Making headway on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term performance… leads to a sense of accomplishment and self-worth… [can] feed the motivation, the deep engagement, that is crucial ongoing blockbuster performance.Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Instead of looking for passion or seeking happiness, you’re better off trying to leverage small progress on meaningful work, even though it can be challenging and not so enjoyable.
One of the books I quote from a lot in my courses or talks, is The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. These researchers gathered nearly 12,000 diary entries from hundreds of employees at different companies. They were looking to see what kind of work environments inspire creativity.
What they discovered, however, is that employees who can see themselves making small wins toward work they perceive as important can stay motivated even when there are setbacks.
While they focused on satisfying “inner work lives” at the office, I do think this applies to other kinds of “work” not related to employment. I’ve found that when clients, note the progress they make in their creative projects or in parenting, they are far more motivated even during very difficult times.
The 7 major catalysts to leverage small progress
Drs. Amabile and Kramer have also found that there are ways employers can encourage the cycle of progress. Again, if you read these, you can see how this can apply to different circumstances, not just your career.
- Setting clear goals
- Allowing autonomy
- Providing resources
- Giving enough time
- Help with the work
- Learning from progress and successes
- Allowing ideas to flow
These suggestions are also consistent with what my research colleagues and I found when we analyzed data from a large nationally-representative study of employees.
But, what about those setbacks?
Thankfully Drs. Amabile and Kramer have something to say about setbacks, too.
First, setbacks happen to everyone, they are inevitable.
Just as progress is the biggest stimulant to inner work life, setbacks are the biggest downer. Unfortunately, setbacks in any sort of meaningful work are a fact of life—hitting dead ends while trying to solve a vexing problem being blocked in attempts to meet a goal, or failing to find crucial information.
Second, it matters where the setback is coming from: from the meaningful work itself or others’ behavior.
If the setback resulted from the difficult nature of the work itself, negative inner work life turned positive as people began to overcome the challenge, either on their own or with help. Quite often, however, it was others’ behavior—a manager or a coworker undercut an idea, failed to offer help when it was needed, or undermined the person’s efforts—that led directly or indirectly to the setback. In these circumstances, turning negative inner work life positive required the removal or reversal of the progress obstacle.
Some women are shy about noting their wins, big or small, for fear of bragging. Others believe that this sort of thing is a waste of time, petty pampering, and the way to stay motivated is to be hard on themselves. Do you do this?
How might you shift the way you see small wins?
How can you find ways to notice and keep track of the small progress you make in your “work”?
And, if you don’t find your work meaningful, how might you take one small step towards finding work that is more meaningful to you?
Last week on Instagram, I mentioned that my “niece” likes to knit when she hangs out with my younger daughter at our apartment. Instead of the usual garter stitch, she was using the herringbone stitch–something I had trouble with in the past. I realize now that knitting the herringbone stitch in the round is not a good way to start learning the stitch. Breaking it down into a smaller project makes the stitch so much more enjoyable!
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