You probably keep a to-do list, a running tally of the things you want to accomplish. You may also take the time to write down your goals for the coming day, or week, or month. But here's something you should do but probably don't: End every evening by writing down the best things you did that day.
I had never thought about doing anything like this until I came across this New York Times piece about accepting compliments, especially from yourself. It doesn't sound like much of a practice and it only takes a few minutes so it may be hard to see why the simple act of writing down a few small tasks -- fed the cat, hugged my kid, helped solve someone's problem at work, made dinner -- could be a powerful self-improvement tool. And yet, it is.
If you're a good boss, you already know that praising people about their efforts and accomplishments is one of the most powerful ways there is to motivate them to an even more outstanding performance. It turns out that the same principle applies to the praise you give yourself. This is counter-intuitive for a lot of people, including me. You are likely more are accustomed to motivating yourself by basically yelling at yourself like a drill sergeant. "Get up off the couch, turn off the TV and go work out you lazy idiot! What's wrong with you? If you don't get moving, you'll never amount to anything!"
Most of us talk to ourselves this way all the time. It may feel very unnatural to tell ourselves something like, "You work so hard, and you did such a good job today. I'm proud of you." And yet, just like your employees, that's exactly what you need to hear from yourself to stay motivated. In fact, Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of The Progress Principle told the Times that the praise we give ourselves may be the most powerful praise there is. And it's not so much the huge celebrations we hold when we finish an important project or break a record that matter. People derive the most benefit from making small achievements and then pausing to reflect on them.
What did I do right today?
The Times suggests keeping score of your small achievements whatever way works best for you, either jotting down things you've gotten done throughout the day or filling in a spreadsheet or taking a few minutes to write things down at the end of the day. But if you can do it, I recommend the last of these options because focusing your attention on your own small successes right before going to sleep will have a powerfully positive effect on your unconscious mind. That's especially true if, like me, you tend to start every day hoping to get more done than is probably humanly possible, and then end every day dwelling on all the things you planned to accomplish but didn't.
So, at the end of the night, grab your journal or a piece of paper or even your smartphone and ask yourself this question -- write it at the top of the page if you like: "What did I do right today?"
Now, if you're anything like me, you'll be tempted to write things like this: "I made some progress on that project but not as much as I hoped. I did take a walk today, but it wasn't as long as it could have been, and then afterward I ate too many donut holes."
It's important to resist that temptation to compare what you actually did with what you think you should have done, or balance what you got right with what you got wrong. Nope, we're only looking for the positive. And small accomplishments are at least as important as big ones. So stifle your human instinct to focus on the negative and only write down the good things. Then do it again tomorrow, and again the next day. Writing down what you're proud of -- and that you're proud of those things -- will give you a small mental reward. That, in turn, will make you more willing to make the same effort tomorrow, or maybe even a little bit more.
The point of this practice is to focus on your daily small accomplishments to build your confidence and motivation to build on those successes. It will also provide a record. You may be surprised, in a year or two, when you come back and review your daily writings just how far you've come.