Go big or go home. Shoot for the stars. Aim high. These types of platitudes could be holding you back, because they’re distracting you from all the small things.
A kind word or a moment of honest listening can be enough fuel to keep you going. Doing one push-up a day, writing one line a day seems laughably easy and ridiculously unambitious — but that’s how you build a practice.
We think small actions leads to small consequences, and grand motions have the most impact. But that’s just not true. We presume this “consequence-cause matching,” because it helps the world seem more predictable and manageable — but in return for believing this myth, we’re less happy and successful.
Small things might seem silly, but they can have exactly some of the outsize impact we need to reach our big dreams.
The Happy Impact of Thinking Small
Would you choose to try to make someone simply smile or make them happy?
Most people would opt to try to make someone happy. It just sounds like a better result. Wouldn’t you take happiness over a smile?
Researchers Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker from Stanford University and Michael Norton from Harvard Business School asked people this question to settle a contradiction they saw in how we approach goals. People often want to shoot for the ambitious brass ring but the thing is, large, abstract goals are associated with “greater psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression” while smaller, concrete goals have been linked to increased happiness levels.
Knowing that performing prosocial acts of kindness made givers happier, the researchers decided to test whether larger prosocial goals would lead to increased personal happiness. When given the choice between making someone smile versus making someone happy, people opted to make someone happy.
Yet what the scientists ultimately found was that the goal of making people smile created the most happiness for the givers.
The simplicity and concreteness of a smaller goal like making someone smile means that it’s much more doable and thus likely to be met. The larger goal of something like making someone happy is itself an obstacle to forward movement because it’s fuzzy and intimidating.
The power of small is that it allows you to focus, not on figuring out the what, but zooming straight to the how of that next, actionable step. And because the smaller goal is attainable, you gain feedback faster. As Rudd and her colleagues explain: “For instance, it is clear whether one has exercised at the gym or read the daily newspaper, but more difficult to assess whether one has lived a healthy lifestyle or increased their knowledge of the world.”
Small Wins Create More Motivation
The way you perceive a goal can make or break your outcome, so by “calibrating [your] expectations about the power of small acts,” you can also work happier. And that’s crucial for your motivation.
As Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer discovered through rigorous analysis of tens of thousands of work diary entries, making meaningful progress is the best motivator. And vital to this principle is recognizing that your small wins count as progress.
In Amabile and Kramer’s research, they found that people consistently underestimated the significance of small events in their workdays. They would match the size of the consequence to the size of the cause — small to small, large to large — even though more than “28 percent of the small events triggered big reactions.”
The majority of events and reactions recorded in the journals were small events, which meant that people missed out on the power of small wins all the time. We’re often unable to gauge the significance of what happens without reflection and review to connect the dots. Your progress is largely made up of small wins, your happiness largely made of small, cumulative bursts.
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Lowering your expectations to aim small sounds like you’re settling or a road to mediocrity and loserdom, but that disregards the scientifically-proven cumulative effect of progress and power of small wins. You can dream as big as you want, but the most sustainable, feedback-rich way to achieve greatness is to keep things small.
The stories we yearn to see and experience ourselves are those of magical transformation — life-changing moments of overcoming a challenge, of reaching a grand epiphany, of attaining grand success — but mostly, it’s the routine of the everyday that’s our canvas to make with it what we will.
Photo: Emily Correia