Research & Training Symposium

The Art of the Small Win

Before Tony Robbins gives a speech, makes a call, or coaches a client, he bounces on a trampoline.

A big part of my work is studying what motivates people to change their lives. This year, I had the unexpected pleasure of getting to know Tony Robbins through the documentary “I Am Not Your Guru.” Tony is a motivator. He makes people feel like they are capable of making change.

To be honest, I’ve made some uninformed assumptions about Tony, and it feels good to be wrong because what I saw in this film was a truly kind-hearted person. He is someone who is an educator at heart and dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. His mission has a lot in common with our mission, and with the kind of work that we do as financial counselors, educators, and coaches.

Our job is not merely to assess people’s financial situations and hand them a hastily-jotted prescription for a set of smarter actions. Human beings are irrational, and rarely respond to good advice immediately or constructively. A far better form of counseling is to help our clients identify and own these actions for themselves, as they slowly transform occasional smart actions into daily habits.

Admittedly, that’s much more difficult. But when we as counselors take the easier route, we are choosing to ignore that the person sitting across from us already has habits in place—the habits of NOT doing the things you want them to do to improve their financial picture.

That’s why Tony Robbins bounces on a trampoline. His energy must be at peak in order to show you how to bring your own energy to match.  Then once he has you excited about the hard work of change (a small miracle in and of itself), he does something else: he boils down your healthiest action to the smallest next step possible.

Behavioral psychologists call this a “success experience.” When Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist at NYU, was interviewed on NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, she explained that accomplishing even the smallest of goals creates a sense of efficacy, tells your brain you can master any challenge, and motivates you to keep meeting your goals.

A success experience is so powerful primarily because we better manage our behavior when we believe a better story about ourselves. The best way to believe a better story is to prove it to yourself with the smallest win possible.

In your work, do you take the time to apply your teachings down to the smallest possible next step? When your clients report back to you on their work since they last saw you, do you take the time to celebrate with them any small steps they’ve made? If and when you do, you are teaching them how to coach themselves, and to see small wins for what they really are: small*er* wins that pave the way to bigger wins.

You’ve experienced this, just like I have, in that little dopamine boost we get every time we check something off. Sometimes I’ll write down completed to-do’s, because then I get to cross them off. Humans are irrational.

Keeping the bar low has helped me reboot many times in my life.  I’ve seen firsthand the power of this type of thinking through the many ways clients have lowered the bar for themselves:

“Instead of completely stopping dining out (which I love), I am going to dine out one less time this week/month.”

“Instead of asking my boss for a raise (when I’m scared to do so), I am going to do one project amazingly well and make sure my boss knows about my excellent work.”

“Instead of completely replacing my soda habit (yum) with water (meh), I am going to fill my water bottle in the morning and bring it with me when I leave the house.”

“Instead of creating a budget that includes my entire history of purchases, I’m going to skip right past those and start with today. I’m here to focus on the future, not beat myself up over the past.”

You get the picture. Every time your client seems down or loses steam, remind them that when you set the bar low:

  1. You almost can’t fail because your goal is so achievable.
  2. The achievement WILL make you feel better.
  3. You’ll almost always end up going beyond your goal.
  4. The planned reward you put in your calendar at the end of your period of discipline will be sweeter than any impulse buy.

If you’re thinking to yourself “Only lazy people keep the bar low,” or “Small goals are too easy,” that’s okay. In fact, that’s great. Because that second thought actually proves this entire argument. It’s actually harder not to meet your goals when you’ve made them that easy. That isn’t lazy, it’s smart.

To help your clients reach financial success, help them reach financial success experiences.

The art of the small win is that it’s actually not small at all.

Hear more from Colin Ryan at the AFCPE Symposium in November. He will speak on The Art of Connection: Bridging Communication Gaps with Clients.


Colin Ryan, comedic financial speaker and author. Visit his website at ColinRyanSpeaks.com or follow him on LinkedIn | Facebook | | Twitter

The Standard

4th Quarter 2017


Thank you to this issue's contributors:

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad

Forrest Baumhover, CFP®, EA

Kristen Berman

Donna Colfer, AFC®

Valerie Richards

Colin Ryan

Lorna Saboe-Wounded Head, Ph.D., AFC®, CFCS

Rebecca Wiggins

Brenda Vaughn, AFC®

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