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The Power of Small Wins: Why Celebrating Your Progress is Crucial for Long-Term Success

in Motivation

Getting pulled over by the police is almost never good news. Unless you live in Richmond, Canada, where the innovative police department hands out ‘positive tickets’ to youngsters who are seen crossing the road safely and picking up litter.

The tickets include rewards like free hamburgers, cinema tickets or a chance to see a game with the local hockey team.

A very creative and refreshing approach to dealing with crime, wouldn’t you say? Instead of using traditional best-practices like passing harsher laws, setting stronger sentencing or initiate zero tolerance initiatives, the department decided to devote significant efforts to eliminating the criminal behavior even before it has happened.

And the results have been pretty great. Before taking this approach, the district had a ‘recidivism rate’ (repeat offenders) of 65 percent and was experiencing spiraling rates of youth crime. As one concrete example, Street Racing had become common practice and the police had come to expect about four deaths every year because of it.

Today, recidivism has been reduced to 5 percent (that’s a 95 percent success rate) and in the last eight years, there hasn’t been a Street Racing fatality. Overall, the youth crime has been cut in half (1).

Sticks vs Carrots

Punishing ourselves for bad behavior usually comes very naturally to us. We usually don’t have any problem feeling guilty about what we felt was a poor performance. It doesn’t matter how small the screw-up was, we’re usually still bringing out the stick.

For some reason, we’re not as fast to bring out the carrots. The more clients I’ve worked with, the more apparent this has become:

When we make a small mistake, we almost always feel bad about it. But when we accomplish a small goal, we almost never feel good about it.

Do you see the discrepancy here? We’re very fast to punish ourselves for a bad performance and yet very slow to celebrate a good performance.

And this is actually a big problem because it decreases our motivation and makes it much harder to achieve our long-term goals.

The Importance of Celebrating Small Wins

Teresa Amabile from The Harvard Business School studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. When she and her associates designed and analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees in seven companies they found something very interesting:

The efforts of tracking small achievements every day enhanced the workers motivation (2). Amabile explains that the practice of recording our progress helps us appreciate our small wins which in turn boosts our sense of confidence. We can then leverage that competence toward future, larger successes.

This is because any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates the reward circuitry of our brains. When this pathway is opened some key chemicals are released that give us a feeling of achievement and pride.

In particular, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released which energizes us and gives us a feel-good aura. This chemical enables us not only to get that sweet feeling of reward but also to take action to move toward what triggered it’s release in the first place.

This is the very same substance that gets people hooked on gambling, nicotine and alcohol so what the people in the study had essentially created was an addiction to progress. How neat is that?

How to Leverage to Power of Small Wins

Most of my clients have a hard time celebrating their small wins. They usually tell me this is because it feels silly to celebrate an effort that doesn’t seem like an achievement. Why celebrate completing a meditation session, one single workout session or one hour of studying?

But the thing is, you’re not celebrating because you’ve made some huge achievement. You are celebrating because you’re successfully changing your habits. You’re celebrating because of who you are becoming. And you’re celebrating to reinforce the good behavior and develop an addiction to progress.

The big, life-changing achievements will come as a result of you daily, tiny actions in the right direction. So, make sure to celebrate your small wins by:

  1. Using a habit tracker like coach.me to immediately check-in on your daily habits. Coach.me has some clever reinforcement built in like digital high-fives, props, and comments from other users.
  2. Conducting a weekly review to continually reflect on, and celebrate, your progress.

Give yourself regular ‘positive tickets’ and you’ll build the motivation necessary for success.

Sources

  1. Greg McKeown – Positive Tickets
  2. The Power of Small Wins