They say it’s the little things, and maybe it is. When we think of health goals (among other objectives), our minds often gravitate toward the dramatic, the transformational. Go big or go home, some even say. While that last point might be pushing it (all positive change is positive), I tend toward the big and bold myself. I believe in the possibility of transformation (the titles of my books are obvious evidence of that). Yet, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Unfortunately, too many people get psyched out by the size of the enterprise itself. They focus on the large expanse between where they are now and where they want to be. That’s exactly where they shouldn’t be placing their attention. Success isn’t built by daily yearning for a distant goal. It’s in creating and celebrating the small wins we can plot along the way.
Inherent to this idea of small wins lead to bigger successes is what Teresa Amabile, author and Professor at the Harvard Business School, calls the “progress principle.” Amabile and her associates studied employees’ daily diaries that her team designed. They found the efforts of tracking small achievements each day (as well as reflecting on challenges) enhanced workers’ motivation as well as creativity. The chance to consider and record one’s progress, she explains, helps us appreciate our “small wins” and boosts our sense of competence. We can then “leverage” that confidence (as well as lessons learned from the reflection) toward subsequent, larger successes. Amabile stresses there’s always some progress to recognize in a day, even on the most challenging or discouraging days.
That notion alone is pivotal. I’ve met a lot of people up against major health challenges or weight loss issues. Among the key things that got them through (while others tended to give up) was the ability to appreciate small changes and celebrate where they were throughout the arc of their progress. They brought awareness to their full journey and focused on the positive every step of the way. Sure, they had difficult days like everyone else, but they recognized a temporary mood and let it pass. They didn’t let it define the future or whole endeavor. Applying Amabile’s suggestion, we can – and should – acknowledge the small physical and mental shifts we experience regardless of how far we may be from our eventual health objectives.
Yet, too often we downplay our progress or even talk ourselves out of it for the sake of guilt, unworthiness, or misguided modesty. Why? We’re taking the wind out of our own sails instead of leveraging, as Amabile suggests, our daily successes toward continuing motivation. Charles Duhigg, author of acclaimed book The Power of Habit explains the durable impact of these small achievements: “A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, and influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.” In other words, it makes no difference how minute our day’s achievement is because – when we allow ourselves to recognize the wins and leverage these “tiny advantages,” as Duhigg calls them – the power we absorb from each small win will always be more substantial than the original event. Progress takes on a life of it’s own – like motivation gone viral within our brain.
This viral principle, however, isn’t limited to the day’s post-mortem assessment. Our day’s routine in and of itself is ripe for subtle but strategic revolution. Duhigg writes about the power of “keystone habits,” those habits that, while seemingly modest and self-contained, have inordinate sway over other choices we make and actions we take throughout the day. Adopting a single new habit, if it’s of a pivotal keystone variety, can enact widespread change in our lifestyle. Among the examples Duhigg highlights is food journaling. In an NIH study of some 1600 obese people, those who were asked to write down a day’s food intake one day a week ended up losing twice the weight as other groups. The request was enough to get many of the participants to extend the habit into other days of the week and, as Duhigg explains, “created a structure that helped other habits to flourish.”
The key here is to discern what habits can become “keystone habits” for your health journey. As the principle suggests, it’s unnecessary to overload yourself with a laundry list of changes to your routine. That’s the principle behind the “keystone” approach: you don’t need to upend your life or turn yourself inside out working toward change. You just need to be strategic about what to shift. Ultimately, it’s about letting these few changes build momentum in your life and then fueling that momentum with the energy of celebrating each small win. It’s the snowball effect at its multidimensional best. The end result can be achieving that ultimate goal you set as well as successes you may have never envisioned.
Intriguing concepts, I’d say. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I’ll apply them to living Primally with a sizable list of PB inspired small wins and keystone habits. For those of your just getting started in your Primal journey, I hope they’ll serve as a good jumping off point. For others further along in applying the PB, they can perhaps spur you toward tackling new dimensions or refocusing your efforts.
Thanks for reading everyone. Have a great end to the week.