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Richard Liu

Why Science Says You Need to Start Celebrating Small Wins

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Richard Liu
Richard Liu
 2021-05-16

The journey counts as much as the destination.

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In my years of working in corporate and startups, I’ve always been taught one fundamental principle in business: always focus on the bigger picture.

This is because the bigger picture provides you guidance on what to aim for when growing a business. After all, this is what makes money for a company or empowers employees to help guide them to a destination.

But is this the natural way to drive innovative work in corporations or startups?

In the “Double Helix,” James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, he goes into extensive detail around the work he and his partner Francis did, which eventually garnered a Noble Prize.

Of course, every success felt rewarding, but for every setback, their emotions would turn sour. Motivations fluctuated, and their reactions were ruled based on either wins or losses.

From these experiences, they both learned something important: the progress principle.

Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work. — James Watson

Many say the journey is as important as the destination and the process principle illustrates this very approach of thinking. After all, the power of progress empowers us to feel like we’re achieving something over time, especially if it’s a very long journey.

A study revealed how important the “progress principle” is

In an extensive 15-year research project, HBR worked with hundreds of individuals to help record their behavior over an extensive timeline. This resulted in over 12 000 diary entries of data.

The goal was to uncover the states of inner work life and workday events that correlated with the highest amount of productivity, including their “best” and “worst” days.

The answer was clear: people performed the best when their inner work life was positive. If an individual was having a happy day, it positively reflected in their work and carried onto the following days.

What was even more interesting was what triggered “best” days for individuals. The most common event recorded was meaningful progress in the work that was done by the individual or even the team.

From the data, HBR reported that:

If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is most likely to blame.

The key however is in meaningful work

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Although the process principle is important and celebrating small wins is essential for the human psyche, there is a critical distinction to all of this.

The work needs to be meaningful.

To give an example, think about a job you had to do that was repetitive, and the end result didn’t result in anything significant. No matter the small wins you celebrate, you’d still have no motivation if the goal is meaningless.

After all, even if the journey is important, it means nothing if the destination is lacking. Of course, small wins could still help you get over those humps but are less useful in these scenarios.

So what if you do have meaningful work? How should you structure your progress?

Start setting up small milestones

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The best way to approach any task is to set up milestones along the way.

“Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life,” writes Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl.

Too often, we get bogged down on the final result, so it’s essential to set up the milestones that you need to take to get there.

This is one reason why WIPs and sprints work so well (it’s also important not to overdo it). In a way, you’re going over the progress you make every week or so, which feels rewarding because you’re making your way into achieving that final outcome.

Even if you’re a one-person team, it’s still important to set these for yourself. For myself personally, I always set up time going over the milestones I want to hit before arriving at the bigger picture for any work I do.

For example, when I wanted to hit 1000 subscribers on Youtube, I had a clear plan of celebrating wins along the way (e.g., 100, 250, 500, etc.) with a clear, concise structure of when I wanted to upload my videos.

This gave me motivation for that final push to my goal, which I eventually hit.

Final Note

Organizations need to empower employees to celebrate smaller wins. Even better, if you’re a founder with employees, it’s your job to set and plan out these milestones.

It’s also essential to make sure you celebrate each small milestone that ultimately helps you reach that final goal. For a solo founder or project, it’s still necessary to set these so you can motivate yourself to eventually hit that final result.