The Trouble With Easy Wins

Last Updated Sep 5, 2011 10:06 PM EDT

I was flipping through Real Simple magazine's special "Family" edition the other day, when I saw a time makeover of one busy mom. She was getting up every morning around 5:30 AM to do laundry. She had three kids -- not 16 -- so it seemed unlikely that her family produced a full load each day, and it was also unclear why all this laundry was necessary. Presumably her family members had more than one set of clothes each. So why was she doing it?
I thought about it for a while, then realized that this laundry fetish was a version of what many of us succumb to: the lure of the easy win.

Many of the biggest projects we devote ourselves to -- long-term career advancement, good health, raising children -- show few results on a day-to-day basis. Is the time you invest in talking with your kids now going to pay off in them being responsible adult citizens? It's hard to know. Is that 2-hour block of time devoted to strategic thinking going to inspire your next million-dollar idea? It could, but probably not. Whereas if you attempt a load of laundry, most likely you will succeed in getting it done. If you answer a bunch of emails, and then file or delete them, you will feel like you've done something.

We humans love this feeling of accomplishment. So we are always tempted to go for the easy win. The problem is that at the end of your life, you won't be particularly proud of all the laundry you've done or emails you've filed. Devoting huge chunks of time to the pursuit of big wins won't guarantee you'll get them, but forgoing big wins for smaller ones means a lot of clean clothes... but little else.

Fortunately, there are ways to break big wins down into little ones. A few months ago, I wrote about a novelist who created a chart that gave her a little psychic satisfaction every time she crossed off another 1000 words. Runners often log their miles so they can chart their progress toward a larger goal (a marathon, say, or running 1000 miles in a year). While children are too complicated to have any one input lead inexorably to a certain outcome, you can create a resolutions chart (made famous by Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project) to give yourself a gold star for every day you don't raise your voice, or every story you read to your kids. These gold stars can give us the satisfaction of easy wins while keeping us focused on the big ones as well.

Are you tempted to do housework or answer email when you know you should be working toward larger goals? How do you resist the lure of the easy win?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, Tim in Sydney