The Big Impact of Small Wins: Setting up for Success

By Sharon Moskowitz

This is important. Stay with me, line by line. Which would you rather have: a penny ($0.01) that doubles daily for 31 days or $5 million right now? Don’t do the math; just blurt it out - what’s your first response?

If you’ve been asked or heard of this question, you know which one has a higher yield. This idea represents the value proposition of the compounding effect. By day 29, those who took the $5 mil cold hard upfront cash are still feeling pretty good about their decision, with the alternative netting around $2.6 million, assuming you stored it under your mattress and it hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket. But just two days later, on day 31, the payout is over $10.5 million; this demonstrates the advantage of delayed gratification and how playing the long game truly pays off. We know this in theory, but when push comes to shove when something new begins (a project or phase of life), we quickly forget about the value of small wins that lead to greater long-term gains.

Progress is slow and then seemingly overnight. No matter what it looks like, success requires continued progress and achievement. First published in 2011 in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) and expanded into a book by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, the principle of seeking and recognizing progress has become the resounding path to and metric for measuring success. For more than fifty years, HBR authors and researchers touted the power of motivating employees through the ability to work towards consistent achievement. “If you are a manager, the progress principle holds clear implications for where to focus your efforts. It suggests that you have more influence than you may realize over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output. Knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress—and what does the opposite— turns out to be the key to effectively managing people and their work,” says Amabile and Kramer. Researchers worked to understand what contributed to study participants' “best” and “worst” days. On their best days, 76% of the time, participants made progress by taking appropriate steps toward the desired outcomes. Setbacks only occurred on 13% of those same days.

“Small wins are essential, not just for the victories themselves, but because they give you more energy, self-confidence, and enthusiasm about your job, company, and yourself.”

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice, London Business School

Even on the best days, there are also other factors that authors labeled Catalysts - actions that affect work, including help from a coworker - and Nourishers, where their work is recognized positively. Employees are happier, healthier and report higher levels of perceived success when they are supported and given opportunities to experience achievement frequently. How can you turn this into a roadmap for success? Set yourself up with small, comically small wins. A principle in physics states that an object stays at rest unless acted upon by an external force. Similarly, an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force. Small wins and opportunities to create movement momentum as the small wins accumulation.

When you create and sustain the effort to achieve small wins, you provide evidence to support your vision, which adds momentum. When those opportunities and small wins are encouraged, momentum increases. This concept represents a positive inner work life - the feelings, emotions, and perceptions of all surrounding work environments contribute to increasing or decreasing momentum. A positive inner work life increases satisfaction, enjoyment, and greater productivity.

The knowledge of Aesop's Fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare," right? The tortoise and the hare began a race at the same time. The hare had fits of extreme progress and was seemingly far ahead of the tortoise. The hare created grand celebrations of his big milestones, ignoring the long-term race. The tortoise remained steady in pace, albeit slow from the start. The tortoise turned the victor by making small and consistent progress. Giant leaps of progress and goals feel great, but they are hard to maintain and even harder to stick with when the commensurate setback is equally as powerful. This isn’t to discourage you from big goals. DREAM BIG! But keep your sights, instead, on tiny small checkpoints, and the race to the finish will take care of itself. Here are some other things to keep in mind when setting yourself up for success

Keep a Journal

A recording of your progress, plans, setbacks, and achievements will serve as an opportunity for reflection and perspective. Take time every day to write out what wins are on your path. Wins can be as simple as following a schedule you choose. Some things, well, most things, are outside of our control. Use this writing as an opportunity to look for growth and the wins you had each day, and get creative with the examples.

Celebrate Your Progress Every Day

The most essential component in leading an enjoyable work life is the feeling of making progress. In an increasingly demanding work-all-the-time society, it’s easy to breeze past small accomplishments as insignificant to keep your eyes on larger projects. Remember the Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Take time each day to celebrate the progress and the lessons from your setbacks as opportunities to grow.

Take Time To Unpack the Small Things

Just as small wins have great punching power over time, small knocks and setbacks can sometimes affect an unraveling feeling. Take time to unpack these as a learning opportunity, rather than allowing the setback to derail overall progress. Remember, two steps forward and one step back is still a net 1 step gain. Unpack it, look at it in the light of day, and file it in your library of “lessons I only have to learn once.”

Chill the Eff Out

Think of Archimedes’ bathtub “Eureka!” where he calmly stepped into a bathtub and noticed water spilling over the sides, leading him to discover the volume of the displaced water had the same volume as he did. Small discoveries led to the principle of buoyancy. Have you ever felt like you were clawing away at a solution only to think, I’ll just leave it be and come back to it later - only for answers to hit while showering, cooking, or reading? People report they are most creative in low-pressure times. Take time to take your foot off the gas and allow yourself space to live freely without the pressure of accomplishing. While it's not intended to fuel creativity, you may find elevated flow levels after giving yourself some low-pressure time to chill.

Sharon Moskowitz

Sharon Moskowitz

In addition to being a Change Enthusiasm Global content creator, Sharon is a business coach who specializes in helping business owners and leaders develop scalable practices for an ever-changing world. She is formerly a high performance coach for multiple TEAM USA Paralympic Sports and holds degrees in communications, philosophy and exercise physiology. Sharon is solar-powered and is likely traveling with her wife as you read this, or is sitting wherever the dogs are in the room. 

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