Here Is Why You Should Celebrate Milestones

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you create and celebrate milestones on the way toward a goal? How can celebrating small milestones help you speed up your progress?

When you want to reach a distant goal or make a big change, setting and celebrating milestones along the way is critical to reaching the goal and making the change stick. These tactics work because they build emotional momentum and minimize the effort required to make change.

Keep reading to learn about the impact of celebrating milestones.

Minimize the Effort 

When you’re working toward change, one of the most distracting factors is the possibility of instant gratification. As soon as your emotional side senses an opportunity for gratification, it will head right toward it, regardless of what your rational side wants. To keep your emotional side moving in the right direction, minimize the effort by building small, achievable goals into your path. And, keep your emotional side’s craving for gratification satisfied by celebrate milestones every step of the way. 

Not only does this give you ample opportunity for gratification, but it also creates a crucial sense of confidence. Looking at a distant goal from your starting point can make you feel discouraged: “I’ll never be able to run 10km. I can barely walk 2km now.” On the other hand, small, frequent goals ensure that you’re only looking at the very next step instead of impossibly far ahead. Each time you achieve a small goal, you become more confident you’ll reach the next one: “I’ve done a five-minute jog every day this week. It’ll be no problem to take on next week’s seven-minute jogs.” 

Minimizing the effort required for a change creates a positive cycle of behaviors—the more you accomplish, the more you feel you can take on. In this way, the emotional momentum behind change builds by itself. There are two methods for minimizing the effort of change: 1) emphasizing the progress already made, and 2) building in opportunities to celebrate milestones.

Method #1: Shorten the Distance to Your Goal

A car wash company experimented to figure out how they could motivate their customers to use their loyalty cards more frequently, thus buying more car washes. They split their customers into two groups:

  • Group A received punch cards with 10 open spots. Once they’d received their 10th punch, they would receive a free wash. 
  • Group B received punch cards with 12 spots, of which two were punched. Once they’d received their 12th punch, they would receive a free wash. 

Although both groups of customers needed 10 visits to claim their free wash, only 19% of the 10-punch card customers returned ten times to claim their free wash. On the other hand, 34% of the 12-punch card customers returned 10 more times. 

This result revealed a quirk of human nature—people are naturally more motivated to work toward a goal when they feel that they’re already partly finished with it. This is largely because your emotional side feeds on instant gratification, quickly becoming demoralized when progress isn’t immediately apparent. When you create a sort of “head start,” the perceived progress gives your emotional side the boost it needs to make it to the next benchmark of progress. 

When you’re pushing for change, look for ways to remind people—or yourself—of the progress that’s already been made. 

  • Personal change: After a few years of dabbling in French, you want to ramp up your efforts and become fluent. Look back on exercises you struggled with at the very beginning to remind yourself that you’re not starting from zero.
  • Organizational change: You want your team to start meeting with their direct reports at least once a month. You remind them, “Last year, you were only doing meetings twice a year. You’re already on track to do seven meetings this year—getting to one per month is achievable.”

Method #2: Celebrate Milestones 

Often, it’s hard to get started on a huge goal because you’re focused on the result. The distance between here and there seems insurmountable, which discourages you and turns you off from even making the first step. However, keep in mind that any achieved goal is just a collection of small, doable actions. Shifting your focus toward these small actions, instead of the end result, can prevent discouragement.

Start Small

Instead of considering the overwhelming work to be done, think: “What is the smallest task I could complete that would be a step in the right direction?” Completing this small first task gives you a quick fix of instant gratification, motivating you to complete the next small task. 

  • For example, if the idea of cleaning your whole house is too daunting, stop thinking about the whole house. Instead, commit to starting in the smallest way possible, such as cleaning for just five minutes, or just washing the dishes in the sink. 

Dave Ramsey’s “snowball method” of paying off debt follows this idea. Focusing on a huge pile of debt can be discouraging, especially when you’re making minimum payments here and there, barely chipping away at the mountain. On the other hand, when you clear your smallest debt right away, you get the satisfaction of completing a task and you get a boost of motivation and confidence that drives you to take on the next debt.

(Shortform note: Read our summary of Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover to learn more about the snowball method.)

Create Milestones

Keep your emotional side engaged beyond this first accomplishment by building small, frequent milestones into the journey and celebrating milestones—this ensures a regular supply of instant gratification opportunities.

For example, if you’re learning French, you might set the following milestones:

  • Read and understand one article from Le Monde.
  • Watch an entire series on Netflix with French subtitles on. 
  • Listen and understand one French podcast episode on 0.5x speed.
  • Write an entire essay without using a dictionary. 

Building these types of small wins into a long journey accomplishes three goals:

  1. They reduce the difficulty of the change—you think, “I didn’t think I could reach this milestone, but it wasn’t as hard as I imagined.” 
  2. They diminish the pressure you put on yourself to achieve the goal—you think, “I’ve accomplished a lot to be proud of already.” 
  3. They increase your perception of your abilities. Someone who’s just “learning French” becomes discouraged because they’re not fluent after months of practice. Someone who sets milestones can see clearly how far they’ve progressed—“Before, I couldn’t understand these podcasts at all. Now I can easily figure out what’s happening.”

(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Power of Moments for more pointers on building and multiplying celebration-worthy milestones.)

Setting and celebrating milestones can drive you toward your goal and make change stick.

Here Is Why You Should Celebrate Milestones

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
  • Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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