Suggested Citation: Garko, M. G. (2014, November). Small wins and holiday health. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.
Small Wins and Holiday Health
Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Syndicated Host & Producer of Let’s Talk Nutrition
While the holiday season can be a joyous time of year, it can also be a time when one’s health and wellness can be put into jeopardy. For example, the holiday season is correlated with colds and flu, traveling nightmares, high stress levels, sleep deprivation, loneliness, emotional distress, depression, overindulging in unhealthy foods and beverages and abandoning healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors, all of which can undermine health and wellness and even put one’s life in danger.
It may seem hyperbolic to claim that the holidays can put one’s life in jeopardy. However, there is good evidence to support such a dire assertion. For example, Kloner et al. (1999) conducted a 12-year population-based study of more than 220,000 deaths resulting from coronary artery disease. The purpose of the study was to determine when during the year coronary artery disease-related deaths was the highest. Kloner et al. (1999) found that there was “a temporal relationship between coronary artery death throughout the year, with the highest number of deaths in December and January and the lowest numbers in summer and early fall” (p. 1632).
Five years later in an editorial entitled “The ‘Merry Christmas Coronary’ and ‘Happy New Year Heart Attack’ Phenomenon”, Kloner (2004) recognizing Phillips et al. (2004) for extending his work pointed out that when in his study daily rates of death from coronary heart disease (CHD) in Los Angeles were plotted the increase in deaths started around Thanksgiving, continued to climb through Christmas and peaked on New Year’s Day.
In the study by Phillips et al. (2004), entitled, “Cardiac Mortality Is Higher Around Christmas and New Year’s Than At Any Other Time: The Holidays as a Risk Factor for Death,” it was found, as the title of the article suggests, that “[f]or cardiac and noncardiac diseases, a spike in daily mortality occurred during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season” (p. 3786).
Given the potential of the holiday season to put their health and life in jeopardy, perhaps the best gift people can give themselves to stay healthy during the holidays is to achieve small wins in practicing healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors. In the November, 2014, issue of Health and Wellness Monthly, the nature and effects of small wins is discussed. Karl Weick’s (1984) conceptualization of and perspective on small wins is featured. In addition, there is a discussion on how small wins can be applied during the holiday season, with particular emphasis on weight management. It is contended that the strategy of small wins provides a useful and effective way to achieve health-related goals during the holiday season.
An early discussion of the concept of small wins appeared in a Stanford Ph.D. dissertation by Peters (1977) entitled “Patterns of Winning and Losing: Effects on Approach and Avoidance by Friends and Enemies.” Peter’s (1977) social psychological treatment of small wins was within a managerial-organizational context as applied to problem-solving.
Karl E. Weick (1984) further developed the strategy of small wins in a seminal article entitled, “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.” As suggested by its title, Weick’s (1984) purpose in the article was to show how small wins possess the necessary theoretical and practical features to bring about change so as to help solve social problems (e.g., hunger, heart disease, crime, traffic congestion and pollution).
Small Wins and Scaling Larger Problems Downward
Weick (1984) contends that the large scale on which problems are approached impedes innovative action in part because “bounded rationality is exceeded and dysfunctional levels of arousal are induced” (p. 40). People have a tendency to define and approach problems that ends up overwhelming them and undermining their ability to do anything about them or otherwise solving them (Weick, 1984).
It is a better strategy “to recast larger problems into smaller, less arousing problems” so that “people can identify a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results and that can be gathered into synoptic solutions” (Weick, 1984, p. 40). Paradoxically, people have a better chance of solving problems if they do not think of them as problems. Further, when the magnitude of problems is gauged upward, the quality of thought and action goes down, while frustration, arousal and helplessness go up (Weick, 1984).
Small Wins and Arousal
Weick (1984) pays particular attention to arousal, which can physiologically affect performance and decisions, especially when solving problems. He emphasizes that scaling the magnitude of problems upward tends to raise arousal levels such that people have a more difficult time learning a novel response, brainstorming, concentrating, resisting old categories, performing complex responses, delegating, and resisting information supporting previously held positions. In short, high arousal levels get in the way of solving problems.
Two ways to lower arousal levels and keep them in check is to scale the magnitude problems downward or otherwise define them as minor rather than serious, which is especially useful if a person does not know what to do or is unable to do it. As it will be learned, another way to lessen problem-related arousal is to adopt the strategy of small wins (Weick, 1984).
