Why it's important to celebrate your small wins of 2020

The end of the year is usually a time to take stock of where we are, what we have achieved, and what we hope to build on next year.

For… obvious reasons… this year’s list of achievements is likely looking a little smaller than normal. Or maybe even completely non-existent.

Don’t let this spin you into a spiral of despair. No, this year hasn’t looked like any of us hoped it would, and no, there hasn’t been much opportunity to hit the traditional milestones that society equates with success. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t achieved anything.

Maybe the end of 2020 is an opportunity to redefine the meaning of ‘achievements’. Maybe we can stop judging our success through the eyes of other people, and instead focus on the things we are proud of – no matter how small they may seem.

Psychotherapist Martina Witter says we should still celebrate our achievements this year. Even if you feel like you don’t have much to celebrate.

‘Success is a journey, not a destination,’ Martina tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Celebrating little wins is critical to monitoring and tracking incremental accomplishments and achievements as it allows you to notice and pay attention to the present moment. Your journey of achievement is sometimes more important than the end goal.’

Martina says that the small wins of 2020 will position us for greater successes in 2021.

‘Therefore, we should accept and acknowledge the small wins as stepping stones and platforms to success,’ she adds. ‘Success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal, but it’s the ability to continue that counts (which is a fitting Winston Churchill quote).’

There are also neurochemical benefits to actually listing and making note of your achievements.

‘It activates the reward center of our brains, allowing us to feel a sense of pride and achievement,’ explains Martina. ‘Dopamine is released and produces feel-good emotions and contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system.

‘This important neurochemical boosts mood, motivation and attention whilst also helping to regulate learning, and emotional responses. Dopamine helps you to experience the feeling of getting rewarded, and can result in you wanting to achieve even more.’

But how do we acknowledge our achievements if we don’t feel like we have achieved anything all year?

Furloughs, redundancies, cancelled travel plans, cancelled weddings, strained relationships and isolation caused by endless lockdowns, might be making you feel like your entire year has been one failure after another.

But digging a little deeper to examine the smaller successes that have made this horrible year more manageable on the day-to-day level, is just as important.

‘When we use the word “achievement”, our minds almost instantly jump to imagining something grand and enormous,’ explains Jo Howarth, founder of The Happiness Club. ‘Maybe a graduation of some sort, or huge business success, or landing a large amount of money.

‘That word – achievement – can carry with it a degree of pressure and indeed, if we don’t achieve then we feel less than worthy. I’m not a big fan of pressure. Pressure can lead to stress and anxiety, to depression and a lack of motivation, to name but a few.’ 

Jo says that ironically, this makes the act of listing our achievements even more important.

‘Because doing that simple act can lead to the exact opposite of all those things,’ she says. ‘Recognising and acknowledging our achievements can boost our sense of wellbeing and our sense of worthiness, it can improve our self-esteem and confidence, it can help us to stop procrastinating and increase our motivation to do more.

‘My advice to people right now, after the year that 2020 has been, would be to focus more on the small things which actually, in my experience, very often turn out to be the important things.’

Frankly, simply surviving 2020 should be right at the top of your achievements list for the year, so it shouldn’t be hard to find small things that make you proud.

The small wins people are celebrating in 2020

Ellen

‘I got a bike and started cycling this year, which is something I’m so proud of. I’ve been cycling to work, to do the big food shop, and just around London and I’ve surprised myself by how much I enjoy it.

‘I was really nervous about cycling on main roads, to the point that I was having panic attacks, so to overcome that fear and do something that I enjoy is definitely something to celebrate (even if I do still avoid roundabouts).’

Lizzie

‘Despite it being an absolutely horrific year, I feel like in 2020 – for the first time really – I’ve developed a positive attitude which has stuck with me (hopefully for the long-term).

‘The year has really made me appreciate my friends, family and loved ones and a renewed love of really simple things, like cooking and long walks. In the past, I’ve tried to have a positive mentality on things, and while I might have done so for a while I never really kept it up, but I really feel like I’ve got a new outlook now as this year draws to a close.’

James

‘This year I am really proud that I have got back into reading. It feels like such a small thing, but I haven’t read properly since I left university, so getting through more than a handful of novels this year is something I am really proud of.

‘I’m happy I have been able to find the joy in books again. It has provided some much needed escapism from the news and social media. I’m definitely going to keep it up.’

Chris

‘My little win this year is that I have got really into cooking. I only had a few dishes that I knew how to do before 2020, but since all the lockdowns I have thrown myself into it, and it has changed so much about how I think about food.

‘I have loads of cookbooks now, I make pasta from scratch, I have tried a whole range of new cuisines and I have learnt so much and built up so much confidence. Going forward I think it will mean I eat more healthily, and save money on takeaways.’

Laura

‘My successes for 2020 have been meal planning properly and cooking from scratch, trying out lots of recipes I’ve wanted to, rather than just sticking to the same old things because it was easier.

‘Also, getting a proper skincare routine and sticking to it. It used to feel like a proper chore but now I quite enjoy my little ritual every night before bed and my skin has never felt better after finally getting the products right.’

Jess

‘The thing I’m most proud of this year is showing people I love how much I care about them more often.

‘I’ve made an effort not to take people for granted and to message people back more, pencil in calls even if I’m feeling lazy, and be open in saying “I miss you”, and “I hope you’re doing okay”.

‘Despite this horrible year, I’d like to think my relationships with family, friends, and my partner have come out stronger.’

Practical tips for celebrating small successes

Gratitude

‘Develop a mindset of gratitude through journaling, as this increases our focus on positive experiences, which improves wellbeing, increases happiness, resilience and compassion,’ suggests Martina.

Gratitude journaling consists of comprehensively recording at least one thing that you are grateful for every day – like a person in your life, or an academic, workplace or business achievement, or something tiny like making yourself a really nutritious breakfast.

‘Focusing on small wins through fostering gratitude can facilitate an increase in resilience and empathy will position you for success and growth in 2021,’ adds Martina.

Reward your small successes

Martina says this positively reinforces the behaviours as the chemical dopamine is released when the reward receptor is activated.

‘This increases our sense of achievement, productivity, motivation and feelings of happiness and joy,’ she says. ‘Consequently we are more likely to build upon these small wins.

‘I have observed the benefits of acknowledging and rewarding small wins whilst working with children and adults who are struggling with motivation and depression.

‘Rewarding small achievements, such as having a shower, getting dressed or making a phone call, can elevate someones mood and motivate them to engage in these behaviours consistently, which allows them to works towards returning to previous levels of functioning.’

Vocalise your successes

‘Tell people about your small wins,’ suggests Martina. ‘Talking about your small wins creates an opportunity to receive positive feedback and this will motivate you.

‘The incremental wins lead to larger wins and will facilitate you in focusing on the positives and successes, rather than selectively attending to losses or setbacks which can hijack your resilience and create stagnancy.’

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