providing a sponsor who knows what the alcoholic is going through.

They have found many proven effective strategies for helping treat alcoholism. But there is one simple rule that AA uses that helped Eric Clapton avoid another relapse and go down yet another dark path. AA's motto - "don't have a drink today".


When people check into AA, their lives are set up to completely revolve around alcohol. Their lifestyles, their social networks, even their sense of purpose, all involve drinking. 

When your whole life is set up in this way, how can you possibly fathom giving up drinking entirely?

The idea that you would have to give up something that you are not only physically addicted to, but emotionally addicted to, for years, months or even weeks can be too hard to handle. 

But by focusing the alcoholic's mind on simply getting through "today" the task becomes attainable. They know that they can make it one day without a drink. It may not be easy, but it can be done. 

When they make it through one day, that day becomes a small win for the alcoholic.

They get a sense of accomplishment and begin to feel confident that they can make it through another day. Then another. And before they know it, they have made it a month, 6 months, or even an entire year without having a drink.

If they were to focus on making it a week - or even a month - without drinking, not only would it seem less achievable, they wouldn't get that daily reward and sense of accomplishment.

Why Small Wins Are Powerful

With your dream, goal, or project of any kind, your mind can find the task completely daunting. You see how far away you are from completing it, so it may seem utterly impossible to accomplish.

Not only that, but any progress that you make toward your goal can seem insignificant. 

The person whose goal is to lose 20lbs will not only find the task overwhelming, but if he spends weeks struggling and only loses 5lbs, he will see that as a sign that he is never going to reach his goal. 

However, if he were to focus his attention on just losing one pound at a time. Or even better, simply focusing on just eating one healthy meal at a time, he would see each step as a small win.

His focus would be on how far he has come in losing 5lbs, rather than focusing on how far he needs to go to lose the total of 20lbs that was his major goal. This change in perspective would give him confidence; rather than lost hope.

Dream of the cathedral, Focus on the Bricks

We are all dreamers. We love thinking about what our lives will be like when we accomplish our goals. We focus on how beautiful the cathedral will be when it’s complete, rather than focusing on simply laying each brick to build it. 

If you focus on the cathedral, however, then once you start laying bricks, you see just how far away you are from the beautiful cathedral you envisioned. This can lead to lost hope that you will ever be able to build it.

But if you focus simply on perfectly laying each brick, each brick becomes a small win. [3]

You can now see your progress with each passing day. And every day you grow more and more confident that you will build this cathedral – establishing great habits in the process.

Now, this doesn't mean that you shouldn’t have big goals and dreams. But the huge goals you have should merely set the path. 

The alcoholic should have the huge goal of overcoming her alcoholism, but then focus on not having a drink today.

The overweight man should have the huge goal of losing weight and being healthy, but then focus simply on eating healthy for his next meal. 

The aspiring author should have the huge goal of writing a 300 page book, but then focus only on writing 1000 words today.

This shift in focus is incredibly powerful. Now your goal is actionable and attainable. Also, with each day sober, with each healthy meal, and with each 1000 words written, you are now more confident than ever that you can do this. 


Great things come from a lot of small things done well. For recovering alcoholics, that is simply staying sober today. Your brain will always perform better when it sees a goal in small, manageable chunks - rather than huge, long-term aspirations.

This does not mean that you should not have long-term dreams. But these dreams should merely set the path for you. Once you have the path set, break it up into the small, attainable things you can do today. 

Dream big, but start small - and celebrate each win along the way.


  1. Clapton, E. (2007). Clapton: The autobiography. New York: Broadway Books.
  2. Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.
  3. Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. (1981). Cultivating Competence, Self-efficacy, And Intrinsic Interest Through Proximal Self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,586-598.