Small wins, part 1

By James Hayton,
March 26, 2019
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

Success doesn’t happen all at once. It’s easy to focus on the end result and see it as a singular event, but that moment (whether it’s your graduation or a major breakthrough in your work) is the culmination of thousands of smaller, less dramatic successes over time.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the way archetypal success stories are told. We all know about Isaac Newton and his falling apple, but the truth is that his insight into gravity didn’t just hit him on the head. It came about after years of constant, obsessive work; not only learning scientific and mathematical skills but inventing entirely new ones.

Newton’s apple, Archimedes’ bathtub and Edison’s lightbulb: All variations on the same story, all missing the long, slow, unglamorous daily accumulation of small, individually-barely-significant victories necessary to achieve something great.

Focus on the small wins, not the big goals.

One way to do this (and to build it into your daily routine) is to start the day with a to do list of no more than 3 things.

They don’t have to be the biggest, most important things you have to do. They should be small enough that you can achieve them fairly quickly, so you can build your day on a foundation of success.

The idea is to narrow your focus from the big, overwhelming, long-term goals to the small, manageable but important steps you can affect right now. Put all your focus and effort into doing them, one at a time, to the best of your ability.

You might find that your mind wanders or that you find a million other things that need to be done, but bring your attention back to that list of three.

Focus on the small wins.

You might also find that you resist doing one of the three things on the list. Stick with it, though. The rule is that you get all three done before you do anything else.

This trains the habit of seeing things through even when it’s uncomfortable. Do this repeatedly on a small scale and it’ll be easier when you face a larger problem in your research or writing.

Small wins.

See also:

Finish it!

Quick tip: To do lists

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