Give yourself a pat on the back. You could be watching a cat video. You could be scrutinizing your ex's new haircut on Facebook. Instead, you made the choice to indulge in content that could actually improve your day-to-day life. Well done!
The power of tiny victories is real and well-documented and applies at both the personal and organization levels. Research shows that people are most motivated and satisfied with their lives and jobs when they are able to experience achievement. It is the experience of meaningful progress in itself that best drives motivation, satisfaction and ultimately success.
An extensive Harvard Business Review study surveyed and studied the diaries of 238 creative professionals over time and concluded that "by supporting progress in meaningful work, managers improve employees' inner work lives and the organization's performance." The researchers coined this theory "the progress principle", and findings in brain science shed light onto this amazing self-fulfilling prophecy.
Recognizing the good, channeling positive emotional responses and staying with the experience - in other words, meditating on the feeling - can actually change the neural structure of the brain for the better. "Neurons that fire together, wire together," explains neuropsychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson during a Chicago Ideas Week presentation, citing a study that found that practitioners of mindfulness meditation showed growth in parts of the brain that are involved in controlling attention and focus compared with non-meditators. Figuratively speaking, when the subjects exercised their attention muscle, the muscle got stronger. The video goes on to give similar examples of self-directed neuroplasticity, including a fascinating, Darwinian look at negativity bias that may inspire you to embrace a positive outlook like never before.
Perhaps the most exciting and encouraging thing about all of this research is that each of us can treat ourselves, and we can start right now. Here are a few ways to practice the progress principle and enjoy the power of tiny victories.
Tiny victories in personal growth
Setting goals, boundaries and limits is important, but not everything can or should be quantified and judged on performance. Instead, try setting an intention and shed any identification you have with the negative manifestation of it. Want to be more punctual? Set that as your intention and drop the idea of yourself as someone who is always late. When you do show up with a few minutes to spare, sincerely recognize (even thank) yourself for it and take the extra time to close your eyes and feel the real progress you've made. You can apply this system in perpetuity to all of your personal and professional intentions. Want to cut down on meat? Quit joking about being a carnivore and instead savor every morsel of your healthier choices, relishing in the idea of well-being, longevity and compassion towards animals. Looking to get into yoga? No more whining about how inflexible you are - instead, just show up, give it your best and deeply acknowledge the progress you've made every time you step on your mat.
Perhaps most importantly: when you show up late to brunch, order hungover bacon and can't bring yourself to so much as touch your toes, shake it off, then reaffirm your intention and doubly celebrate when you pack a salad and make it to work on time the next day.
The progress principle at the office
Managers can use the principle to celebrate the ongoing progress that an individual or team makes when working towards a goal. A research-based Washington Post piece encourages managers to recognize and celebrate specific small wins whenever and as soon after the progress is made as possible. The article also states that focusing on the positive and withholding sarcasm (ie let go of the negative), creating a culture of celebration where employees cheer each other on, and acknowledging tiny victories with mementos - such as a handwritten note or small token gift - can go a long way in employee motivation, satisfaction and retention.
As an employee working on professional development, use the insights to apply the progress principle to personal growth, but set your day-to-day intentions. Fear of the phone? Smile and meditate for one minute every time you get through a work call, reminding yourself that you are making headway on becoming a savvy orator. You get the idea!
Small wins on the mat
One of the greatest things about yoga is that the nature of the practice allows us to experience and appreciate just how big a small win can be. Whether it's holding a pose without falling for the first time, advancing a variation or experiencing a new level of meditative spirituality, steady practice will constantly reward you with tiny victories along the way. I'll leave you with one of the most powerful examples of how progress in yoga can translate to transformation in life. It's a tearjerker, so consider having tissues on hand.