We all need the occasional win when it comes to work or personal projects. Being able to feel that payoff of progress and satisfaction is deeply important, because if everything is always uphill, that’s a recipe for burnout. Avoiding that is important enough to explore how to set oneself up for a few easy wins.
Getting the occasional win helps us stay motivated, creative, and fulfilled. Meaningful work can deliver on this, but many of us rely on hobbies to make up any shortfall. Sometimes, that isn’t enough. Hobbies themselves can end up feeling like a chore, and when that happens, they cease to provide respite. The good news is that I believe it is possible to exploit the benefits of hobbies to deliver supplemental “wins” when they are needed most, and I’ll explain how.
I have found that successes do not have to be hard-won in order to be beneficial, but they do need to be relevant to one’s passions and interests. So, when naturally-occurring successes come too few and far between, and hobbies aren’t doing the trick, use knowledge of yourself to stack the deck for some easy wins. It can tip the scales towards feeling meaningful progress and fulfillment in the face of what could otherwise lead to burnout.
We All Need a Win Sometimes
A “win” is any meaningful sense of fulfillment that comes from putting effort into something. This payoff of positive feelings can come from completing a job, reaching milestones, or finishing a project. Being deprived of them is not healthy. This is especially a risk with challenging work that demands a lot of time and effort, but can suffer stalls or setbacks.
If one is doing many different jobs at once, there is even more opportunity to be robbed of feeling progress. While it’s rare to encounter setbacks and failures on all fronts at once, it’s also rare to have successes across the board. It has been my experience that successes in some areas can end up feeling cancelled out by setbacks in others. Success is hard to enjoy when combined with stalls or failures elsewhere.
Doing many jobs at once is very common with people like entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and indie developers. The issues I listed above would probably resonate with the author of this tired-sounding tweet I stumbled across, which expressed “I just want to be successful enough that I can concentrate on a single job.”
What Counts as a Win?
It is important for projects to provide their creators with feelings of progress and discovery, but it is also important to experience a sense of closure and completion. Some insight into this process started when our own Kristina Panos asked What If I Never Make Version Two? which led to some very interesting and insightful observations about what it actually means to be happy with a project.
What it comes down to is this: projects can provide satisfaction, but an individual’s outlook and state of mind also play an important role. The ability to say to oneself “I am satisfied with what I have done here” is a big part of securing closure and fulfillment.
My own experience has been that successes do not have to be difficult or hard-won in order to “count”. Easy projects are perfectly capable of providing healthy feelings of fulfillment, as long as they tick the right boxes.
Everyone is different, but here are some generally useful ways to choose projects and activities that have the best chance of delivering the payoff of a positive and meaningful experience.
Choose something relevant to your passions and interests (but not necessarily related to your work.)
A project should be something that helps your brain glow happily, and everyone has different levers for doing that. A person who enjoys building, creating, or learning should choose projects related to those things, but there is no need to tie it in to whatever else one has going on in their work or life. For example, I enjoy cooking and baking, but those things have nothing to do with work that I might be stalled on. I use cooking as a way to tickle the “I’m building something” part of my brain.
Explicitly give yourself permission to focus on the activity.
Projects or activities designed to provide a “win” should not be left vague or open-ended in scope. Make the activity a definite thing with a clear timeslot. Give yourself permission to focus on it during that time. Do not underestimate the power of telling yourself “I’m going to set aside one hour this afternoon for my chosen activity, and it’s okay for me to focus on it completely during that time.”
My use of cooking is a great example because not only will it have a clear beginning and end, but it also gets me out of the workshop and I can focus on it completely. Sometimes I simply want to try an idea in the kitchen as a project, and I accept beforehand that it’s possible it just won’t work out and that’s okay, which brings me to the next point.
Have a simple goal, or better yet, just play and explore.
Happiness is always over the horizon because it is human nature to have vague goals, and to keep moving the goalposts as we approach them. You must explicitly reject this. An activity designed for an easy win should be simple, clear, and short-term.
Just giving yourself the goal of playing is perfectly valid and healthy. “I’m going to plug in the new part, see if it works, and browse the built-in examples” has no aim other than playing with a new part or tool. “I’ll unpack this new tool, and see how it feels to cut some scrap with it” is another good one. Probably you will learn something or have a new thought in the process, but it’s not required.
If a more specific goal is helpful, keep it simple. “I’ve always wanted to learn FreeCAD, maybe I can do it this afternoon” is daunting and open-ended. But “I’m going to at least install the software and bookmark a good tutorial, anything beyond that is a bonus” is a great short-term project with a definite scope.
Choose to accept and be satisfied with your results.
Having a simple goal (even just the goal of indulging in aimless play) is what makes it possible to finish a task and feel a sense of closure on the effort, yielding the payoff of feeling a small but meaningful “win”. It won’t happen by itself, so make the conscious decision beforehand to be satisfied with the time spent, and whatever it is that results from it.
Remember, the purpose of all this isn’t to compel your brain to light up happily. The purpose is to create a permissive environment in which your brain is allowed to light up happily, with no strings attached.
What Works For You?
I deliberately give myself both the time and permission to indulge in easy (but still meaningful) projects. Because success doesn’t have to be hard-won in order to “count”, this helps me feel satisfaction and closure that is sometimes lacking in my professional work. Most people accomplish this with hobbies, but sometimes it’s good to supplement naturally-occurring successes with a few easy ones.
Do you have your own methods for coping when hobbies can’t be relied on to provide respite? We’re all different, even if we struggle with the same things sometimes, so share what works for you in the comments.