We All Need A Win Sometimes, So Make Them Yourself

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.

How To Craft Wins With Easy Projects

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.

38 thoughts on “We All Need A Win Sometimes, So Make Them Yourself

    1. I get where this comes from but it is all about priorities. Ok you temporarily have less to no time for projects but would you be happier if you were not a parent and have more time for projects?

      I think that raising children is a perfect example of the definition of a win in this article:
      “A “win” is any meaningful sense of fulfillment that comes from putting effort into something”.

      The thing is that raising children is a looooong project. But children give you a lot of wins in all sort of forms and a big one that matters in life. If one desires this kind of win in life without success, I can assure you that with all the time of the world, other “wins” will not make you feel better.

    2. I feel that.

      When they’re small you spend your redeye heads-down hacker time feeding, changing diapers, and trying to get just a little sleep before going to work. There’s not much room for personal projects at this phase, but I can recommend earbuds and audiobooks to stay sane when you have to rock them down to sleep at 3am.

      Toddler through early school you’re spending weekends as an entertainer, but you’ve by and large got your nights back. Big projects are out of the picture unless you can do with no sleep since they’re still waking up before the break of dawn. But you can start to involve them in your projects. Into 3D printing? Have them choose a model they like off Thingiverse and let them watch as the printer builds it. HAM? Have them sit around while you ragchew and see if someone will send a QSL card with a message to them.

      By late elementary school through middle high they’re more independent and forming their own interests. You’ve got a lot of your time back and can get back to bigger projects now. But don’t forget about opportunities to bond with your children, which often doesn’t involve your hobby interests. Hard to believe, but they may not want to follow in your footsteps, so don’t push them to learn Python, soldering, etc.

      By high school… I’m not there yet, but from what I hear they’re often doing their own thing. Probably more project time for yourself, but more opportunities to be a positive influence that you need to be proactive about.

      And eventually they’re out of the house, and while you had plans of turning their room into a PCB assembly shop, you can’t bear to replace their bed with that pick-and-place machine you always because you hope they’ll visit once in a while.

    3. You can flip that though… often i choose less-complex and quicker projects to do with my kids. Doing so gets me an “easy” project success that feels like a win not just for the completed project alone, but also from the quality time side. That being said, I definitely feel you. I have way less personal hobby project time with young kids than I did before.

      1. (I’m the author of the “observations” comment linked in your article)

        I’ve been studying psychology as background for a project, and to make the study more meaningful decided to explore the question of why people start projects and then lose interest over time. This has led to a deep understanding of the mechanisms of motivation, and a possible remedy for losing interest.

        I’ve just started (last week) coding up an experimental computer program to help rekindle interest in projects. The program shows images and text for about a minute, then asks the user a question. Run once a day for 30 days, it uses psychological techniques to improve the enjoyment one gets for doing projects.

        I will be looking for beta testers in a couple of months.

        Interested? Contact me on .IO from the link.

  1. In any project it’s normal to have milestones.
    When I made my first folding knife…
    Get 10 pictures of knives that I like.
    Draw those features as one on a knife.
    Transfer the drawing to PC.
    Etc.
    That gave me a build map and every point was it’s own ‘win’ rather than
    Nothing
    Finished.

    1. Those are wonderful examples of milestones. “Find 10 pictures of knives I like”, then “draw the features I like as one” are really good ways to break the task of “research” down into accessible steps. Thanks for sharing that!

    1. A built-in payoff is always good!

      For me, the other thing about cooking is that I like building things, and I kind of enjoy (hard to explain but I’ll try) the feeling of “handling multiple timers at once for best efficiency” for lack of a better term. Cooking manages to let me do both in a bite-sized way.

      1. +2 on the cooking. Not only you, but your whole house get to enjoy it.

        Unless of course, you’re a parent, in which case at least one child can be statistically guaranteed to say they hate it. Even if they liked it last week!

