Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

Cross-posted from the Harvard Business Review

Why have you been so successful in reaching some of your goals, but not others? If you aren't sure, you are far from alone in your confusion. It turns out that even brilliant, highly accomplished people are pretty lousy when it comes to understanding why they succeed or fail. The intuitive answer — that you are born predisposed to certain talents and lacking in others — is really just one small piece of the puzzle. In fact, decades of research on achievement suggests that successful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do.

1. Get specific. When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. "Lose 5 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 need to be taken 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 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.
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 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%.

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 lifetime, and earn higher college GPAs. 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.

The good news is, 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 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 ("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 tasks at once, if you can help it (like quitting smoking and dieting at the same time). And don't put yourself in 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.

9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won't do. Do you want to successfully lose weight, quit smoking, or put a lid on your bad temper? Then plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. 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.

If you want change your ways, ask yourself, What will I do instead? For example, 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.

It is my hope that, after reading about the nine things successful people do differently, you have gained some insight into all the things you have been doing right all along. Even more important, I hope are able to identify the mistakes that have derailed you, and use that knowledge to your advantage from now on. Remember, you don't need to become a different person to become a more successful one. It's never what you are, but what you do.


Why Some Leaders Don’t Learn From Their Mistakes

In prepared remarks before the panel investigating the roots of the financial crisis, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan blames the subprime crisis on foreign investors, nonbank lenders, the spread of securitized mortgages and financial firms for failing to manage their risk. The one person he did not blame was himself, or his institution -- the Fed.

- Shahien Nasiripour, The Huffington Post, reporting on Greenspan’s testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on April 7, 2010

Despite the fact that the Federal Reserve, as the nation’s largest bank, did not take any significant action to curb the reckless lending that precipitated the Great Recession, Alan Greenspan seemed to apportion blame everywhere but to himself.  At one point in his testimony, he even appeared to blame the fall of the Berlin Wall.  (His logic:  seeing the truly awful job the Soviets were doing running their economy brought about distrust of “central planning” of any kind.   So evidently, the excesses of Capitalism are Communism’s fault.)

Alan Greenspan was instrumental in determining U.S. financial policy for 19 years, but he doesn’t feel that he was responsible for the failure of the policy he helped create, or that it’s failure was to some extent avoidable.  Is he crazy?  Actually, no.   Did he consciously and willfully mislead the Commission (and the rest of us)?  Very probably not.  Without actually being Alan Greenspan, I can’t say for sure, but the odds are good that he really does believe he’s not to blame.  And as much as we might like to think otherwise, many of us would feel the same way if we were in his shoes.

Psychologists call this the self-serving bias – the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or the circumstances as responsible for our failures.  We reason this way to protect our self-esteem, and to protect our image in the eyes of others.   We also do it because it really feels right.  Think of an actor on stage – as a member of the audience, you are focused on what he is doing, but if you’re the actor, you see everything but yourself.  You see your fellow actors, the scenery, the audience, but you can’t actually watch you.  Because of what’s called the actor/observer difference, it’s easy for Alan Greenspan to look back over his 19 years at the Fed and see all the factors that played a role in screwing things up, and harder for him to see his own role in it.

Psychologist Tony Greenwald’s 1980 American Psychologist article on this topic cited some very amusing examples of the self-serving bias, taken from a San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle article on the explanations drivers gave to their insurers after an accident.  You’ll notice that some of these people went to remarkable lengths to deflect blame:

As I approached the intersection, a sign suddenly appeared in a place where a stop sign had never been before.  I was unable to stop in time to avoid an accident.

The telephone pole was approaching.  I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.

A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.

My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle.

Studies show that in fact, nearly us fall victim to this kind of bias (though we tend to think that only other people do – yet another example of the bias at work.)

The upside of all this self-protection is that we don’t feel so bad when things go wrong, and can stay optimistic about our future chances for success.  The downside, particularly for the leaders on whose judgment we must rely, is that we don’t learn anything from our mistakes if we don’t recognize that we made them in the first place.  How can you do a better job next time if you won’t even admit you did a bad job this time?

From a motivational perspective, the best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on.  And even though, in his mid-80s, Alan Greenspan is unlikely to serve a second round as Fed Chairman, he would probably like to get an accurate handle on what went wrong – something he will never do unless he admits that he was actually driving.

The Keys to Finding Work + Life Fit

Like a lot of working parents, I find myself constantly juggling both professional and personal goals, trying to find time for everything that matters, and sometimes feeling like I’m screwing it up big time.  So for a little wisdom and practical advice, I turned to Cali Williams Yost, the CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., a flexibility strategy consulting firm. (Her new book is  Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You).

Me:  Why is it a problem for us to think in terms of work-life “balance”?

Cali:  When your goal is work-life “balance,” it causes more problems than it solves.  In fact, here are what I call the 10 Tyrannies of Work/Life Balance:

1) Balance is always discussed in the negative—what you “don’t” have.

2) Balance keeps you focused on the problem, not the solution.

3) Balance assumes we’re all the same.

4) Balance infers that there is a “right” a answer.

5) Balance leads us to judge others (and ourselves), often unfairly.

6) Balance results in unproductive guilt.

7) Balance suggests that the goal is an impossible 50-50 split between work and the other parts of your life.

8) Balance leaves no room for periods where there’s more work and less life, and vice versa.