In contrast to suffering from too much problem-related arousal, there is also the case when there is not enough arousal when faced with solving a problem and the problem becomes depersonalized due to thinking too much or feeling too powerless to find a solution to the problem. Weick (1984) contends that depersonalization of a problem “lowers arousal, leading to inactivity or apathetic performance” (p. 41). However, “[t]he prospect of small wins has an immediacy, tangibility, and controllability that could reverse these effects” (Weick, 1984, p. 41).
Characteristics of Small Wins
Weick (1984) defines a small win as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance” (p. 43). Given that big wins are often viewed as more significant, one small win by itself can appear unimportant in solving a problem. However, a series of wins at small but important problem-related tasks can serve as controllable opportunities resulting in discernable results (Weick, 1984).
Weick (1984) identifies other features of small wins. First, their size can be organized along a continuum ranging from small to large. For example, using smaller plates and flat ware to practice portion control is smaller win than reducing calorie intake by 5% per meal. Both of those weight loss strategies are smaller than reducing one’s consumption of fast foods high in salt, sugar and fat, a far more difficult task.
Second, small wins are specific and complete solutions for a limited set of problem-related conditions. This makes both the solution more manageable compared to larger, more open-ended solutions for diffusely defined problems (see Weick, 1984).
Third, one small win can set in motion forces that can lead to another small win. In others terms, a small win can be motivating such that it can spur people on to achieve their goal. This becomes especially important when people tend to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of a problem. For example, trying to lose 50, 100 or more pounds can be a daunting goal. Losing a pound a week, albeit a small win, can serve to motivate a person to lose another pound, and another and so on until the goal is reached.
Fourth, “small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal” (Weick, 1984, p. 43). Instead, the nature of small wins is that they tend to be scattered and join together only because they move in the general direction of solving a problem or gravitate away from some unacceptable condition undermining success (Weick, 1984). Weick (1984) emphasizes that each subsequent attempt at a small win occurs in a different context and that it is impossible to plot out a series of small wins because conditions do not remain constant. Thus, there is an “artfulness” to small wins, involving an ability to notice existing but unnoticed changes, which can influence whether a small win will be achieved or not.
Fifth, small wins are information-loaded, thereby, facilitating learning and adaptation. Weick (1984) contends that “[s]mall wins are like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up” (p. 44). In other words, each small win provides insight into whether a particular problem-solving strategy has merit and sheds light on previously unknown problem-related resources and barriers.
Sixth, small wins function like stable building blocks. For Weick (1984), a series of small wins tends to be more structurally sound than one large win. He describes small wins as being like “short stacks” and as such they tend to preserve gains, resist unraveling and require less coordination. Unlike attempting to achieve a large win where “if one crucial piece is missing, the attempted solution fails and has to be restarted” (Weick, 1984, p. 44), small wins are just one step in solving a problem and when they are not achieved do not necessarily cancel out previous small wins and do not leave the problem solver having to start from square one.
Psychological Effects of Small Wins
Psychologically speaking, small wins can help overcome cognitive limitations, affective limitations and stress associated with solving problems. They can also enact a more organized and less fragmented problem-solving environment, along with providing more confidence.
Overcoming Cognitive Limitations
Weick (1984) observes that problems escalate because they become interdependently connected to other problems in a circular fashion and become vicious circles prohibiting a resolution. Further, given the cognitive difficulty in comprehending and analyzing all of the relevant information in problem-solving situations (i.e. bounded rationality), “small wins may be effective as much because they are ‘small’ as because they are ‘wins’” (Weick, 1984, p. 44). Hence, as part of a small wins approach, scaling larger problems downward to a manageable size is an effective strategy to counter bounded rationality and reduce arousal levels, while increasing the chances of achieving a win albeit small. Reframing a large problem into a “mere problem” makes matters more manageable, understandable, controllable and predictable, thereby, reducing arousal. According to Weick (1984), “[t]he mere problem is … seen more clearly, which improves the chances that a small, specific solution that fits it will be invented” (p. 45).
Overcoming Affective Limitations
Not only are they comprehensible and controllable but small wins also are emotionally satisfying and pleasurable to enact and experience. Although they can be “thrilling” to experience, big wins also bring with them the potential to be disorienting and lead to unforeseen outcomes, resulting in less of a positive emotional experience. One unexpected outcome is that big wins tend to raise expectations making it more challenging to achieve the next big win. This is seen for example when a football team faced with a formidable opponent has a “big win,” raising expectations for them to defeat other upcoming tough opponents. Whereas achieving a small win over a lesser team tends not to create such raised expectations, contributing to more of a positive emotional experience.
