The Power of Small Wins

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

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 that work with their patients. Everything from increasing their self-awareness by first taking time to understand why they turned to alcohol in the first place, to creating a sense of genuine support from a sponsor who knows what you are going through. They have found many proven effective strategies for helping treat alcoholism.

But I want to focus on one rule that AA uses to help make the task of getting over the addiction stick – “don’t have a drink today”. [1]


With any huge project, dream or goal, our minds can find the task completely daunting. We see how far away we are from reaching the finish line, so the task seems impossible to accomplish. For an alcoholic who has been turning to drinking for much of his or her life, giving up the bottle entirely seems too tough of a task to comprehend. So instead of AA instructing its members to set a goal to give up drinking for the next year, or even the next month, it breaks it into a simple, manageable chunk, “just don’t have a drink today.”


There are 3 key reasons reasons why this rule works for AA.

1. Small chunks

Like I mentioned in the last paragraph, it breaks the huge task of giving up alcohol entirely into a small manageable chunk [2]. In moments when an alcoholic is tempted and in a “hot” state of mind, they know that their goal is to just make it through the day without drinking. Then in the morning they know that it will be easier to say no. 

2. System based

Since the alcoholic is focused on simply making it through the day, she is going to set up daily routines that help to avoid temptation. These new routines will eventually turn into habits. Then before she knows it, her daily life is designed to avoid the temptations that once made her turn to alcohol. 

3. Small wins 

If alcoholics were to focus on not having a drink this year, this month or even this week, the daily struggle would be all the more challenging. They would feel impossibly far away from their goal, and there would be no intrinsic reward along the way. By focusing on “winning the day”, alcoholics build confidence with each small win they achieve. If they make it through today, they gain the confidence that they can make it through tomorrow. And that cycle builds upon itself. [3]


We are all dreamers. We love thinking about what our lives would be like if we could accomplish our goals. To use an analogy, we focus on how beautiful the cathedral will be when it’s complete, rather than focusing on simply laying each brick that is necessary to build it. 

Then when we actually start laying the bricks, we see how far away we are from the beautiful cathedral we envisioned, and give up hope. But if we focus simply on laying the bricks, each brick laid becomes a small win as we see our progress with each passing day. And every day we grow more and more confident that we will build this cathedral – establishing great habits in the process.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t have goals and dream of “building cathedrals”. But you should use them to simply set the direction that you want to go, rather than the major focus. Shift your focus to the daily activities and habits that you need to get from where you are to where you want to go. To do this, check out James Clear’s great article on establishing systems, rather than goals.


Great things happen from doing the right things day after day. From Jerry Seinfeld to Will Smith, we see prominently successful people stressing the importance of focusing on simply winning the day. If we shift our focus to do the same, we will make the task less daunting, improve our process, and enjoy small wins along the way to our dreams.

So the question is, what can you do today?


  1. Kaskutas, Lee Ann. "Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science." Journal of Addictive Diseases 28.2 (2009): 145-57
  2. Bandura, Albert, and Dale H. Schunk. "Cultivating Competence, Self-efficacy, and Intrinsic Interest through Proximal Self-motivation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41.3 (1981): 586-98.'
  3. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print