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Many Small Steps: The Science Behind Small Wins

It turns out there are solid reasons why the concept of many small wins works well for achieving positive transformation.

Making big changes can be hard. Research has generally shown that people are loss averse – they weigh loss much more heavily than they do gains. Recent economic behavioral research shows the importance of expectations – people will participate in change up until the point they expect they may experience loss whether they have or not.

That’s right – you don’t need to actually experience a loss to feel the pain of it. So, when you are staring at the front end of complex project to streamline your service model while reducing costs, you are more likely to fear the inability to achieve change that appears just too big.

This is where small wins come into play. Researchers at Harvard recently looked at the psychological impact of making small changes, and found that appreciating small wins provides large gains over time. They found that small positive gains led to employees feeling better about their work, and the improved mood in turn led to gains in motivation and engagement (which in turn leads to more gains).

Other research has shown that making any sort of progress toward a goal can increase motivation, boost performance and improve the ability to acquire and retain new skills.

Other recent research found that a series of small gains can actually outweigh losses, negating any sort of impact of loss aversion. They found that people are driven by the pleasure of making a win, regardless of the size, and that small losses are easy to write off psychologically.

The British Cycling Team asserts that a continuous series of small, marginal gains led them from continual losers in international races to Olympic Gold. They could handle bite-sized gains, they felt better over time with continuing to improve, and they found it became contagious in all that they did.

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