Nine Things Successful People Do Differently
Social Capitalist and motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. joined Tahl Raz to discuss her popular Harvard Business Review blog post, "Nine Things Successful People Do Differently," the most popular and commented on post of 2011. Here, she shares those nine things and why they matter.
1. Get Specific
It’s not surprising that getting specific about what you want to achieve is a good thing, what’s surprising is how good it is. There have now been over 1000 studies looking at the impact of people getting very specific about their goals versus being very vague or somewhat vague. Instead of saying, “I want to get ahead at work,” say, “I want a promotion to this level by this date,’” because that’s specific. It turns out that you’re multiple times more likely to reach your goal if you get very specific about it.
There’s lots of good reason for that. One is that when our goals are vague, we keep them in the abstract. “I want to be more successful. I want to have more work/life balance. I want to lose more weight, or have more healthy living habits.” When we keep it vague, it’s really not clear what the next step should be. There are many, many ways to be more successful at work and there are many, many ways to live a healthier life but when our goals don’t give us direction about what actions we should take, then we tend to not take them.
Get specific about what you want. Instead of just saying, “I want to be more successful,” say, “I want to be at this level by this time.” Instead of saying, “I want to lose weight,” say “I want to lose __ pounds and I want to lose it by __.” Instead of saying, “I want to live a healthier life,” say, “I want to change such and such new health habits,” and be specific about what bad health habits you want to get rid of.
If we get specific about it, then it becomes clear, I need to do x, y, and z in order to reach that goal. We often tend to be abstract about our goals because that way we often feel a little bit more connected to our dreams like “I want to be successful.” The problem is that this is not a really practical way to think about what it is that you want to achieve.
Getting specific, while obviously a good thing, is actually much more powerful than people realize. It has this chain reaction of clarifying what steps you need to take, and then working your way from there. It’s really essential for figuring out exactly what you need to do and actually doing it. It’s a very powerful strategy even if it seems a little bit obvious.
2. Seize The Moment
You know, we say to ourselves at the end of a long day, “I didn’t have time to do x, y, and z.” That is literally almost never true. The truth is that you made your choices. You had a moment where you could have worked on that goal, and you chose to do something else. Maybe you chose to do something else for a very good reason, but you won’t take actions without thinking in advance about when and under what circumstances you’re going to do it.
We find, if you look across the literature on goal pursuit, that there is an extraordinary gap between goal commitment and achieving goals. We tend to think that being committed to something, “to really want it,” is what really matters. It does matter, it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think it does. It’s a necessary condition, but it’s not even close to sufficient.
For example, we find across studies in the health domain that people who are highly committed to their goals, who really want to change their behavior and do the right thing, end up failing more than 50 percent of the time. In fact, across all areas of life, it’s more like failing about 70 to 80 percent of the time. They have the commitment, but they don’t take the actions they need to take.
My book, and in many ways this blog post, is all about trying to get people to see what the obstacles are between wanting something and actually making it happen. Seizing opportunities is the other big problem we have when we’re trying to bridge that gap.
3. Know How Far You Have to Go
Nobody stays motivated in a vacuum. Nobody continues to work hard when they don’t know how well they’re doing. Nobody improves without having access to resources that can help them improve, and that can give them guidance about where they’re going wrong.
4. Be a Realistic Optimist
While it’s important that the feedback always be optimistic, in the sense that you’re always given the message that you can improve and improvement is possible, it also needs to be honest.
I think that very often we shy away from telling people what they need to hear because we are too worried about protecting feelings. Although I think it’s important to be tactful, it’s very important to be honest. No one has ever improved without understanding what they were doing wrong and what they can do to fix it. I think that when part of your role is to give feedback, giving honest information about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong and guidance about how to move forward, truly matters.
5. Focus On Being Better Rather Than Being Good
This is when we think about what we’re doing in terms of making progress over time rather than being perfect right from the get-go. We benefit tremendously from thinking this way because people experience less anxiety, and they stay motivated even in the face of difficulty. They enjoy what they’re doing more, they find it more interesting, and they’re able to handle negativity, negative feedback, and negative emotions in a much more positive way.
You find that over time, those with the get-better mindset are absolutely the top performers. It’s an irony that allowing yourself to make mistakes means that you’ll end up making less of them,
6. Have Grit
Over and over again we find that persistence really matters in terms of any graded achievement. Grit is this quality that has to do with a person’s ability to commit to long-term goals and really persist in the face of difficulty. Interestingly, we find that grit out-performs even IQ scores when looking at performance in school. One of the key predictors of grit, of being able to persist over the long haul, turns out to be having this get-better mindset.
People who see their abilities as malleable, who think, “If I’m not good at this now, I can become good at it later,” naturally seem to have a mindset that allows them to be gritty in the pursuit of their goals, and really persist over the long haul.
7. Build Your Willpower Muscle
The willpower muscle is a really important idea. You know, many of us think of intelligence and willpower as “something that we’re born with.” We believe that there are just people who seem to have a lot of willpower and people who don’t. It turns out that this is not true. There’s a lot of research now suggesting that willpower is very much like a muscle. It’s like a biceps or triceps, in three important ways.
One, it gets tired with use. No matter how strong your muscles are, if you really tax them, they’re going to feel like jelly after a long workout. Willpower is like that. When you spend all day putting out fires at work and dealing with stresses, you’ve used up a lot of your willpower and your self-control just coping with the day. You don’t have a lot left for things like sticking to your diet. This is why there are so many successful people who have a famous weakness for something. They spend all of their willpower in the successful areas of their lives and really don’t have much left over for coping with that temptation or weakness. Everybody, no matter how much willpower they have, will have moments of low willpower after they’ve taxed it a lot.
The second way in which willpower is like a muscle is that it will actually bounce back after a rest. If you give yourself a break and try to protect yourself from temptation in the moments that you know you’ll be weakest, you’ll find that your willpower and your self-control does bounce back, and you’ll actually have more of it later.
The third and I think the most important way in which willpower is like a muscle, is that it builds with exercise. The more the more you do things in your life that require willpower, the stronger your willpower muscle becomes. The longer you don’t use it and just let it atrophy, the weaker your willpower becomes.
One of the things I talk about a lot in the book is this: Before you tackle a really large willpower challenge that will involve a great deal of resisting temptation, like quitting smoking or going on a radical dietary change, it’s better to start with some smaller exercises.
8. Don’t Tempt Fate
Once you understand that willpower is limited, that no matter how much you have, there will be times when it’s low, you understand the need for protecting yourself from temptation, and not putting yourself in harm’s way. It’s part of the willpower story, but it’s an important point.
9. Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do
It’s the classic, “Don’t think about white bears.” When you tell someone not to think about white bears, all they want to do is think about white bears. It’s called an ironic monitoring rebound effect, and it applies to planning. It’s very important to not say, “I’m not going to do x anymore,” but to talk about what you will do instead. When you’re going to try to get rid of a bad habit, what good habit are you going to replace it with?
This way of thinking turns out to be the most effective way to change habits and to take a step towards reaching a goal.
Feeling more motivated for success already? Take the steps now to start following these nine behaviors and see the difference they can make.
For more motivational goodness, read the entire transcript and listen to the MP3 of Heidi’s success-enabling interview here.