GoalsOnTrack Blog

A systematic approach to achieving goals and getting results.

The Art & Science of Leveraging Small Wins

By Patrik Edblad

“All change is hard at first, messy in the middle and so gorgeous at the end.”~ Robin Sharma

You’ve experienced the burning excitement of a new goal and the inspiration that follows by finally deciding to make a change.

You might even have created an action plan and begun making some serious progress when suddenly you hit a wall.

Just when you were starting to gain some serious momentum your inspiration starts wearing off. Your willpower starts to dwindle and before not too long all your efforts fizzle out leaving you confused and disappointed with yourself.

Getting started on a new goal is not a problem. Neither is celebrating once you reach it. But how can you stick to your plan when the messy middle part is dragging you down?

The power of small wins

Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. When she and her associates designed and analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees in seven companies they found something very interesting.

The efforts of tracking small achievements every day enhanced the workers motivation. Amabile explains that the practice of recording our progress helps us appreciate our small wins which in turn boosts our sense of confidence. We can then leverage that competence toward subsequent, larger successes.

This is because any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates the reward circuitry in our brains. When this pathway is opened some key chemicals are released that give us a feeling of achievement and pride.

In particular, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released which energizes us and gives us a feel-good aura. This chemical enables us not only to get that sweet feeling of reward, but also to take action to move toward what triggered it’s release in the first place.

This is the very same substance that gets people hooked on gambling, nicotine and alcohol so what the people in the study had essentially created was an addiction to progress. How neat is that?

How to stay motivated

Big goals are great but only for planning your progress. To actually make progress, you need to fall in love with the everyday grind of pursuing your goal. If you don’t, it will quickly turn into a huge burden on your shoulders and a haunting reminder of what you couldn’t achieve.

The solution, as Amabile suggests, is to continually record your small wins. This way you won’t have to wait to accomplish your big goal to get a sense of accomplishment.

If your goal is to lose 20 kilos (44 lbs) you’re going to have to wait a long time to have any help from the effects of your reward circuitry. If your goal on the other hand is to hit the gym three times this week, then your chances of fulfilling your goal and getting the well-needed dopamine spritz goes up dramatically.

How to leverage the power of small wins

  • Find your medium. Some people like good old-fashion physical notebooks to write in. Some prefer a digital version. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, the important thing is to find a system that makes sense to you and that you enjoy using.If you go for the physical version I suggest you get a journal and pen you really like writing with as this will help you stick to the habit. If you prefer software there are plenty of versions to choose from like penzuDay One and RedNotebook. A regular word document or Google document will do the trick as well.As for applications I highly recommend IDoneThis. As the name suggests, this app asks you to write down what you got done every day at a time of your choice and then keeps track of your accomplishments.
  • Create a memory trigger. Pick a time for when you’re going to record your small wins. If possible, stick to the same one every day to help make the habit stick.Then attach a memory trigger to make sure you don’t forget about it. If you want to do your recording before you leave work, set an alarm to go off and spend a couple of minutes capturing your big and small achievements before going home. If you want to write before you go to sleep at night you can place a journal and pen next to your bed. Again, the important thing is that you find a system that works for you.
  • Start small. This doesn’t have to be a big commitment. All you need is 5—10 minutes a day for reflection. Try it out for just 30 days and then go back and review your progress and see what you’ve learned.

Now that you know the power of small wins start racking them up, celebrating them and remember:

“Every win makes the next win more likely.” ~ Vince Lombardi

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