How Micro-Accomplishments Made Me Feel Better on a Bad Day

Photo by KYLE CUT MEDIA on Unsplash

I had a bad day recently. Not just any bad day. A bad day caused by massive insomnia from the night before. When I’m sleep deprived, I’m irritable, prone to depressed moods, hard to reason with, and incompetent.

I felt a duty to certain personal goals and chores for the day, yet I was unable to do them. Yoga to increase flexibility? Laughable. Folding laundry? Yeah, right. Learning statistics and probability on a Coursera course that I’m way behind on? Not even a little.

So the problem with this, as a goal-oriented person, who has problems being self-compassionate, is that I feel like crap when I don’t do the things on my “personal growth” list. I’m working on the ability to forgive myself and enjoy the little things, but on the day in question, I was resistant to all forms of self-care, self-talk, and self-love.

Bone-tired and grumpy, I also felt guilty about not doing anything, which of course did not make things better. But guilt is a bad motivator, and it didn’t push me to do the things I wanted. I had no energy or mental clarity to do any difficult tasks, or most simple ones, honestly. I didn’t feel I would benefit from them anyway. I felt frustrated because not even relaxing and watching Netflix was easing the pain I felt. And yes, it manifested as a physical pain in my stomach. I couldn’t fall asleep either, to alleviate the main problem. I felt stuck.

So I decided to take a different approach.

I asked myself, “What would help put me in a better mood, right now?

“Well, getting this laundry list of stuff done,” inner me replied.

“Okay, next best thing. What am I missing by not doing those things?”

“Feeling accomplished, productive.” Inner me voice nailed it! That would feel good.

I wanted to attempt to feel accomplished in a small, but meaningful way, then put the rest away. Maybe I wasn’t going to take out the trash or figure out different probability distributions for a given scenario, but I figured I could start by cleaning up a few things around the house. Dirty socks lying around. Incidental trash that had been forgotten, like dryer sheets or plastic packaging. Things lying around out of place that needed to be put away.

I felt the tiniest sense of accomplishment.

I then tackled my jewelry collection. It’s hardly a collection. Pieces I’ve bought spontaneously from Instagram and Facebook ads or from Etsy shops — all thrown together in a plastic bag. I went through and detangled them, separating them into specific categories, and putting them away in a more careful fashion than I had found them. And in cute, colorful mesh baggies, too.

I felt a little bit better.

Then, I researched new recipes. With my low-carb diet, I tend to find a recipe I like and make it until I die (metaphorically, of course). So, feeling like I needed a change, I looked up some new recipes, revisited some old ones, and tidied up the Pinterest board I have for such things. I felt even better. Just a little bit better. But three “little bits” in a row, and it started to add up.

I made dinner in better spirits than I had been in all day. I was talking, jumping from one topic to the next, making jokes. I played video games after a shower. I did some writing. I didn’t just end the day on a better note, I was in an entirely different octave. And I didn’t do anything catastrophic or uber-productive to get to that place.

The Power of Micro-Accomplishments

I decided to dub this a “micro-accomplishment”. The things I did were not on the big tasklist I had prepared for myself, but they were small, doable, and made me feel the same sense of accomplishment, on a smaller scale. I talk about this concept in my Bare Minimum Method of self-care, though it wasn’t called a micro-accomplishment then.

Is there any real science behind it? Actually, yes. Not directly related to the concept of “micro-accomplishments”, but it’s real stuff: I recently learned about Self-Determination Theory and the need for competence. SDT posits that competence is one of the desires that are hardwired into humans, along with autonomy and relatedness. For us to be sufficiently motivated in life, we must satisfy these core components first. Sure, it’s the crippling perfectionism that drives me, but the need to feel competent motivates all of us. It’s no wonder that even small things give us a sense of mastery.

Self-Determination Theory: Humans’ three basic needs. Competence, Autonomy, Relatedness
Courtesy of Positive Psychology

That term in of itself, mastery, is also used in DBT, helpful for patients with depression or Borderline Personality Disorder, who need help feeling in control of their world.

It’s more than just a cute phrase I made up to make me feel better about a bad day — there’s real psychology behind it!

Micro-Accomplishments Applied

Realistically, what would a micro-accomplishment look like in a general sense? I can’t just say “clean up a bit around the house and you’ll instantly feel better!” That doesn’t appeal to everyone because we are all wired differently.

There’s also this entire culture around productivity, where every little bit counts, and we feel this need to be constantly engaged in pursuing a goal or getting something done. Otherwise, we’re lazy slackers. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes with the “productivity experts” and all their guides to success.

If you’re a perfectionist like me, or just someone who struggles to relax or take care of themselves, then simply listening to your own needs can be hard. It feels awkward. The guilt eats away at me. Sometimes, I find myself feeling tense and anxious, like I can’t enjoy myself because I know I have more important things to do.

That’s why a micro-accomplishment can help. It can give you the sense that you did something, even if the “thing” is small. It’s a way to tell your brain to back the hell off and let you breathe. Look, I did a thing, can I relax now?

You don’t even have to be a perfectionist. We all like to feel accomplished and competent, like I explained with competence and mastery. But maybe that looks different for you. Maybe you would start with video games because they make you feel good about yourself and your abilities. Maybe you jump right into creative endeavors because that lights up your soul and makes you feel on top of the world.

Cleaning and organizing aren’t the key to happiness here. You’re the key. You have to unlock the answers yourself to what is a micro-accomplishment to you.

I hope my example can guide you in the right direction. To follow your heart a little more and to listen to your body. 99% of your task list will still be there tomorrow. Ironically, the best way I can sum up micro-accomplishments is to ask yourself this question, which sounds an awful lot like a productivity primer:

What small thing can you do to get you one step closer to a better day?

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