Drinking on the Job, Avoiding Burn-out in Aid Work, and the Power of Small Wins

by Shana Montesol Johnson

“Champagne for you, miss?” asked the waiter.

It occurred to me that drinking during the workday in my first week at my first job out of college may not be the most prudent career move, especially with my boss sitting at the same table.  But the waiter’s question was apparently rhetorical, because he didn’t wait for an answer.  With a flourish, he poured me a stem of bubbly wine, and filled my boss’s glass as well.

We were at a lunch meeting of an association of local entrepreneurs in San Diego, California.  My boss had been invited to speak about the loan products and services of our organization, a microfinance NGO that had recently expanded operations from Latin America to San Diego (my hometown, or as close to a hometown as a Third Culture Kid can have). With my newly minted International Relations degree and my recently completed thesis on the limits of microfinance, I was excited to help small business owners – many of them immigrants – to secure financing for their fledgling companies.

We soon learned that this group of entrepreneurs had a tradition at their meetings: each person would share a success that they had experienced in the previous month.  When all group members had shared, the group would raise their champagne glasses in a toast to everyone’s success.  (A slightly pricey habit for a group of small business owners, I observed.)

I enjoyed listening to each person share a success.  Yet I was surprised to find that very few of the group members’ accomplishments were grand, such as winning a major contract or hiring new staff.  Most of the group members shared more modest successes, like having filed their taxes, or having completed an order for a customer.  Yet they all acted like it was a big deal.

Were they deluding themselves?  Wasting their businesses’ capital on champagne?  (No wonder they needed microloans!)

Actually, they were on to something.

We usually save champagne, or big celebrations, for major accomplishments and big successes.  Yet marking progress toward goals – even small progress – is a practice that engenders success.  Research has shown that the single most important source of motivation on the job is “making progress in meaningful work.”  Even if that progress is incremental.

The multi-year research study – hailed by some as the most rigorous field study ever done of creative work – reviewed 12,000 daily work diary entries, made by 238 people in 26 project teams, all engaged in creative problem-solving.  Led by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, the research team found that “the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Wouldn’t we all like to be more creatively productive?  Wouldn’t all aid and international development work improve with greater creative productivity? Wouldn’t aid workers and international development professionals make a bigger impact through their work, experience greater personal satisfaction and happiness, and find themselves more motivated and less burned out?

Sounds pretty good to me.  So how can we leverage the power of small wins to make us more creatively productive?  Here are three ways.

  1. Take time for work that matters.  It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of our To Do lists, the endless meetings, the grind of overflowing email inboxes.  It’s easy to become exhausted and overwhelmed by the bureaucratic nature of some aid work.  It’s easy to lose sight of “meaningful work,” much less make progress on it.  Amabile’s recommendation: Carve out at least 20 minutes every day to work on a project that matters the most to you.  Afterward, reflect on any progress made, and decide where to pick up again the next day.
  2. Keep a work diary where you reflect on your work, the progress you’ve made, the setbacks you’ve encountered.  You can write freestyle, or, if you prefer a bit more structure, Amabile provides a terrific template here.  I’m excited to try it.
  3. Celebrate small wins.  You don’t have to break out the champagne, but at least talk about your progress.  Share your small wins with your colleagues, boss, spouse/partner, friends.

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the aid community about “admitting failure.”  While there may be value in this approach, there is also value in celebrating successes, even when they are small.

The more we experience progress on the job, the more we will experience motivation, pride, and even joy in our work.

And that is certainly something worth toasting.


What small wins have you experienced at work lately?  I’d love to hear about them.  Please leave a comment or join the conversation on the Development Crossroads Facebook page.

Photo by nImAdestiny

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