Tracking Small Wins

by Site Author

My third year of graduate school was a challenging time. I had passed the program’s courses, now I “just” had to produce ground-breaking research that would get me an academic job.

For months, I stared at a blank sheet of paper. Every now and then, I thought I had a big idea, only to realize, after some work, that the big idea was neither big nor, for that matter, any good.

It was painful. My first two years of graduate school had given me all sorts of research skills: theory, computer programming, knowledge of the literature. It was as though I had filled a case with state-of-the-art tools, and I was clutching that toolbox to my chest while sinking into the mud. Each day felt like I was in the same place as the day before.

What can you do when you’re stuck like that? What can help?

Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard Business School, has one idea. She doesn’t have the secret to progress in graduate school. But she proposes one practice to keep professional difficulties from making you miserable.

Amabile starts with what she calls “the progress principle.” She argues that workers are happiest when they feel that they are making real progress on meaningful projects. Progress is good, setbacks and stagnation are bad.

And what to do when you feel—as I did—that you’re not making progress? Amabile recommends that at the end of each day, you jot down what you accomplished that day. In particular, she recommends that you list “small wins:” the day’s little achievements. Even the least-productive days include a tiny problem solved or one potential solution ruled out.

Tracking small wins, a form of reflection, can do two things. First, it helps you recognize accomplishments that you might otherwise ignore. When you commit to recording each day’s small wins, it’s surprising how many of them there are. Even on days that seem bereft of accomplishments, you can can often find something positive.

A second advantage of tracking small wins is that the responsibility of writing them down pushes you to accomplish more than you otherwise would. At lunchtime, if you’ve accomplished little, a question will nag at you. “What am I going to write down today?”