  2. Great article. Protected time is critical. Self-permission to work on something fun and not necessarily useful. I’m foetunate enough to have a partner that understands that as well and “lets” me disappear to the garage for a couple hours occasionally.

    1. There’s a lot of truth here. Whilst I might still enjoy the coding part of a coding job, the ‘job’ bit usually brings pressure and constraints I don’t enjoy.

      The same I found with sport. I previously enjoyed a sport until I got good at it. Suddenly you’re representing your university, then your country, and the pressure just to maintain the same level makes it more like work than fun. The sport itself can still be fun, but the pressure surrounding it not.

  3. Every little step forward – even the smallest one – towards a bigger goal can bei rewarding, If you sie the time consider the success.

    IT took me many years to see it this way. When I was younger I’ve always been impatient with my progress on projects I worked on, and therefore I often felt disappointed.

    Now I try to work on a project as regular as possible. Even If only can afford 15 min a day. The progress of one day may be minimal. But when I Imagine where I stood two weeks before, I can instantly see the progress and that feels rewarding and helps me a lot. Especially when working for the job is boring…

  4. For me I go through a cycle. I start obsessed with something and research the heck out of it. Then I start designing in my head how I would practically implement it (at all times of the day: in the shower, while doing something else, while trying to sleep at night). Then I start actually making it, and for the most part get a working prototype about 90% there to being what I’d consider finished. Then I lose interest/motivation and just give up. I figure what’s the point, it’s not like I’m actually inventing something new/useful/important/non-trivial at a scale larger than me and worse yet I see all the flaws and compromises I had to make during the entire process to even get where I did. So I just publish what I’ve done, release whatever I have up till then and bury the rest. I don’t even know why I bother starting when I already know the outcome but I keep doing it again and again, in a cycle of pointlessness. There is no win, only the cycle.

    1. Same cycle I’ve been going through! I’m learning to be ok with hitting 80-90% though. Being able to publish what you have at that point is another huge milestone too! It takes work to document what you’ve done so far. Sure it’s probably not ready for mass production, but does that matter? It’s not pointless for sure because you learn a ton about the process and what you’d do differently for the next version. I can’t seem to ever be satisfied with any handheld device I make. At least not to a level of quality where I’d use it in my daily life. It’s still fun to try to get there. Btw your stuff is great! Definitely something to aspire towards.

      1. Thanks, knowing I’m not alone in how I feel does actually lighten the load a little bit. I’m pessimistic at heart so while I can rationalize that realistically even what I consider failures are still good learning experiences it’s difficult not to feel discouraged. I’m just hoping that things eventually level out and I can figure out a way of balancing my expectations and what I can practically accomplish with my limitations.

    2. It’s because you’ve replaced intrinsic motivation (for doing projects) with extrinsic motivation (google those terms).

      You need to reverse that – informally, you need to enjoy the progress you make while doing projects instead of looking forward to the results (or rewards) of doing projects.

      There’s a subtle difference in the 2 types of motivations. Rewards are subject to anhedonic adaptation, which is a fancy way of saying that you get used to the rewards so that (eventually) more rewards don’t make you happy.

      Intrinsic rewards aren’t subject to that type of adaptation, so if you can get back to enjoying the process, it’ll continue to be enjoyable.

      1. I think that’s definitely a factor. I used to find the process of designing and making in and of itself rewarding but now that I’ve merged my hobby with making content for my youtube channel I’ve grown to hate all the other bits of the documentation process that get in the way of the fun bits, making them no longer fun or at best much less fun. Like filming is a huge pita and often works against what I’m trying to accomplish, then there’s monotonous editing of the footage. But it’s sort of a catch 22, I cant continue making all this stuff without monetizing it through youtube so that my hobby can self sustain. So either I have my cake but cant eat it or I have no cake to eat. And I get that I actually am blessed to be in the position that I am in, not everyone’s hobby can be financially viable, but at the same time I’m starting to burn out. Idk, maybe I need to put the brakes on yt till I can figure out the balance I need to both have some fun and be able to support my hobby.

