The Key to Progress: Sustain Your Virtuous Cycles and Halt the Vicious Ones



“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” — Herm Albright

The little wins each day keep you going and add up over time.  The same is true of setbacks.

When things are on a roll, and you are making more progress than dealing with setbacks, you are in a virtuous cycle – a positive loop.

When you’re spending more time dealing with setbacks and not making as much progress, you are in a negative loop.  The key is to watch for and deal with the setbacks that can take you down a vicious cycle.

While you can’t avoid all the setbacks, you can respond more effectively, especially if you watch for them and nip them in the bud.

In the book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, the authors show us how to keep virtuous cycles going and abort vicious cycles early.

Keep Positive Loops Going and Abort the Negative Ones

Pay attention to the day to day, but look to the big picture to see what’s really going on in terms of progress.  Via The Progress Principle:

”Focusing on inner work life one day at a time keeps you vigilant, but people make sense of each day’s events against the backstory of the days that preceded it.  Myopic focus on a narrow timeframe can blind you to the big picture of what’s really going on with both inner work life and progress.  Because inner work life and progress exert mutual influence, the ideal is to keep positive progress loops — virtuous cycles — going as long as possible, and abort negative ones — vicious cycles — as soon as possible.”

Look at the Right Things Over Time

You have to look for key triggers and events over time to notice the true patterns.

Via The Progress Principle:

“These patterns are often hard to spot unless you keep looking at the right things over time.  In fact, we might never have recognize the progress principles had we not been carefully analyzing daily event descriptions, many of which seemed unimportant in isolation.  It was focusing on the day-to-day, and then stepping back to look for patterns that we revealed what was really happening in the teams we studied.”

Watch For and Deal with Setback Events

Recognize the virtuous cycles and stay alert to the negative signs of setbacks.

Via The Progress Principle:

”Sustaining virtuous cycles requires recognizing them to begin with.  When your private end-of-the-day review indicates a series of days with more progress events than setbacks, and no major signs of negative inner work life, the chances are good that your team is in a virtuous cycle.  If your team is fortunate to have one going, it’s important to stay alert for negative events — especially small hassles — that can sour good inner work life or halt progress.  The most fundamental step is watching for and dealing with actual setback events.”

In my experience, the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine” tends to be true, and I like to deal with setbacks as quickly, and effectively as possible, to keep a virtuous cycle going, or get back on one.

Photo by shambhavi singh.


  1. When it comes to setbacks I use Mark Twain’s “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” 😉

  2. It must be my day for inspiration! This the third article I have read about overcoming setbacks. My blog has not yet gotten the visibility that I want it to and I was getting discouraged. I know that setbacks are a necessary part of success and so I push on. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  3. @ Alik — Twain is quite the marksmen with his wit.

    @ Lisa — You reminded me of one of my favorite strategies for setbacks — strike back ten times harder. I use it as a motivational springboard to dive deeper, learn more, or drive more.

    In terms of growing your blog traffic, aside from guest posting, writing eZine articles, building backlinks, and using SEO to target demand … I find changing my About page tends to increase my traffic. I think it’s because as I get clarity on the mission, folks with similar values hop on board. Values are like a lightening rod.

  4. hi JD
    thanks for the encouraging post,just the right message in the season i am currently in!!
    I have learnt that its wise not to overlook the little wins as they are important in the sense that they keep one going and enthused on the journey to fulfill whatever goal one may be yearning for.
    thanks loads

  5. @ Joseph — Well put, and it’s true the little wins do build momentum.

    I’ve also found that the little wins create a lot of serendipitous opportunities. It’s like being in a winning state of mind, and the opportunities come knocking at your door.

  6. Hi JD .. it is so necessary to deal with the negative stumbling block, because that’s the way it will be til it’s dealt with. Once that’s out of the way .. life is easier and usually kinder .. and means we can be ready for anything that comes our way. Be prepared is a great motto. Thanks interesting and useful post – Hilary

  7. @ Hilary — Time and again I see how building momentum really pays off. Dealing with the small stuff that gets in the way, helps us gain momentum for the big stuff.

  8. JD,

    This is my first comment on your blog. I came here through the guest post you got published on Donald’s blog.

    “Sustain Virtuous Cycles and Halt Vicious Ones”. That’s beautifully said! Sometimes we tend to get busy with the cycles, irrespective of whether they are virtuous ones or not. Just keeping busy seems like progress made and can even bring happiness, albeit one that is short-lived.

    It’s very important to get busy with virtuous cycles.

    Thanks a lot for the reminder!


  9. @ Mark — Great point on taking notice of the nature of the cycle, and how being busy can feel like progress, but, is often a herring, if we take a deeper look.

  10. “Values are like a lightning rod” Beautiful phrase JD =)
    In my company there is a lot of negativity lately and it is easy to be consumed by it and complain about everything.

    I found your blog a few weeks ago and it has helped me stay positive and even “turn” some of my coworkers to the happy side. Values are indeed powerful and somewhat addictive when you start inspiring other people, you just cant go back to the negative side =P.

    Thanks JD

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