Adopting a small wins approach involves scaling the gravity of a large problem downward by breaking down the problem into a series of small wins. As the gravity of problem is scaled upward so too is the importance attributed to the problem and magnitude of the demand to solve it, all of which raises arousal-related stress. Weick (1984) argues that “as stress increases, the disruptive effects of arousal on problem solving increase” (p.46). Weick (1984) describes how paradoxically people’s own rising optimism impedes their diagnosis of and response to a problem:
Just when people feel most encouraged to do something about a problem, they become least capable of translating that growing optimism into detailed diagnoses and complex responses. They become disabled by their own optimism, because it intensifies the perceived uncertainty of outcomes (p. 46).
Working toward a small win narrows the gap between ability and demand, thereby, reducing stress-related uncertainty and promoting a feeling of success. Further, “a small win reduces importance (‘this is no big deal’), reduces demands (‘that’s all that needs to be done’), and raises perceived skill levels (‘I can do at least that’) (Weick, 1984, p.46), all of which moderates stress and makes arousal less of deterrent to solving problems.
The context or environment in which problems are situated tends to be unpredictable and disorganized. There is logic and order to small wins that brings predictability and coherence to solving problems. Weick (1984) explains why this is the case:
A small win is a bounded, comprehensible, plausible scenario that coheres sufficiently that people presume in advance that a forthcoming situation will be orderly. Having imposed the logic of small wins on a situation cognitively, the person then wades into the situation and acts with persistence, confidence, and forcefulness (Weick, 1984, p. 47).
The persistence, confidence, and forcefulness that derive from working toward small wins enact environments in which the original problem is perceived to be less severe, unpredictable and disorganized (see Weick, 1984).
Small Wins Applied to Holiday Health
Neither Peters (1977) nor Weick (1984) discuss small wins within a full-fledged health and wellness context, although Weick (1984) alludes to heart disease as an important social problem. However, small wins can be applied during times when people’s health and wellness can be undermined such as during the holiday season. Specifically, one way to apply small wins to holiday health is identify dietary wins that are “small” in nature but are specific, achievable, manageable, stable and are like “short stacks” in that they preserve gains and resist unraveling. Hence, they would help people reduce the risk of gaining weight, a major concern and challenge of many during the holidays.
The small wins recommendations fall into two categories. One set focuses on what should be kept in mind and practiced while eating and drinking during the holiday season. The other set emphasizes what foods and beverages to consume or avoid. The small wins in this latter set are “larger” in nature or are otherwise a bit more challenging.
Dietary-Related Small Wins
Nevertheless, each small win found below by itself reduces or “chunks” the larger problem of holiday weight gain down to a more manageable size.
Conscious eating. Conscious eating means to think about what you are about to eat, before you eat it so as to avoid consuming high caloric, nutritionally void foods and beverages, eating too much, eating too fast and not eating enough, among other unhealthy eating behaviors.
Eating slowly. Speed racing is one thing. Speed eating is and entirely different matter. It is now recognized that eating too fast leads to the over consumption of food, overweight and obesity.
Waiting before going back for seconds. Wait a few minutes before going back for seconds to help moderate your intake of food, prevent overeating and creating metabolic stress. It takes a little bit of time for the brain to send the signal that you are full.
Using smaller plates and flatware. It is known that people will eat approximately 92% of the food they put on their plates. Using smaller plates would prohibit the piling on of too much food and, thereby, help with practicing portion control and eating less. While seemingly less intuitive, using smaller utensils can also help with eating less (see Georgia Institute of Technology, 2006).
Dividing your plate into thirds. Visualize your plate as being divided into thirds. One third should be lean protein (e.g., turkey, chicken, fish, etc.) and the other two thirds should be vegetables and fruit, with more vegetables than fruit on the plate. Fat can be included in the meal from such foods as olive oil, lean meat or fish.
Staying hydrated. During the holiday season there is a tendency to overindulge in alcohol, refined processed foods and sugar and fat laden foods. Water is a natural way to help detoxify the body, along with helping to prevent fatigue and hunger pangs which can create the desire to eat in order to feel energized and full, which in turn can result in consuming excess calories and weight gain.
Not showing up hungry. Avoid falling into the trap of starving yourself, especially on those days when you will be attending some sort of holiday festivity. Skipping meals is a sure way to trigger an increase in appetite leading to binge eating and feeling lethargic.
Controlling portions. Portion control is about serving size and practicing moderation. It can help prevent overeating, gaining weight, putting undue metabolic stress on your body and surging blood glucose and insulin levels.
