Small steps are more manageable than big, daunting ones. Small wins aren’t just a great way to make progress. They’re good for your emotional well-being too.
Peter Sims writes in Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (2013,)
Small wins are like footholds or building blocks amid the inevitable uncertainty of moving forward, or as the case may be, laterally. They serve as what Saras Sarasvathy calls landmarks, and they can either confirm that we’re heading in the right direction or they can act as pivot points, telling us how to change course.
In the acclaimed paper in which [University of Michigan psychologist Karl] Weick described small wins, published in the January 1984 issue of American Psychologist, he used the example of how helpful it is for alcoholics to focus on remaining sober one day at a time, or even one hour at a time. Stringing together successive days of sobriety helps them to see the rewards of abstinence and makes it more achievable in their minds. Elaborating on the benefits of small wins, Weick writes, “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
Each time you accomplish a small step, have a little voice whisper in your ear, “You accomplished more than you had ten minutes ago!” This affirmation can help you recognize the momentum you’ve created and stimulate you to get absorbed in more of the task. By the end of the hour or the day, you’ll feel like you’ve had multiple wins on your way towards the larger goal.
A big hurdle to change is the resistance from believing that the pain of attempting major change is too rarely worth it. But researchers believe that any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates your brain’s reward circuitry, releasing dopamine, the pleasure hormone. That can evoke the motivational appeal of an outcome, which in turn can hook you toward achieving even more.
Keep sight of the small victories. Those are the ones that keep you going. If you’re a manager, celebrate even ordinary, incremental progress—that’ll improve your team’s engagement.
Idea for Impact: Celebrate your small wins—it’ll make you feel good about yourself. Attention to small wins can help people lift themselves out of fear and hopelessness—this is the crux of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT.)
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