You’re here! Congratulations! Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. If you’re thinking, “Uh, thanks, Sarah, but I haven’t really done anything deserving of self-celebration,” I would beg to differ. You could be watching a cat video. You could be scrutinizing your ex’s new haircut on Facebook. Instead, you’re walking the path of happy, healthy, high-functioning human beings and making the choice to indulge in content that could actually improve your day-to-day life. Well done! I’m not patronizing you here - the power of tiny victories is real and well-documented (though not discussed or promoted nearly enough in a society that puts tremendous value on large leaps and big wins) and applies at both the personal and organization levels.
Research shows that people are most motivated and satisfied with their jobs when those jobs allow them to experience achievement. The emphasis is there to help with an important distinction - it is the experience of meaningful progress in and of itself that best drives motivation, satisfaction and ultimately success. An extensive Harvard Business Review study surveyed and reviewed the diaries of 238 creative professionals over time and concluded that “by supporting progress in meaningful work, managers improve employees’ inner work lives and the organization’s performance.” The researchers coined this theory the progress principle, and findings in brain science shed light onto this amazing self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a 2013 Chicago Ideas Week presentation, neuropsychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson discusses how recognizing the good, channeling positive emotional responses and staying with the experience - in other words, meditating on the feeling - can actually change the neural structure of the brain for the better. “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” he explains of the phenomenon. At 3:40, Hanson speaks to a study that found that practitioners of mindfulness meditation had measurably thicker neural cortex in the parts of the brain that are involved in controlling attention, attention and focus compared with non-meditators. Figuratively speaking, when the subjects exercised their attention muscle, the muscle got stronger. Hanson goes on to give similar examples of self-directed neuroplasticity, including a fascinating, Darwinian look at negativity bias, that may inspire you to embrace a positive outlook like never before.
Perhaps the most exciting and encouraging thing about all of this research and science is that every one of us can treat ourselves, and we can start right now.
Here's how to harness the progress principle and enjoy the power of tiny victories in personal growth, at work, and in your yoga practice.
Tiny victories in personal growth
Setting goals, boundaries and limits is important, but not everything can or should be quantified and judged on performance. Instead, try setting an intention and shed any identification you have with the negative manifestation of it. Want to be more punctual? Set that as your intention and drop the idea of yourself as someone who is always late. When you do show up with a few minutes to spare, sincerely recognize (even thank) yourself for it and take the extra time to close your eyes and feel the real progress you’ve made.
You can apply this system in perpetuity to all of your personal and professional intentions. Cutting down on meat? Quit joking about being a carnivore and instead savor every morsel of your healthier choices, relishing in the idea of well-being, longevity and compassion towards animals. Looking to get into yoga? No more whining about how inflexible you are - instead, just show up, give it your best and deeply acknowledge the progress you make just by stepping on your mat. Perhaps most importantly: when you show up late to brunch, order hungover bacon and can’t bring yourself to so much as touch your toes, shake it off - you don't want to exercise those proverbial self-deprecation muscles! Then, reaffirm your intention and doubly celebrate when you pack a salad and make it to work on time the next day.
The progress principle at the office
Managers can use the principle to celebrate the ongoing progress that an individual or team makes when working towards a goal. With sales, for example, leaders can and should set targets, but also take care to acknowledge and celebrate the incremental achievements like individual sales. A recent Washington Post piece encourages managers recognize and celebrate specific small wins whenever and as soon after the progress is made as possible. The article also states that focusing on the positive and withholding sarcasm (ie let go of the negative), creating a culture of celebration where employees cheer each other on, and acknowledging tiny victories with mementos - such as a handwritten note or small token gift - can go a long way in employee motivation, satisfaction and retention. As an employee working on professional development, use the insights for applying the progress principle to personal growth, but set your day-to-day intentions towards professional achievement. Fear of the phone? Smile and meditate for one minute every time you get through a work call, reminding yourself that you are making headway on becoming a savvy orator. You get the idea!
Small wins on your yoga mat
One of my favorite things about yoga is that the nature of the practice allows us to experience and appreciate just how big a small win can be. Whether it’s holding a pose without falling for the first time, advancing a variation or experiencing a new level of meditative spirituality, steady practice will constantly reward you with tiny victories along the way. Rather than continue to go on about all of the ways the progress principle applies in yoga (you’d feel compelled to stop me halfway through the novel), I’ll leave you with one of the most powerful examples of how progress in yoga can translate to transformation in life. Trust me, you want to see this (and if you’re anything like me - have tissues on hand).