01/20/2012 01:44 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Celebrate a Little Victory Every Day

We all have slumps, which can actually be a good thing if we take advantage of our down time. My recent slump started when I injured my back doing yoga -- which turned into five weeks of back spasms. During that time, I got two colds in a row. It was six weeks of a pared-down social life and way too much alone time, sniffling with a heating pad. I recovered and got back on my bike and into yoga class. But while I was slowed down I had had a lot of time to think. Out of my slump emerged the theme of life success. Like everyone else I want to feel that I've had some success at the end of my life. Whenever I thought about that though, it seemed like "the end" was too far away (I hope anyway) to wait to feel good about my life. Wasn't there an approach that would serve me right now, in the present moment? That's when the idea struck me to celebrate a little victory every day.

You can liken celebrating a little victory every day to positive childrearing -- in other words, by praising yourself and acknowledging your little victory, you're being your own nurturing adult.

Maybe this resonates with you but you don't really know what I mean "little victories." Okay that's fair. So let's begin with your daily expectations for yourself. That could probably fill a phone book for a lot of people. But paring down, it's really kind of simple. One way of isolating our daily expectations is to spend a week writing down all the ways in which we've disappointed ourselves.

  • Didn't take out the trash before the collector came.
  • Didn't return Mom's call for five days.
  • Bounced a check.
  • Ate McDonalds for lunch every day this week.
  • Drove past the car wash for the umpteenth time.

You get the picture.

We all want to be someone. But that someone is really the sum total of everything we do every day, day after day, month after month, year after year. We know this intuitively, and it makes us nervous. We get like deer in headlights. And that's not a good thing.

Consider the many factors that shape our expectations of ourselves. That pesky information overload is one factor. I've believed my entire life that women's magazines are detrimental to women's mental health. And now we have the same high expectations plastered all over men's magazines. Really impossible images for the average person to live up to. Along with images, is the fact that fear and negativity reign in the media. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "People like to be scared when they feel safe." But do we really feel safe sitting at the breakfast table reading about bombs going off? Combine all that with the ubiquitous information overload that we're subjected to that can derail our self-esteem and shake us off a path toward meeting our expectations for ourselves. Information and images from emails, magazines and the internet and newspapers can foster fear, anxiety and low self-esteem. Just absorbing all of this can drain vital energy out of our beings and prevent us from putting one foot in front of the next.

In the late 1800s two neurologists, George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell, defined a nervous disorder, "neurasthenia," that developed as the result of the "whirl of the railway, the pelting of telegrams, the strife of business, the hunger for riches, the lust of vulgar minds for course and instant pleasures." Gosh, if they only knew! All of that said from my perspective as a probing internet researcher, bloggers and even Facebook posters have created a tidal wave of positivity that has infected the internet with an abundance of good energy.

All information is not apocalyptic.

Just saying! This is where your inner parental controls need to monitor what you allow in, especially if it's negatively affecting your expectations of yourself.

Another way our expectations for ourselves get shaped is by family members, friends, and coworkers. Very few (if any) people are entirely responsible for shaping personal expectations. I asked Harvard Business School professor John Davis, who teaches life planning, how people's self expectations are generally formed. Dr. Davis explained that many people are stymied psychologically from forming their own expectations because they have plenty of people around them doing their planning for them. Parents, spouses or friends. Everyone has a say. According to Dr. Davis, "There's a certain amount of accommodating other people in your life that's inevitable, but it's useful -- and ultimately productive -- to know what exactly you want." Even though you may not live up to your expectations, Dr. Davis says you can get close. He recommends that you begin by writing a list of your expectations for yourself. Evaluate it carefully and then edit out others' expectations. Now you have a rough draft.

You're not done yet. Have you ever torn out a picture of an attractive celebrity and put it on your refrigerator door to remind yourself not to graze mindlessly? You can do something similar with images that inspire you to define your expectations of yourself. Find images that you feel are representative of how you want to be. Tear scrap out of magazines and newspapers, and download images from the Internet. Analyzing how these images represent you and your expectations of yourself is a way to begin a conversation with yourself that will lead you to define your expectations for your day-to-day existence.

Our lives -- you know that ending I was talking about earlier -- are going to be the grand total of all the days we spent on earth and all the things we did or didn't do. This is what I mean by the importance of isolating, acknowledging and acting on our daily expectations.

Badgering yourself is not a good way to get anything accomplished. It doesn't generally work for children (and did not work on my two husbands). Rather than nag yourself the very best way to spur yourself on to further accomplishments is to celebrate little victories every day.

Maybe you're reading this with a lot of self-criticism. You haven't been setting the world on fire lately. You went off your New Year's diet. You haven't been exercising as much as you feel you should. You dragged your feet on signing up for that online class, and missed the deadline. The truth is, you can pick yourself apart like a turkey vulture on roadkill, or like a loving parent you can find ways to build yourself up. Like that doting parent, you need to be consistent with praise and encouragement. Rather than saying something punishing to yourself if you feel you don't have a little victory to celebrate on a particular day, find something in that day that you can celebrate. Say you laid on the sofa all day feeling lethargic and unmotivated. You watched a marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and ate popcorn. But maybe, just maybe you got inspiration for a new hair cut from Detective Olivia Benson (she has had some very nice hair styles), and you picked up the phone and made an appointment with your hairdresser. This is what I'm talking about. Little victories.

Some examples of little victories you can celebrate:

  • Caught myself saying "Let's do lunch," and actually made a lunch date with the person
  • Repaid a nagging loan
  • Called Grandma, stayed on for 30 minutes and sounded interested in her stories
  • Worked out a trade of services that will support both me and a friend
  • Got up early to go to a yoga class
  • Did all my errands on my bike
  • Swept out the garage
  • Used the stairs all day at the office instead of the elevator
  • Bought an apple at the office kiosk on my break instead of my usual packaged cookie
  • Resisted using my credit card all day -- considering switching to cash
  • Did some home fix-it jobs
  • Caught myself and succeeded in not saying "should" or "should have" for the entire day
  • Lightened up, and laughed at myself when I said something silly

Praise builds self-esteem. Self-esteem fuels incentive. Start with baby steps and work up to bigger victories.

For more by Nancy Deville, click here.

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