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New Year's Resolutions and the Science of Progress

This past year challenged my resolution resolve.

Setbacks. Major life events. Procrastination. They all grabbed hold of my motivation to achieve awesomeness. 😉

I also felt humbled by last year. Looking back, I have gained more clarity for going forward.

Please, learn from my fears and failures. Here's the first nugget of wisdom I gained from last year.

Consistent, Small Victories are better than “Going Big”

So, like everyone else, I attempted the whole Let’s Get Fit! mission last year. I even subscribed to a wicked awesome fitness app to whip my butt into shape. It did! (For ¾ of the year). Check it out...

Screenshot of my Keelo fitness score.

Note my upward ascent of fitness over time. Then, a sudden drop-off at the arrow and a flat-lined section to the right of it.

Knowing this graph shows my fitness for a full year, any flat lines represent weeks to months of NO work.

I mean, I wasn’t trying to get ripped—just in shape so I can do thinks like sleep and lift my 64 pound son without tweaking my lower back.

I had hit a plateau of effort. Exhausted by the school year as a teacher and jaded by my lack of equipment, I allowed my stresses to overcome my victories. I tried to “Go Big,” but did not built up a practice of sustained, doable, daily habits.

I set myself up to fail. No wiggle room for major life events, like parents in the hospital. No mercy for myself on those nights when I felt too tired to watch anything...even the Masked Singer.

Research Backs the Power of Small Victories

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted some interesting research into what motivates workers the most during a challenging work week.

Using anecdotal records and daily survey responses, they found having a positive “inner work life” is the main indicator of feeling satisfied at the end of the day.

But, they wanted to know how these workers sustained that inner-positivity, even when the work felt challenging.

What was the ingredient? Fear? External incentives? Threats or judgment?

Nope. The HBR “found that the most common event triggering a 'best day' was any progress in the work by the individual or the team.”

Any progress? Really, that's it!?

The HBR coined this as the “progress principle.” Tasting these small victories (whether fixing a nagging problem or finishing a task) determined the employee's inner work life.

I love this practical conclusion from their research...

When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously.

So, how does this apply to your new workout routine, eating habit, prayer goal, or (insert resolution here)?

Though not an “employee” to your own life, your daily work is hard. Your new resolution needs the “progress principle” to feed your inner-satisfaction.

If you only view your resolution at the macro-level, you will miss those small victories. Setbacks will scream, “Hey! You can't do this!”

Instead, if you savor those small wins, thanking God for those little miracles in your life, it will breed contentment in your daily work.

Going Forward

I have lost most of fitness gains from last year. I could sit here, ruminating over my losses. I could dig into negative self-talk and rehearse my future.

Instead, I'm going to celebrate last year's small victories. Let's try this whole “progress principle” out...

  • I completed nearly 100 difficult, high-intensity workouts. Yeah, I dropped the ball for many weeks, but I wonder where I’d be if I had never finished them.
  • I didn’t throw my back out like I used to.
  • I was able to keep up with my son when he ran around playgrounds and with my colleagues at a basketball game (things I would have been lacking in two years ago).
  • I added an awesome audio Bible to my routine towards the end of the year when things got hectic. It boosted my enjoyment of the Scriptures and increased what I was “reading.”

Now that list feels much better than self-deprecation or comparison to others!

Instead of wallowing in guilt or fear, these small victories will sustain my motivation going forward.

This article was updated on November 26, 2020

Jordan Hopkins

Jordan is a freelance content writer and educator. He is passionate about serving others and amplifying their narratives through quality writing. You can find him hanging with his family, fishing, playing guitar, and grinding the best beans for his morning coffee.