When I recently asked a friend of mine and serial entrepreneur about how he manages to stay motivated in building his businesses despite a never-ending task list, he had one thing to say, “I break things down into goals that are in the near future because it feels like it’s within my reach. If I focused only on the big goals, I would feel like it was unachievable.”
Working in the competitive vacation rental industry, he says that instead of obsessing over his long-term business goals, such as increasing revenue, he instead focuses on smaller bite-size changes, like providing umbrellas during the rainy season or improving photographs of his units. Then, like a scientist in a lab, he watches for the effect of these small adjustments for his overall goals. He views these minor tweaks as a secret sauce to scoring bigger wins. He’s not alone in this method of prioritizing tiny adjustments and small wins. Popularized in Japan as ‘kaizen’, this idea recognizes that small, incremental improvements are actually the key to sustaining strong and successful ventures, in professional and personal spheres.
We only need to look at the British Olympic cycling team to find an incredible example of the power of small wins. Between 1926 and 2002, the British team won only a single gold medal for cycling during the Olympic games. Yet only six years after former head coach, Sir Dave Brailsford, came on board, the team won seven out of 10 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and repeated the performance four years later at the London games. Brailsford credits his team’s stunning turnaround with the theory of marginal gains. As he explained, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” As the head coach, Brailsford brought in a surgeon to train the Olympians in proper hand-washing techniques to avoid illness during competition. The team also brought their pillows while traveling, so they could sleep in the same position each night. They even learned about food preparation to boost their nutritional health. Although the team was attentive to perfecting their athletic techniques, they also focused on improving non-athletic elements of their training in order to cumulatively boost overall performance.
The impact of small-effort, high-impact activities in achieving larger wins is experienced across many fields and industries. After reading 12,000 diary entries from 26 teams across 7 companies, Harvard Business School researchers found what they termed 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.” “The most common triggering event for a ‘best day’,” researchers found, “was any progress in the work by the individual or the team. The most common event triggering a ‘worst day’ was a setback.” Researchers found that it wasn’t just major progress that motivates us to continue toward a larger goal. Small wins and incremental steps evoke an outsized positive reaction, such as one writer sharing, “I figured out why something was not working correctly. I felt relieved and happy because this was a minor milestone for me.”
While celebrating small wins can be significant to fuel motivation, researchers have also highlighted the inverse, “Small losses or setbacks can have an extremely negative effect on inner work life … Negative events can have a more powerful impact than positive ones.” Keeping a balance in mind can be essential to seeing a resolution, goal, or project through to completion. As the former cycling coach suggested, “Forget about perfection. Focus on progression and compound the improvements.” In other words, progress makes perfect. Celebrate small wins and incremental progress toward a larger goal and avoid dwelling on the smaller losses. We can also seek out (and conquer!) many small wins on our own watch. Rather than exacting an hour-long meditation practice, consider creating a 10-minute practice regularly, and then gradually increasing that frequency over time. Whether starting a new meditation practice, launching a new project, or setting a new year’s resolution, creating smaller goals and celebrating them when achieved, may well provide the more regular motivational boost needed to continually find success.
Negative events can have a more powerful impact than positive ones.”