What makes successful people stand out? According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, social psychlogist and Associate Director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, highly successful individuals aren’t that much better at answering that question than those less accomplished.
Decades of research on motivation and achievements suggests that there is much more to what makes one successful than “good” genes and where you’re born. Rather, it’s about staying focused, making smart choices with the right strategies and taking action to achieve realistic goals.
“[S]uccessful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do,” says Halvorson.
In her book, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Halvorson translates the secrets and strategies that the most successful leaders and innovators use, even unknowingly, to pursue their goals into relatively easy to follow self management tips. Above all, she underscores that “you don’t need to become a different person to become a more successful one.”
1. Get specific. Halvorson says that it is critical to understand what success will look like, leaving no room for doubt about what specific actions that need to be taken to achieve your goal. In this chapter, Halvorson introduces the concept of mental contrasting, and advises simple methods for using the technique in everyday life.
“Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there,” she says. “… Just promising you’ll “eat less” or “sleep more” is too vague — be clear and precise. “I’ll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights” leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you’ve actually done it.”
2. Seize the moment to act on your goals. Learning how to get more specific and recognize success leads to a state Halvorson calls the necessity to act. However, understanding “when and where” to take specific actions is what the second chapter covers. Halvorson says one of the most effective ways to focus attention on achieving one’s goals, is if-then planning.
“Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., “If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I’ll work out for 30 minutes before work.”) Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300%.” Halvorson delves into why this strategy is so effective and gives a guide of practical tips for putting if-then planning into practice.
3. Know exactly how far you have left to go. In this chapter, Halvorson emphasizes the importance of self monitoring. Halvorson says that it is critical to have regular feedback as you pursue your goals because being too vague can and will stifle motivation. The frequency of self monitoring, says Halvorson, is not set in stone, but depends on how short-term or long-term your goals are.
“Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress — if not by others, then by you yourself,” Halvorson explains. “If you don’t know how well you are doing, you can’t adjust your behavior or your strategies accordingly. Check your progress frequently — weekly, or even daily, depending on the goal.”
4. Be a realist optimist. Be positive about your abilities to reach your goals, but don’t think things will come too easily, “Studies show that thinking things will come to you easily and effortlessly leaves you ill-prepared for the journey ahead, and significantly increases the odds of failure,” says Halvorson.
Being realistic about the difficulties an obsticles that might arise means you won’t be set up for a fall. Halvorson focuses on aspects of optimism throughout this chapter, distinguishing between the realist optimist, or those who “believe they have to make success happen,” and the unrealistic optimist, those who believe “success will happen to them.”
5. Focus on getting better, rather than being good. It’s not about proving yourself, it’s about improving yourself. The idea that IQ or abilities are fixed is an outdated notion, no longer backed by modern psychology. “Fortunately, decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong — abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable,” Halvorson says.
Halvorson discusses the two ways that most people go about the task of approaching their goals, what she calls “be-good” goals and “get-better” goals. Halvorson says the most successful people are far more prone to the latter. Where be-good goals focus on “proving that you already have ability and already know what you’re doing,” get-better goals puts the focus on learning and strengthening abilities, accepting the missteps that might come along the way.
“Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices, and reach your fullest potential. People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination,” Halvorson says.Business success graph intelligentHQ
6. Have grit. Having true grit isn’t just for cowboys. Having grit, says Halvorson, means having the determination to persist and maintain motivation in the pursuit of long term goals. This point ties in very well with the previous chapter which highlights the importance of approaching goals in a way that embraces learning and one’s ability to adjust and change, versus a mindset that limits oneself.
According to Halvorson, research by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, revealed that people either view their abilities as being fixed for life or they view their own abilities as being malleable. The people in the latter category, “incremental theorists,” believe that with hard work and practice, their abilities can grow. “Entity theorists,” on the other hand, expect their performance to remain the same, believing that there isn’t much they can do to improve upon their innate intelligence.
People with grit, says Halvorson, are overwhelmingly incremental theorists. “Studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetime, and earn higher college GPAs,” she says. “Grit predicts which cadets will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. In fact, grit even predicts which round contestants will make it to at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.”
7. Build your willpower muscle. Building your willpower, says Halvorson, is just like building any other muscle in your body, bringing to mind the old adage, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ In this chapter, Halvorson recommends ways to “workout” your willpower muscle, going into detail about how the willpower mechanism works and offering practical methods for maintaining self-control when temptation (think donout or cigarettes) rears its head and everyday activities, like the distractions of a busy life, family, and other decision-making obligations, quickly saps willpower.
Over time, rising to the challenges you set will get easier, says Halvorson. But the point is that at first, it is difficult. “To build willpower, take on a challenge that requires you to do something you’d honestly rather not do,” says Halvorson, “Give up high-fat snacks, do 100 sit-ups a day, stand up straight when you catch yourself slouching, try to learn a new skill. When you find yourself wanting to give in, give up, or just not bother — don’t. Start with just one activity, and make a plan for how you will deal with troubles when they occur …”
8. Don’t tempt fate. Successful people understand the limits of their willpower and don’t overload themselves with tasks that overtax their strength. Tackle major willpower challenges one at a time, particularly when it comes to breaking a habit like smoking. Halvorson says that knowing when to avoid situations where willpower is tempted is a big part of not tempting fate. “Also,” she emphasizes, ” do yourself a favor, and don’t try to pursue two goals at once that each requires a lot of self-control, if you can help it. This is really just asking for trouble.”
9. Focus on what you will do, not on what you won’t do. In this chapter, Halvorson elaborates upon what science has to say about the “if-then” planning methods introduced in Chapter 2. She discusses three types of “if-then” plans, and underscores the importance of wording and framing, warning in particular against negation, which can backfire. She says instead, the idea is not to stop a behavior in order to reach a goal, but in replacing old behaviours that are self-sabotaging by thinking about what you will do instead.
“For example,” says Halvorson, “if you are trying to gain control of your temper and stop flying off the handle, you might make a plan like “If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down.” By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit will get worn away over time until it disappears completely.”
In the end, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, is an excellent and motivating read backed by Halvorson’s considerable expertise and research into the core elements needed to plan realistically to achieve goals. It is a breath of fresh air to have such indepth knowledge on self management that is also backed by real science. As Halvorson says, “It’s never what you are, but what you do.”
Heather Turner is a writer based in London who has worked in the fields of print and broadcast journalism, PR and film. Turner moved to London in 2009 from the rural Ozark Mountain region of Missouri to pursue a B.A. in Mass Communications and to gain more hands-on experience in film and marketing. She currently writes about trends in digital media and maintains a blog in her spare time on subjects including politics and media criticism.