        1. What you describe sounds exhausting, hope you figure out a good and sustainable balance.

          (It also reminds of something I read once, which was the observation that the price of doing something for a living is an intimate knowledge of its ugly/tiresome/boring sides.)

        2. Extrinsic rewards are good motivation for rote and mechanical tasks, things you can do all day without thinking about them. The auto mechanic in the dealership does mostly rote, mechanical stuff and his pay is the motivation for doing that.

          Creative projects are best addressed with intrinsic rewards, which are autonomy, excellence, growth, and usefulness. That same auto mechanic goes home and works on a project racecar, for which he has autonomy (he chooses what to do and how), mastery (he’s pretty good at the basics), growth (he learns more in general because his project is a racecar, not a personal car), and useful (he wants to start racing with his project car).

          You’re linking video editing to the extrinsic reward: money. At the same time, you’re not a super expert at the editing so it’s not a rote bang-it-out task for you – you’re always considering what to do, how to do it, whether to try different things, how to use the tools, and so on.

          To fix this you need to reduce the editing step to rote mechanical as much as you can.

          Start a new project whose goal is to learn video editing, top to bottom. Choose a task to complete as motivation: a parody commercial, a 10 minute self-directed movie, your kids as superheroes, or whatever. Learn all the video editing you can with an eye towards how it would apply to the project, then when you’re ready do that project. Try different styles and techniques, use different features of the software, play with the concepts – cover as much of the field as you can.

          Next, create a boilerplate description for project videos that makes the editing as automated as possible. For example, imagine the videos as all having a start, middle, and end. The start has *these* characteristics. The lead-in goes *there*. The end section always has *those* features, and so on. Make it so that making a video is as simple as following the boilerplate instructions.

          Once you’re done with that, video editing will be much more automatic. You’ll need to make fewer decisions, you’ll know the software better, you can do it while on “autopilot”.

          At that point, the rote tasks will respond to extrinsic motivations, and you should have a much easier time of it.

          1. Thanks for the suggestions. I do use a template for editing with the intro/outro/etc it’s just having to sit and rewatch what I just filmed to remove extraneous footage to shorten a video enough to not bore viewers and add annotations is maddening to me. I wonder if I should try organizing and scripting videos so I can reduce editing down to a minimum. I can respect that some people love editing videos but I just have 0 interest in it other than getting it done so I can upload the video. But that’s part of the youtube gig so it’s a necessary evil in my eyes.

      2. For a long time I used to see my ever-growing list of project ideas as a daunting to-do list that I could only ever chip away at, and never actually complete. Not a healthy place to be.

        In a way, I think growing older helped me change my perspective — especially as I grew to see some of those projects and ideas (or purchased parts, hah!) passively get obsoleted by new developments. I’m more able to enjoy the process now, instead of it seeing it as my own personal drowning simulator.

  5. Just don*t call them for lunch all the time before they finished their Lego project. Now I always get stuck at 90%, and finishing is either another 90% of the remaining 10% and skipping 1%, or aiming for 115% and round off to 100%.

  6. Life as we Humans know it is in-reality a summation of wins and failures. We evolve by learning from our efforts versus the outcomes. When you abandon this obvious truth, evolution for the better ceases to exist. We cannot make our “wins” on-demand. We must earn them!

  7. I am selling cheap old stuff I find around the house on the Internet. Usually I don’t need those things anymore and I would just throw them away. Cleaning them up, sometimes even repairing, making photographs, writing a description, pre-packaging the item and putting the listing online is already one win.
    When somebody buys the thing, and I can send it away, it’s a second win.
    And it does not matter, if I get money from this. Mostly the effort is higher than the gain. Sometimes even the shipping costs I pay is more expensive than the money I got from the buyer. But still. It’s satisfying.

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