Punishing ourselves for bad behavior usually comes very naturally to us. It doesn’t matter how small the screw-up was, it's easy to feel guilty or stupid or ashamed. For some reason, we’re not as fast to celebrate ourselves. Put it another way: when we make a small mistake, we almost always feel bad about it. But when we accomplish a small goal, we almost never feel good about it.
And this is actually a big problem because it decreases our motivation and makes it much harder to achieve our long-term goals.
The Importance of Celebrating Small Wins
Teresa Amabile from The 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 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 future, larger successes.
This is because any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates the reward circuitry of 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; by focusing on their small achievements, the people in the study got themselves addicted to progress.
How to Leverage to Power of Small Wins
Most people have a hard time celebrating their small wins. Maybe it feels silly to celebrate an effort that doesn’t seem like an achievement. The key to noticing your achievements is to think about them differently.
Right now, look at what you’ve accomplished over the past 12 months. Take time to go back through your calendar and look at each month, each week and ask yourself, “What did I get done? What was finished? What was started? What got kicked off? What products or services did I launch? What relationships did I strengthen? Which new teams did I build? What problems did I solve? How can I measure the things that I achieved in the span of time I was given?”
If you look carefully, you’ll discover that there are many things that at this point in the year you have forgotten that you accomplished in the first or second part of the year. By racing from goal to goal, always looking forward for that next thing, you may never really feel that you achieve success. Taking this time to look back and appreciate your progress this year, you recognize your achievements and know that your efforts are having an impact. Remember to look both within – what were my particular strengths, my gifts, my achievements, what obstacles did I overcome- and also at the people who helped you - family members, friends, teachers, and mentors.