I was having coffee with a friend today, and he told me how he made sure to celebrate his micro-wins. Celebrating victories is obviously not a new concept, but we tend to focus on the finish line and our biggest achievements. We rarely take the time to stop and appreciate the small, daily victories. Micro-wins are about celebrating incremental accomplishments and enjoying the journey. Micro-wins don’t celebrate success, they celebrate progress.
The progress principle
Teresa Amabile, a professor of entrepreneurial management at Harvard Business School, conducted a study with 238 people from seven different companies, where individuals were asked to fill an end-of-day survey about their mood, emotions, and motivation levels. The experiment resulted in more than 12,000 diary entries. While every individual in the study experienced ups and downs, the researchers found some interesting trends.
“Our hunt for inner work life triggers led us to the progress principle. When we compared our research participants’ best and worst days based on their overall mood, specific emotions, and motivation levels, we found that the most common event triggering a “best day” was any progress in the work by the individual or the team.”Teresa Amabile, Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at Harvard Business School.
In other words, progress—any kind of progress—was the strongest indicator for a person experiencing a great day at work. In fact, steps forward occurred on 76% of people’s best days as measured by their mood. The researchers found that the feeling of progress had a positive impact on people’s emotions, motivation, and their perception of their team and company.
Here is an entry from a software engineer: “I smashed that bug that’s been frustrating me for almost a week. That may not be an event to you, but I live a very drab life, so I’m all hyped.” I love this example because it’s the perfect illustration of a micro-win and the progress principle. This bug was a small thing that had been bothering this engineer for a while. While his colleagues may not notice, he knows he has made progress and this feeling has a positive impact on his mood.
How to create micro-wins
The progress principle doesn’t have to be passive; you can apply the idea in a proactive way. If you’re feeling demotivated or finding yourself procrastinating, pick something easy and quick on your to-do list to get yourself back into a working mood. If you’re struggling to exercise, pick an easy and quick routine you can do in a few minutes.
These seemingly minor milestones will give you a boost of dopamine and trigger your reward system so you feel more productive. They can act as catalysts to get you back in the flow and tackle bigger, more ambitious tasks. They will get you back into a growth mindset, so you can focus on these incremental steps rather than the far-off finish line.
Here are some examples of micro-wins in daily life:
- Selling your first product
- Applying to a job
- Doing ten push-ups
- Getting a new haircut
- Cooking a meal
- Organising your Notion space
- Setting up a savings account
- Drinking enough water
- Tidying up your desk
- Planning an exciting trip
- Giving a call to a friend
If you work for a company, a micro-win could be to finally get a call scheduled with a client you have been chasing, or maybe to receive a compliment from a customer about the user experience of your product.
The beauty of micro-wins is that consistency will eventually make them compound, and get you closer to macro-wins. Micro-wins are a great way to build long-lasting habits because they create positive feedback loops where your mind comes to associate progress with happiness.
Micro-wins are most powerful when celebrated. It could be as simple as a high-five with a colleague, or you could treat yourself to a nice cup of hot chocolate. If someone around you has one of these small victories, maybe take a few minutes to leave a handwritten note on their desk to congratulate them. This will make the micro-win all the more memorable for them.
Catch yourself and others doing something right. Create positive feedback loops. If you notice a colleague sending a great email to an annoying customer, tell them. If you feel proud you’ve managed to handle a tricky situation, give yourself a pat on the back, or better yet, treat yourself to a snack or a nice walk. You will feel happier, more fulfilled, and more productive.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about mindful productivity.
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