I’ve always been obsessed with the future. As a child, I dreamed of asking my house robot to fly my car for me. If you’d told me about an impending vast network of connected computers, I’d have been thrilled at the prospect. After all, what results could that possibly produce except uniting humanity through better communication, which would surely bring about world peace!
But my natural inclination to focus on the future also brings me stress, anxiety and difficulty enjoying the present moment.
Most of my present moments, in fact, are spent dreaming of future moments. Which is a bit silly when you think about it. For example, I motivate myself during projects by imagining the moment of completion. But when that moment actually arrives, I barely take time to enjoy it. I’m already focused on the next thing.
I’m like the proverbial donkey chasing a carrot, except I’m clever-stupid enough to have built the carrot/stick machine for myself.
Still, this tendency isn’t the worst thing. Dreaming of success at least provides a means of motivating myself. But it’s important—for morale, motivation and enjoyment of life—to occasionally pause and celebrate some wins. Or, at least acknowledge them. Otherwise, what’s even the point of a win?!
If the only reward for completing a task is another task, then we’re depriving ourselves of an important source of joy.
What even is a win?
Like most activities that are good for me, I find acknowledging and enjoying wins to be easier said than done.
In the rare and easy case, where I can look back over recent months and see a string of achievements, I still have to fight my instincts. I have to step back and take time to reflect on the achievements and to enjoy my accomplishments.
Sometimes, though, the wins aren’t such low-hanging fruit. There have been periods—sometimes lengthy ones—when “wins” feel far off. There’s little joy to be had in looking back on an endless series of setbacks.
However, even outside of times of crisis, it’s amazing how much of my life is spent feeling as if I haven’t achieved anything. Usually the sense that I’ve achieved nothing is due to being so hyper-focused on one specific goal that I ignore all the other positives in my life. But when I actually look back, I consistently recognize that I achieved a lot without realizing it.
Partial wins count
Sometimes my wins are vague and not all that reassuring: “I made it through the month!” feels like lowering the bar. Other times, I have to allow myself a partial win. This doesn’t come naturally to me—my instinct is to assess every end result against my initial goals and then throw it into a bucket marked either “success” or “failure.”
But wins are still wins, even if they aren’t the wins I planned for and dreamed of—and even if they’re partial. Learning something from failure is a win. Growth during a tough time is a win. Why deprive myself of joy by denigrating my own accomplishments?
In order to make our wins visible, we have to look back through a positive lens. Otherwise, we can easily discount every accomplishment, or convince ourselves that nothing we did matters because we never got that One Thing that we really wanted. But it’s pointless to compare our lives to what we can imagine, because we can always imagine something better.
Living in reality means acknowledging the positives—however small—as well as being real about the negatives.
Wins in boring times
The hardest times to reflect on sometimes aren’t the worst ones. The most trying times tend to offer us obvious lessons. But life doesn’t usually coast along at the extremes: endless triumph or constant setbacks. Often, life just kinda… happens. There aren’t any particularly big wins, or any massive disasters.
I find these times to be, in their own way, more frustrating than anything. But we can learn a lot from these times of doldrums. They can be indicators that it’s time for a change. We can use the feeling of being stuck as fuel to make that change. And, guess what? Making a long-needed life change is a WIN. For example, I once had a whole year where it felt like nothing happened. Reflecting on those twelve months inspired me into the most life-changing year I’d had in a decade.
How to celebrate wins more easily
Imagine if, twelve months from reading this post, you didn’t have to try to acknowledge your successes. You can get there by putting in a little effort ahead of time, and making a habit of celebrating wins big and small. Here are two easy techniques to implement the habit:
1. Choose your goals
This is a whole topic in itself, but I find it helpful to always have goals of many different sizes. It’s great to dream big, but if I have a massive goal (like going to the moon) then I should also have an easily achievable goal (like going for a nice walk more often) to go along with it.
My brain likes to imagine that easy goals are pointless, as if goals are only worthwhile if they’re literally impossible. But actually being able to achieve a goal should count in a goals favor, not against it!
Try this: Set an ambitious, exciting goal—something that makes your spine tingle. And set multiple small goals: achievable things that will make you feel good about yourself
2. Dump your “to do” list and make a “have done” list
Again, this works well on multiple scales. You could keep a daily diary of little things you’ve achieved. Or you could work at a larger scale by ticking off days on a calendar when you kept to a good habit or made progress (even partial progress) towards a goal. At a huge scale, you could keep a physical list of big wins that you update as they occur.
Then, set a time in future to look over the evidence. It doesn’t have to be anything deep. Even just five minutes of flicking through your daily “have done” list will remind you of all that you’ve accomplished.
It’s great to have a carrot to work towards, but you’ve got to let yourself catch it and eat it occasionally. You’re worth it, and you’re winning—whether you see it or not.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.