Just about any topic the Harvard Business Review considers becomes golden as soon as it hits HBR’s website. The site’s most popular reads this week, for example, include “How to Let Your Purpose Find You,” “If You’re Too Busy to Meditate, Read This” and “The Presentation Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making.”
Here’s another case in point: “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently,” written by experimental social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson for the Harvard Business Review‘s blog network, continues to receive comments and make the rounds on Twitter even though it was published on Feb. 25, 2011.
Why is Halvorson’s advice so popular? Because as it turns out, even smart people with successful careers need occasional inspiration to stay motivated. Or, as Halvorson phrases it, “even brilliant, highly accomplished people are pretty lousy when it comes to understanding why they succeed or fail.”
That said, Halvorson lays out what decades of research on achievement has proven, namely, that people are successful not just because of who they are, but also because of what they do. These are the rules for “doing” that work, according to Halvorson:
1. Be specific. “Lose five pounds” is a better goal than “lose weight,” because it’s specific. “Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there,” Halvorson writes.
2. Seize the moment. “Did you really have no time to work out today?” Halvorson asks. “No chance at any point to return that phone call? Achieving your goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.”
3. Know exactly how far you have to go. An honest and regular accounting of your progress will help you achieve your goal, writes Heidi Grant Halvorson in “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.” “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.”
4. Be a realistic optimist. Engage in lots of positive thinking about achieving your goals, but don’t underestimate how hard it will be to get there, Halvorson recommends. 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.
5. Focus on getting better rather than being good. “Many of us believe that our intelligence, our personality, and our physical aptitudes are fixed—that no matter what we do, we won’t improve,” she writes. “As a result, we focus on goals that are all about proving ourselves, rather than developing and acquiring new skills. Fortunately, decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong—abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable.”
6. Show some grit. Not only do studies show that gritty people get more education in their lifetimes and earn higher college GPAs, but they are also the cadets who will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. “Effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed,” Halvorson writes.
7. Build your willpower muscle. Like the muscles in your body, your self-control “muscle” also requires exercise. “To build willpower, take on a challenge that requires you to do something you’d honestly rather not do,” Halvorson writes. “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.”
8. Don’t tempt fate. Successful people know not to make reaching a goal harder than it already is, Halvorson says, “No matter how strong your willpower muscle becomes, it’s important to always respect the fact that it is limited, and if you overtax it you will temporarily run out of steam. Don’t try to take on two challenging tasks at once, if you can help it (like quitting smoking and dieting at the same time).”
9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won’t do. “Plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves,” Halvorson writes. “Research on thought suppression (e.g., “Don’t think about white bears!”) has shown that trying to avoid a thought makes it even more active in your mind. The same holds true when it comes to behavior—by trying not to engage in a bad habit, our habits get strengthened rather than broken.”