They say it’s the little things, and maybe it is. Success isn’t honestly built by daily yearning for a dramatic goal after all. It’s constructed by the small wins we plot along the way. Teresa Amabile, author and Professor at the Harvard Business School, calls this 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.
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.
And luckily, our day’s routine is ripe for subtle but transformative shifts. 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.
For more on small wins, check out “11 Small Wins to Help You Kick-Start Your Primal Life.”