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From Small Steps to Big Wins: The Importance of Celebrating

Recognizing our accomplishments fuels motivation, growth, and success.

Key points

  • Celebrating wins activates the brain's reward system, boosting motivation and life satisfaction.
  • Skipping celebrations increases stress and the risk of burnout, harming motivation and well-being.
  • Recognizing small wins helps solidify lessons learned, fostering intentional future actions.
  • Celebrating big wins fosters social support, enhancing relationships and feelings of connection.
Source: Clay Banks / Unsplash
Source: Clay Banks / Unsplash

I work with many high-achieving adults who set big goals and reach them. But as soon as they do, they’re ready to move the goalpost and get back to work on the next thing. They don’t want to pause long enough to celebrate or even acknowledge all the effort and energy that brought them to this moment.

Take my client “Jada,” an owner and CEO of an investment company who recently met her annual goal to expand internationally six months early. As soon as she mentioned this win, she was ready to move on and create a new goal to acquire a foreign competitor. When I stopped her to ask how she was going to celebrate the original milestone of expanding internationally, her face looked as though I had asked her how she was going to travel to the moon later that day. Not only had it not occurred to her to celebrate, but she also had no idea what celebrating wins even looked like.

Why Our Brains Need to Celebrate

Celebrating wins is essential for maintaining motivation and improving overall life satisfaction. Research shows that recognizing small successes activates the brain’s reward system, which releases dopamine and reinforces positive behavior. This process fosters a sense of accomplishment and progress and boosts self-efficacy and self-esteem. Thus, when people celebrate their achievements, they are more likely to remain motivated and pursue further goals, creating a positive feedback loop of success and satisfaction (Wang et al. 2017).

In contrast, if we skip over the successes and move on to the next goal or milestone without acknowledgment, we’re more likely to experience chronic stress. In the book The Burnout Challenge, researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter identify insufficient rewards as one of the six reasons people burn out at work. Insufficient rewards can cause us to burn out in other areas of life as well, not just work. If we don’t celebrate successes at the gym, like increasing the amount of weight we can lift or how far we can run, we’re less likely to want to continue. And if we continue going to the gym without ever acknowledging our gains, we’ll become cynical, exhausted, and down on ourselves.

Celebrate the Small Wins

Celebrations shouldn’t be saved for the huge achievements either. While those are important, so are the small steps that we make along the way. In my work with Jada, we broke down her annual goals into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals to help her stay on track. But I also wanted us to have markers along the way that we’d be able to celebrate. Once she learned the importance of celebrating and came up with a list of victory items to choose from each time, she became eager to make it to the next milestone to earn her reward.

There’s something else that happens internally when we notice and commemorate our achievements. Our brains get a chance to solidify the lessons we’ve learned so far. It’s an opportunity for learning and growth that can become a part of our neural networks. When Jada took time to observe which action steps led to her achievement, she figured out what worked and what didn’t. She’ll be much more likely to be intentional with future steps as she navigates her next goal.

Celebrate the Big Wins

We also want to celebrate the big wins. Jada decided to have smaller rewards for the weekly and monthly milestones and bigger ones for the quarterly and annual. The big wins take a lot of time and effort; thus, the rewards should reflect that. We’re not looking to light up the reward center and ignite a dopamine release here, but rather to give ourselves some closure to our accomplishment. This gives us time to savor all the hard work it took to get to this point, as well as to appreciate what we truly achieved. When Jada met her annual goal six months early, she decided this was worthy of a weekend away with good friends. (And yes, we can create a reward after we’ve met the goal, too.)

Celebrating big wins also leads to more social and emotional support. We often tell others about these achievements, resulting in closer relationships, positive feedback, and enhanced feelings of belonging and connection. When Jada decided to go away with her girlfriends, she initially didn’t want to tell them the reason for the impromptu trip. But after a bit of encouragement, she decided to share how she had tapped into a new international market and what that would mean for her firm. Her friends were so genuinely excited for her that they ended up surprising her with a special dinner out during their trip. She was incredibly touched and felt closer and more supported by her friends than she had previously.

How Will You Celebrate?

I want you to celebrate everything you’re achieving, no matter how small it may seem to you. Here’s how you can get started today:

  • Get clear on your goals. You can’t celebrate what you don’t know you’ve achieved, so make sure to have annual goals that you can break down into quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals.
  • Decide ahead of time what your small rewards will be. Have a list of small rewards for the monthly and weekly that you can choose from as needed. Examples of small rewards include a massage, a new plant for your office, a new piece of clothing, taking a half or full day off, a manicure, or buying a specialty coffee drink.
  • Decide what your big rewards will be for the big wins. Instead of having a list to choose from, you should attach a specific reward to a specific win. You’ll know what you’re working towards, plus you’ll know why you earned it. Examples of big rewards include a luxury vacation, a weekend away, a spa retreat, a home renovation project, a special meal out at a favorite restaurant, or hosting a big celebration with friends and family
  • Find an accountability partner. It’s going to be tempting to skip the rewards. Trust me, I see clients try to do this all the time. But if you let someone know what you’re working towards and how you’re rewarding yourself, you’ll be much more likely to follow through.

Celebrating your wins, no matter their size is just as important as achieving the goal itself. Prevent burnout and improve your life satisfaction by taking the time to set goals, create rewards, and follow through on your plan. And if you’re stuck on how to do any part of this, I’m just an email away.


Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2022). The Burnout Challenge. Harvard University Press.

Wang, W., Li, J., Sun, G. et al. Achievement goals and life satisfaction: the mediating role of perception of successful agency and the moderating role of emotion reappraisal. Psicol. Refl. Crít. 30, 25 (2017).

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