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Why you need to invest in celebrating small wins at work

Taking joy in the small achievements one makes at work and in life builds momentum towards larger wins

Small wins will build momentum to keep you on track towards a long-term goal
Small wins will build momentum to keep you on track towards a long-term goal (iStockphoto)

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Small changes can result in substantial outcomes. It is the notion that a butterfly can create tiny changes in the atmosphere that can alter the path of a tornado. Mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz was running a computer programme to predict the weather. One night, Lorenz entered 0.506 rather than 0.506127 into the computer and left for a coffee. When he returned an hour later, the computer had simulated two months of weather data that were entirely different from earlier results.

Lorenz published his findings in a paper called ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’. He sent his findings to another conference and forgot to add a title. A friend called it ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’

Also read: How entrepreneurs keep their new year resolutions

A small win can also generate a sense of satisfaction.

As a graduate student, Brad Myers, who is now a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University, made fellow students run a search on a computer database. Some databases had a progress bar that graphically displayed the extent to which the task had been completed. Even when told that the bar was inaccurate, 86 per cent of the participants preferred to have the progress bar. Myers initially called it a ‘per cent done progress indicator’.

We have two reasons to celebrate small wins. First, large wins, with higher stakes and rewards, are likely to be less frequent. Like the proverbial low-hanging fruit, small wins are much easier to achieve. In some cases, performance may also decline when a win involves high rewards.

Second, small wins will build momentum to keep you on track towards a long-term goal. Progress at each step will increase engagement as the end goal becomes clear and is within reach. Video games have progress bars and achievement markers for a reason: Gamers can see the extent to which they have completed a task and how close they are to the next level. This motivates them to keep playing.

A small win also encourages a renewed effort for more wins. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t expect its members to initially give up or abstain from alcohol for the rest of their lives. It’s a goal which may not even be comprehensible or within reach to many who need support.

Depending on the severity of their addiction, members are encouraged to stay away from alcohol for an hour or a day at a time.

These small wins are celebrated and reinforced with calls, meetings, and slogans that provide traction and create momentum to work towards a big goal.

Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. Along with her co-author Steven Kramer, a developmental psychologist, Amabile wanted to understand how firms promote creativity and productivity among employees.

Over a four-month period, they studied white-collar employees working in a variety of industries.

At the end of every day, employees answered questions on their motivational levels, their emotions and moods, and feelings about their work environment.

After scrutinizing 12,000 entries, and the personal stories behind them, they found that employees’ biggest motivation was a feeling of making progress.

This was true even when progress was small. Factors like salary and bonuses, which were assumed to be important, did not figure in the list.

In The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins To Ignite Joy, Engagement, And Creativity at Work, the authors Amabile and Kramer described how minor events, which may not significantly impact an overall project, have a major effect on how people feel about their work.

Small wins boost an individual’s inner life balance, which then becomes a source of pride and joy.

Also read: This new year, praise your professional rival as well

Let’s imagine it’s a Friday evening and friends have dropped by your place. You use a delivery app to order food. The tracking feature on the app keeps you updated. It informs you that your:

• order has been accepted

• food is under preparation

• delivery person has collected your order

• order is on its way

• order has arrived

Every update is a small step ahead in anticipation of the meal with your friends.

An old Chinese proverb reminds us of the power of small wins: ‘The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away will small stones’

Excerpted from Leapfrog: Six Practices To Thrive At Work by Mukesh Sud and Priyank Narayan with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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