“Merely Participating,” Subjective Insertion, and the Power of Celebrating the Little Wins

How to FINALLY Master the “I Want” vs “I want In the Future” Internal Debate!

Too many of us equate the concept of “celebrating little wins” with being “soft” … dare I say, “indulgent”? We buy into the myth that if we are “too nice” we will become complacent and lazy; that if we celebrate the small wins we will stop working towards our larger goals!

This myth is dangerous! It allows us to rationalize not trying … plus it makes our internal world kinda suck! Who wants to live with such an evil roommate in their head?

Celebrating little wins is not “nice.” It is not “wishy washy.” It is science. 

Consciously tagging little wins is strategic; it is based in an understanding of the science of the brain, specifically on an understanding of the reward system of the brain. To achieve any goal you have to know how to give “current you” the “hit” of appropriate fuel it needs to stay on course!  What is that fuel? Dopamine! More on the science of self-talk and dopamine in a bit. First, back to the myth that being nice to ourselves makes us lazy.

Does this train of thought sound familiar?

“I can’t celebrate just walking around the block or just drinking a glass of water … those are pathetic accomplishments. If I coddle myself, I will never lose weight!”

(FYI, words like just are the devil of health, and speaking kindly to yourself is not the same as pandering to yourself. If the above reminds you of your self-talk, consider doing some work on your inner roommate.)

Too many of us buy into the myth that success doesn’t come from merely “participating,” that success comes through HARD work and big pushes.

The fly in the ointment of that argument is that.you can’t accomplish any of the big health goals without all the little wins along the way.

“Tagging” the little wins does NOT mean you don’t keep working towards your big goals; it is what allows the big goals to become reality. Yes, completing a marathon is a bigger deal than one walk around the block, BUT if you can’t get yourself to go for a walk you will never complete the marathon.

To accomplish any goal we have to master the skill of “showing up,” of making participation a non-negotiable! “Showing up” day after day doesn’t guarantee mastery and success, but success is not possible without showing up! (As Anne Lamott would say, you gotta put in your “bum in seat” time. She is awesome, I highly suggest her interview on the Tim Ferriss Show. )

As I tell clients, you don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to get great! Daily participation is what creates the big wins!!

My Nana would have asked, “What does this have to do with the price of cheese?”

The above is significant because it sets up my main thesis:

The biggest and most critical health skill we need to master is winning the “now” vs “future” inner fight—we will never succeed If we let the desires of the moment rob us of future accomplishments! 

It is easy to set a health goal. Goals happen to future you!

To accomplish the goal you need to master the “here and now.” You need current you to act in a way that supports future you! YOU NEED TO SHOW UP FOR THOSE LITTLE WINS!!!

So the million dollar question is, how do we do master the “now”?

We learn to celebrate little wins. 

We learn to cultivate a growth mindset—i.e., we embrace progress over perfection!

Think, growth, consistency, and effort over instant gratification.

Remember, we don’t celebrate little wins to be “nice” to ourselves. Celebrating little wins is not about placating ourselves or skipping the work. It’s science.

Celebrating little wins = giving yourself a pulse of dopamine.

Think of positive self-talk like doing a workout when you are lethargic to pep yourself up or having coffee in the morning to rev yourself up. The “self-validation” is the coffee or the workout, the insertion of energy you need to keep going.

Give your brain the “food” it needs to keep goinga “hit” of dopamine!!

Subjectively insert a “you are doing great” moment into your day!! 

Noting your win involves pausing and witnessing the accomplishment. This pause allows you to be an objective observer of your own life. It allows you to step out of the “want” of the moment and respond vs react.

It also harnesses the power of your neurobiology—it gives your body a hit of dopamine, the body’s “future-oriented, reward-based” chemical. To quote a book I just read and loved by Daniel Z. Lieberman’s, dopamine is The Molecule of More—i.e., dopamine inspires you to desire what you don’t have; to want to improve your fitness, run a 5km race, or lift heavier weights. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that allows you to plan, think, calculate, imagine a better future. (Not sure what a neurotransmitter is? Curious about how dopamine and other neurotransmitters connect to your health journey? I got you. Check out this review of Daniel Z. Lieberman’s book The Molecule of More.)

Back to noting little wins.

Here is the process.

Set a big goal. 

Break it down into manageable chunks. No step is too small. If you want to start running, start by placing your shoes by the door. Tomorrow try putting them on and stepping outside.

When you succeed, pause and consciously tag the win!

When life gets hard—when you want to ditch your plan and abandon your small goal—consciously pause and tell yourself you are heading in the right direction. Subjectively insert a PAUSE in your life. Use the pause to tell yourself that this small step will put you on the path to success, or possibly more significantly that the current struggle is in service of the larger goal. Put your shoes beside the door on day one so that on day two you can go for a walk so that on day three you can go for a longer walk. And so on. Or, in the middle of intervals that are killing you, remind yourself that these intervals will allow you to achieve your marathon goal, and that goal will be worth all the hard work. Remind yourself that even though you are not achieving your goal YET, the goal is possible.

Don’t lie to yourself—don’t say you had a healthy meal if you didn’t—but make the wins small enough that you can actually succeed over and over again! 

(Note, a big shout out to Andrew Huberman. It was through listening to him on impact theory that I learned the term subjective insertion. I have been a big advocate of pausing for years, but I was never aware of the actual term. If you want to hear Huberman’s detailed description of subjective insertion and the growth process, check out that podcast here. He has subsequently created his own podcast, which is awesome—I particularly loved this episode on sleep. He has also been on another of my fav podcasts, The Tim Ferris Show. And for more info on Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset, check out my review.)

Celebrating your wins does not make you any less “hardcore.” Pausing to insert a significance to each moment is how you keep going! Again, don’t lie to yourself and celebrate wins that didn’t occur and/or pretend a win is more significant than it is to justify a self-sabotaging “reward behaviour.” (Don’t do the “I did this massive workout so I deserve a binge.”) Call a spade a spade, but always set realistic expectations and celebrate growth.

When you can push through frustration and discouragement and see that you are acting for a larger purpose, when you can talk to yourself like a coach, like an inner advocate, when you can cheer on your little wins, there is no limit to what you can do.