These are the nine things that successful people do—the strategies they use to set and pursue goals (sometimes without consciously realizing it) that, according to decades of research, have the biggest impact on performance. Scientific psychologists who study motivation have conducted thousands of studies to identify and test the effectiveness (and limits) of these strategies. The good news is that the strategies are remarkably straightforward and easy to use.
#1 Get Specific
When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. “Lose five pounds” is a better goal than “lose some weight,” because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that you need to take to reach your goal. Just promising you’ll “eat less” or “sleep more” is too vague; be clear and precise. “I’ll be in bed by 10 p.m. 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
Given how busy most of us are, and how many goals we are juggling at once, it’s not surprising that we routinely miss opportunities to act on a goal because we simply fail to notice them. Did you really have no time to work out today? 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.
To seize the moment, decide when and where you will take each action you want to take, in advance. Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., “If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I’ll work out for thirty 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 percent.
#3 Know Exactly How Far You Have Left to Go
Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress—if not by others, then by you yourself. 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 Realistic Optimist
When you are setting a goal, by all means engage in lots of positive thinking about how likely you are to achieve it. Believing in your ability to succeed is enormously helpful for creating and sustaining your motivation. But whatever you do, don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to reach your goal. Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort, and persistence. 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
Believing you have the ability to reach your goals is important, but so is believing you can get the ability. 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. 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. 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.
#6 Have Grit
Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals and to persist in the face of difficulty. Studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetimes and earn higher college GPAs. Grit predicts which cadets will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. In fact, grit even predicts how far contestants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee will go.
The good news is that if you aren’t particularly gritty now, there is something you can do about it. People who lack grit, more often than not, believe that they just don’t have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking, well, there’s no way to put this nicely: you are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed. Embracing this knowledge will not only help you see yourself and your goals more accurately, but also do wonders for your grit.
#7 Build Your Willpower Muscle
Your self-control “muscle” is just like the other muscles in your body; when it doesn’t get much exercise, it becomes weaker over time. But when you give it regular workouts by putting it to good use, it will grow stronger and stronger, and better able to help you successfully reach your goals.
To build willpower, take on a challenge that requires you to do something you’d honestly rather not do. Give up high-fat snacks, do a hundred 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 (“If I have a craving for a snack, I will eat one piece of fresh or three pieces of dried fruit”). It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier, and that’s the whole point. As your strength grows, you can take on more challenges and step up your self-control workout.
#8 Don’t Tempt Fate
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 goals at once, if you can help it (like quitting smoking and dieting at the same time). And make achieving your goal easier by keeping yourself out of harm’s way. Many people are overly confident in their ability to resist temptation, and as a result they put themselves in situations where temptations abound. Successful people know not to make reaching a goal harder than it already is.
Successful people set very specific goals and seize opportunities to act on them (using strategies like if-then planning). They always know how far they have to go and stay focused on what still needs to be done. They believe they will succeed, but embrace the fact that success will not come easily. They remember that it’s about making progress, rather than doing everything perfectly right out of the gate. They believe that they can develop their abilities through effort, which makes them gritty in the face of setbacks and challenges. They build their willpower through frequent exercise, make plans for how to cope when willpower is low, and try not to put themselves in situations where temptations abound. They focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do.
There is nothing they do that you can’t do, too.