Small Wins and Feeling Good

When you have a daunting mountain to climb, it is often best to break it into molehills. In his classic paper, “Small Wins,” University of Michigan psychologist Karl Weick argued that large social problems are best broken down into smaller ones with concrete achievable goals. Social problems as enormous as, say, unemployment, can be so overwhelming that solutions seem unattainable; therefore, people often avoid tackling them or come up with single, grand programs that fail. Breaking such problems down into a series of more modest steps, all on the path to the ultimate goal, reduces fear, clarifies direction, and increases the probability of early successful outcomes – boosting support for further action.

The power of small wins applies just as well to problems in business. Our recent research discovered how critical it is for teams and individuals working on complex problems to achieve small wins regularly. Because setbacks are so common in truly important problems, people become disheartened unless they can point to some meaningful advance most days, even if that advance is seemingly minor, and even if it involves nothing more than extracting insights from the day’s failures. This strategy propels long-term goal achievement. In his terrific book, Good Boss, Bad Boss (also here), Stanford University professor Bob Sutton argues that “big, hairy, audacious, goals” are not only daunting, but they are usually too obvious and too broad to provide useful guidance for day-to-day work. Similarly, author Peter Sims emphasizes the importance of incremental goal-setting in Little Bets.

A surprising angle on all this: To maintain emotional health, each of us needs small wins in our personal lives, too. In his book Feeling GoodDr. David Burns discusses how important it is to keep track of, reflect on, and celebrate not just our major achievements, but also our seemingly minor ones. In the extreme, attention to small wins can help people lift themselves out of depression; this is one of the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy. An example: People suffering from depression can find it difficult to maintain an exercise program, even though any kind of physical activity can reduce depressive symptoms. So, a goal like working out at the gym for an hour each day can seem unthinkable, and that work-out never happens. As Burns writes “You may assume you must do everything at once instead of breaking each job down into small, discrete, manageable units which you can complete one step at a time.” This means that it’s much more effective to start with a modest goal like simply taking a walk around the block. By keeping track of success in meeting such a goal, and celebrating it, depressed people can begin to build their goals and start enjoying more, larger, successes.

Small wins in personal life can keep all of us feeling good. A number of studies have found that major life events seldom have lasting effects on subjective well-being. For instance, winning the lottery does not usually make people happy over the long run. But, as Sloan School of Management Professor Daniel Mochon and his colleagues found, regular minor boosts from ordinary activities can have a cumulative and lasting effect. They found, for example, that people who regularly attended religious services felt happier after doing so, and that those boosts built up over time. The more frequently people attended services, the happier they were. Results were similar for regular exercise and yoga practice.

With all the pressures and distractions in our lives, it is all too easy to have our smaller achievements go unnoticed, even by ourselves. Think back on the past few days. Did you achieve any successes that did not make it onto your radar screen? Take a moment now and congratulate yourself. And if you wish, share some with us so that we can celebrate with you.

THis article was written by Teresa Amabile who is Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She researches what makes people creative, productive, happy, and motivated at work. Steven Kramer is a psychologist and independent researcher. They are the authors of the article “The Power of Small Wins” (Harvard Business Review, May 2011) and the forthcoming book The Progress Principle.

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