the progress principle

THE PROGRESS PRINCIPLE: Why Acknowledging Small Daily Wins Is Your Ticket to Infinite Motivation and Higher Self-Esteem

Quick question:

Can you name 3 things that didn’t go so well today?

1) ________________

2) ________________

3) ________________

Got it? Easy, huh?

Now name 3 things that did go well today.

1) ________________

2) ________________

3) ________________

For most of us, naming things that went well is much harder. 

There’s a reason for that. And it’s actually a huge problem because it saps your motivation and chips away at your self-esteem.

Let me explain…

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Understanding Your Brain’s Negativity Bias

negativity bias

Your brain's negativity bias can make you feel like a total loser at times.

Your brain isn't built for happiness. It's built for survival. – Someone smart

Quick history lesson:

To pass on their genes, our ancestors had to get things that were pleasurable - “carrots” such as food, shelter, and sex. Meanwhile, they had to stay away from things that were dangerous and painful - “sticks” such as predators, starvation, or attacks from other clans.

While carrots and sticks are both important, there is one vital difference between the two. From a survival standpoint, sticks carry much more importance and urgency than carrots.

If you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll still have another chance to get one tomorrow.

If you fail to avoid a stick today, you might never have a chance to get a carrot ever again.

That’s how it was for hundreds of millions of years. Your survival was contingent on paying close attention to sticks, reacting to them intensely, remembering them well, learn from them, and become hyper sensitive to them.

As a consequence, our brain developed a built-in negativity bias.

And even though your life is pretty safe nowadays, this bias still operates much in the same way as millions and millions of years ago.

And so the brain is always on the lookout for potential dangers or losses. It’s constantly scanning the environment and only showing you what’s potentially dangerous.

In other words, your brain zooms in on the negative and slides your attention past the positive.

“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
- Rick Hanson, neuroscientist

You could do 99 things right and 1 thing wrong on a given day… at the end of that day, your brain would still only show you the one thing you did wrong, completely fading out the 99 things you did right.

When you make a small mistake, chances are you’ll remember it and feel bad about it. When you do something well, chances are you don’t even register it, let alone feel good about it.

We’re quick to punish ourselves for a bad performance, yet we’re super slow to celebrate a good performance.

No wonder so many of us struggle with low motivation and self-esteem issues. If we listen to our brains it’s as if we never do anything right. Of course we don’t feel competent and worthy if all we ever hear about are our shortcomings and failures.

But there is a better way…

The Power of Acknowledging Small Wins

woman celebrates a small win

Remember the short exercise from the beginning of this article?

What you did in the 2nd part was to acknowledge 5 small wins.

Acknowledging such small wins, it turns out, is a great way to fuel your motivation and boost your self-esteem.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, studies how people and their performances are influenced by everyday life situations in organizations. She has analyzed over 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees in seven companies and found something remarkable:

Making progress on a meaningful goal (in her case making progress on meaningful work) feels great and is highly motivating.

It’s something she’s coined as The Progress Principle:

“Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

The point is:

Progress on a meaningful goal - even just a small win - feels great and is super motivating.

If we can overcome our brain’s negativity bias and acknowledge all of our small wins in any given day, we will feel better about ourselves and feel much more motivated.

And that’s not all!

Another study conducted by Martin Seligman gave participants the following instructions:

Every day for seven consecutive days, write down 3 things that went well for you that day, and provide a quick explanation for why they went well.

In other words, participants were asked to write down 3 small wins every day, for 7 days in a row.

The results?

Doing this exercise gradually raised participants’ self-esteem for the next 3 months!

That’s well worth the few minutes it takes to do this.

Quick recap, here are the benefits of acknowledging your small wins:

  • You feel better about yourself
  • You feel much more motivated
  • You boost your self-esteem

Overcome part of your negativity bias and you will achieve great things.

So, how to make sure you do this on a daily basis?

Keep a Daily Accomplishments List

acknowledging your small wins

The solution to making the power of small wins work is simple:

Just record all of your small wins on a daily basis.

You can write them down on a sheet of paper, in a journal, in excel, on your smartphone, or wherever. You can do it once a day (e.g. as part of your evening routine) or right when you achieved a small win. Doesn’t really matter.

I personally use a normal piece of paper, write “my accomplishments” on top of the page, and record whenever I have something to celebrate.

Here’s what my list looks like so far:

accomplishment list

My accomplishment list from today so far

(I personally like to focus on completing process goals, not outcome goals. That’s why you see things such as “90min work sprint” instead of the outcome I got done - e.g. “finished article on XYZ”. This allows me to judge myself on effort, instead of on outcome. But that’s a topic for another article.)

If you’re unsure what to record as small wins, here are some ideas:

  • Got up right when the alarm went off? That’s a win!
  • Completed your morning routine?
  • Got to work on time?
  • Meditated?
  • Ate something healthy?
  • Exercised?
  • Had a nice conversation?
  • Studied well for an hour?

Now, you may be thinking it’s silly to count such small things as victories. But let me remind you that NOT completing these things will easily get recorded by your brain as failures.

Think about it, have you ever experienced any of these thoughts:

“Fuck, I’m such a loser. Snoozing 3 times. What a loser-way to get up in the morning. This day will be terrible.”

“Damn, I didn’t have time for my morning routine. Now my habit chain is broken. Man, I’m so stupid! Now I’ve got to start all over again. Fucking hell! Why do I keep messing this up?!”

“Shit! I’m late again for work. Couldn’t leave home on time could I? Always the same bullshit. Grrrrrrr!!!”

Same with missing a meditation session, or eating some crappy food, or not going to the gym, or having a bad conversation…

These all record as failures and setbacks in your brain.

So you might as well see and acknowledge these little things as victories if you actually get them done.

The End

One-sentence-summary:

Acknowledging your small wins makes you feel better about yourself, boosts your motivation, and even increases your levels of self-esteem.

What did you think of the research in this post? More importantly, are you going to give this a try?

Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

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Nils Salzgeber

Recovering online gaming addict. Recovering procrastinator. Recovering perfectionist. Recovering heroin addict (ok, this one's not true!). Meditator. Arsenal FC Fan.

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