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A Cool Neurological Explanation For The Power Of Small Wins

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of the power of small wins, and following Karl Weick's classic article, have argued in Good Boss, Bad Boss and here at HBR that big hairy goals cause people to freak-out and freeze-up if they aren't broken down into smaller stepping stones. Small wins are also a big theme in Peter Sims great book Little Bets, which I wrote about last week. Well, today I learned about a cool article in CIO about a book by Shawn Achor called The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Check-out the article. I liked it a lot, notably the 20 Second Rule "To break a bad habit, add 20 seconds to the time it takes to engage in that bad habit." But my favorite part was his neurological explanation for the power of small wins and dangers of big hairy goals alone:

Goals that are too big paralyze you. They literally shut off your brain, says Achor. Here's what happens to your brain when faced with a daunting goal or project:

The amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and threats, hijacks the "thinker" part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, says Achor. The amygdala steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, the creative part of the brain that makes decisions and sees possibilities.

"We watch this on a brain scan," he says. "The more the amygdala lights up, the less the prefrontal cortex does."Breaking a big goal into smaller, more achievable goals prevents the fear part of your brain from hijacking your thinking cap and gives you victories.

Pretty cool, huh? I have not read Shawn's book, but it sounds cool. Bosses beware, setting those big goals without breaking them into bite-sized people (or allowing and encouraging your followers to do so) will make you and your people dumb and uncreative — at least if Shawn is right.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Follow him at