Limiting intake of refined, processed carbohydrates. Consuming refined processed carbohydrates (e.g., cakes, cookies, crackers, candy and colas) is what gets people into a lot of dietary and nutritional trouble during the holidays. The “bad” or unhealthy carbohydrates are found in highly processed foods and beverages.
Limiting intake of “lethal” liquid calories. A nutritional trap people fall into is to assume that it is better to substitute liquid calories for calories from solid food. Liquid calories are stealth calories in that they add up without you knowing it.
Eating more fiber. Eat fiber rich foods or fiber supplements during the holidays. Soluble fiber will help create a feeling of fullness and insoluble fiber will help prevent constipation. Consume at least 35 grams of fiber daily by eating a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes so as to incorporate the two different types of fiber into one’s diet.
The nature and effects of small wins make them useful strategies in achieving problem-related goals. Small wins scale the size of larger problems down to a more manageable size, reduce problem-solving demands, raise perceived skill levels, enact environments whereby the original problem is less severe, unpredictable and disorganized, moderate arousal and stress, inspire other small wins, motivate, give people a sense of control and confidence and promote a feeling of being able to succeed.
As it turns out, during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season millions of people abruptly change their diet and lifestyle behavioral patterns (e.g., traveling, eating, drinking, exercising, working and vacationing) (see Phillips et al., 2011. Such large-scale diet and lifestyle changes can have an impact on overall health and cardiac-related deaths (see Kloner et al., 1999; Phillips et al., 2011). Humans are creatures of habit, especially diet and lifestyle habits, and experiencing such changes can potentially create undue stress and put people with heart disease at risk. Hence, it is challenging for many to stay healthy during the holidays and for those with heart disease to avoid putting their life in danger.
Yet, staying healthy throughout the holiday season is achievable, provided it is made a goal and a conscious attempt is made to put into practice dietary-related small wins strategies such as the ones discussed above to maintain and enhance health.
Although weight-management is illustrative of how they can be applied to staying healthy during the holidays, small wins can also be used to address other health-related issues such as stress, insomnia, sedentary lifestyle, depression, anxiety, pain, etc., which are of concern at any time not just the holidays.
It is important to remember that for some people, certain of the recommended weight management-related small wins may be more appealing and achievable than others. It might be prudent to select a set of dietary small wins that fits your lifestyle during the holidays. Furthermore, it would be better not to dismiss out-of-hand those small wins that may appear more difficult to put into practice for one reason or another. Even selecting and practicing one of the more challenging small win strategies would increase the chances of staying healthy through the holidays.
There is no single small win strategy guaranteeing good health throughout the holiday season. Nevertheless, all of the presented small wins can in combination increase the chances of staying healthy during the holidays and help with weight management. Some of the small win strategies may be easier than others to adopt. Some may even be part of your daily health regimen already. The objective would be to put into practice as many as possible on a consistent basis throughout the holiday season. Even if there are days when you may falter, do not abandon your goal of achieving holiday health and keep putting into daily practice those small win strategies you believe will help keep you healthy throughout the holiday season and manage your weight.
The holiday season is a time for family, friends, food, festivities and faith. Stay healthy and allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy all of these wonderful holiday gifts.
Kloner, R.A. (2004). The “Merry Christmas coronary” and “Happy New Year heart attack” phenomenon. Circulation, 110, 3744-3745.
Kloner, R.A., Poole, W.K. & Perritt, R.L. (1999). When throughout the year is coronary death most likely to occur? : A 12-year population-based analysis of more than 220 000 cases. Circulation, 100, 1630-1634.
Georgia Institute Of Technology (2006, August 3). Smaller bowls and spoons key to eating less. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/08/060803082602.htm
Peters, T.J. (1977). Patterns of winning and losing: Effects on approach and avoidance by friends and enemies (Doctorial dissertation). Xerox University Microfilms, 48106.
Phillips, D.P., Jarvinen, J.R., Abramson, I.S. & Phillips, R.R. (2004). Circulation, 110, 3781-3788.
Weick, K. E. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39 (1), 40-49.
Wikipedia (2014). Arousal. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arousal.
 The cases for the study were taken from Los Angeles, California, a part of the country where temperatures are relatively mild throughout the year. At the time of the study, previous research suggested an increase in cardiac events during the winter months, while other studies found a correlation between such events and the summer months (see Kloner et al., 1999).
 Weick’s (1984) use of the term “arousal” is not associated with sexual arousal, a more common association made in everyday language use. Rather, “arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It involves the activation of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond” (Wikipedia, 2014, p. 1).