Breaking Down Problems in the Workplace

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An article recently posted to the Harvard Business Review blog titled, “Small Wins and Feeling Good” establishes one of the best ways to help tackle obstacles by dissecting them into more manageable tasks. This philosophy can be used not only in the workplace or business environment, but also in your personal life and is a good practice to get into.

The article explains, “When you have a daunting mountain to climb, it is often best to break it into molehills. In his classic paper, ‘Small Wins,’ University of Michigan psychologist Karl Weick argued that large social problems are best broken down into smaller ones with concrete achievable goals. Social problems as enormous as, say, unemployment, can be so overwhelming that solutions seem unattainable; therefore, people often avoid tackling them or come up with single, grand programs that fail. Breaking such problems down into a series of more modest steps, all on the path to the ultimate goal, reduces fear, clarifies direction, and increases the probability of early successful outcomes – boosting support for further action.”

According to Weick, not only does breaking down problems seem to aid in finishing them more quickly and efficiently, but can also help “boost” morale. By getting seemingly impossible projects done, you’re more inclined to gain a feeling of satisfaction by crossing on task of your list and being able to start new ones. The article continues, “The power of small wins applies just as well to problems in business. Our recent research discovered how critical it is for teams and individuals working on complex problems to achieve small wins regularly. Because setbacks are so common in truly important problems, people become disheartened unless they can point to some meaningful advance most days, even if that advance is seemingly minor, and even if it involves nothing more than extracting insights from the day’s failures. This strategy propels long-term goal achievement. In his terrific book, Good Boss, Bad Boss (also here), Stanford University professor Bob Sutton argues that ‘big, hairy, audacious, goals’ are not only daunting, but they are usually too obvious and too broad to provide useful guidance for day-to-day work. Similarly, author Peter Sims emphasizes the importance of incremental goal-setting in Little Bets.”

Why does this matter in the workplace and how does it apply to your every day (and particularly, your occasional apathetic Monday)? The article pushes the idea that breaking down projects into small tasks and goals can be absolutely essential when considering our mental well-being. “A surprising angle on all this: To maintain emotional health, each of us needs small wins in our personal lives, too. In his book Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns discusses how important it is to keep track of, reflect on, and celebrate not just our major achievements, but also our seemingly minor ones. In the extreme, attention to small wins can help people lift themselves out of depression; this is one of the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy. An example: People suffering from depression can find it difficult to maintain an exercise program, even though any kind of physical activity can reduce depressive symptoms. So, a goal like working out at the gym for an hour each day can seem unthinkable, and that work-out never happens. As Burns writes ‘You may assume you must do everything at once instead of breaking each job down into small, discrete, manageable units which you can complete one step at a time.’ This means that it’s much more effective to start with a modest goal like simply taking a walk around the block. By keeping track of success in meeting such a goal, and celebrating it, depressed people can begin to build their goals and start enjoying more, larger, successes.”

One of the most important things to take away from this blog is that “Small wins in personal life can keep all of us feeling good,” but again, remember that small wins in our professional life keep us feeling just as good and in control. Click the link to read more on what the article says about managing the illusion of huge dilemmas.


About Kate Gamble

Known to have her hands in a ton of things at one time - Kate is a confessed news junkie and proud Dean’s List grad. Whether she’s working the PR or HR side of her brain, her computer’s mouse or her Dremel (she makes handcrafted jewelry too!), Kate delivers the energy, commitment, and detail-orientation that are a perfect mix for Alstin.