9) Balance ignores the fact that work and life are constantly changing, and

10) Balance will never be taken seriously by corporate leaders, who only hear “work less” when you say “balance.”

Plus, have you ever noticed that when the term “work-life balance” is written out, there’s either a “-“ or a “/” between work and life?  The truth is that work and life are one and the same today.  Not separate.  You may want them to ultimately be as separate as possible, but you need to start from the premise that it’s all one big ball of time and energy that you need to deliberately and consciously manage.

Me: What is “work+life fit” How will I know when I have it?

Cali: Work+life fit is the way work “fits” into your life, day-to-day and at major life and career transitions.  It’s like snowflakes.  Everyone has a different work+life fit reality.  No two are the same.   Thinking about the goal as work+life “fit,” frees you from the ten tyrannies of balance above because you:

1) Talk about what you could have.

2) See solutions.

3) Know we’re all different.

4) Realize there’s no right answer.

5) Stop judging yourself and others, harshly.

6) Lose the guilt.

7) Embrace and plan for the ebb and flow of work and life, and

8) Increase the likelihood that corporate leaders will support the need to flexibly manage work and life better and smarter.

How will you know you “have it?”  I love that question because it points out another mindset shift we need to make.  Again, balance does infer that ultimately if you work hard enough there is an answer.  But there is no right way.  Managing your work+life fit is an ongoing practice.  You never “have it.” You can only optimize it for a particular set of work and personal circumstances at a point in time.  Then realities will change (they always do), and so will your fit.  Once you realize that there is no right way, it relieves the pressure and allows you to experiment more freely with what works best for you.

Me: What are 3 tips you have found helpful for increasing your work+life fit?

Cali: The Three Steps to a Better Work+Life Fit® are outlined in my book, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead, 2004), but here are a few highlights to get you started:

1) Regularly spend time asking yourself “What do I want my work+life fit to look like?  What’s working?  What’s missing?” and begin the process of connecting with what that ever-changing vision looks like for you.  My experience from doing this work for over a decade is that most of us can easily rattle off what we don’t want, but very few of us have any idea about what we do want.  I outline in the book steps to begin to create your work+life fit vision, but it can be as simple as sitting down in a quiet place a few times a week and simply asking the questions and listening to what you hear.  It’s truly amazing how we all know what we want.

2) Consciously examine your definition of success to make sure it’s supporting the work+life fit you want, and not undermining it. In other words, make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy.  This is tricky territory for high achievers because “success” is very clearly defined especially related to prestige, money, advancement and care giving.  Maybe right now the work+life fit you want requires you to give up a part of your job or perhaps not take a promotion.  How do you feel about that?  Or maybe you aren’t able to be at every one of your child’s soccer games.  Are you consumed with guilt?   Our personal definition of success needs to be as flexible as the way we manage our work+life fit.

3) Create a plan for making your work+life fit vision a reality that’s a win for you and your job. The biggest mistake I see people make is if they want to work from home one or two days a week, shift their hours or reduce their schedule, they expect their manager to figure it out.  No!  You need to come to the table with an initial plan that outlines: What type of flexibility you want to manage your work+life fit, how the work will get done, how you will communicate with your manager, team and customers and when the plan will be reviewed.  In my book, I outline step-by-step process of what you need to think about when creating a solid plan.  Taking the lead will greatly increase your chances for support and success.

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., a flexibility strategy consulting firm.  In addition to her book, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005), Yost created the award-winning Work+Life Fit blog, and is an expert blogger for FastCompany.com.  You  can follow her on Twitter @caliyost.


How Long Will This Take? 3 Steps to Being a Better Judge of Time

From my Fast Company blog:

Every Saturday morning, while my husband JD is eating his cereal and attempting to fully awaken, I ambush him with the list of household chores and errands I’ve been making all week (and saving for when he’ll be home to help me.)  Every single time, an argument ensues.  At its core is JD’s unshakeable belief that any task, no matter how complex or difficult, can be completed in about 15 minutes.  “Let’s go out and have some fun, “ he’ll say, “and we’ll tackle that stuff when we get back this afternoon.”  “But there won’t be enough time!” I reply, with mounting frustration.  “It will be fine,” he says.  More often than not, he is wrong.

As much as I enjoy giving him a hard time about his total inability to judge how long something will take, the truth is that most people aren’t much better at it.  In fact, human beings are generally pretty lousy when it comes to estimating the time they will need to complete a task.  Psychologists refer to this as the planning fallacy, and it’s an all too common problem – one with the very real potential to screw up our plans and keep us from reaching our goals.

Studies show that the planning fallacy can be attributed to several different biases we have when estimating how long it will take to do just about anything.  First, we routinely fail to consider our own past experiences while planning.   When my husband tells me it will take him 15 minutes to vacuum the carpets, he is ignoring the fact that it took him an hour to do it last time.   And as any professor can tell you, most college seniors, after four straight years of paper-writing, still can’t seem to figure out how long it will take them to write a 10-page paper.  We just don’t take our past into account the way we should when thinking about our future.

Second, we ignore the very real possibility that things won’t go as planned – our future plans tend to be “best-case scenarios.” So running to the store for a new vacuum cleaner might take 15 minutes – if there is no traffic, if they carry the model we’re looking for, if we find it right away, and if there aren’t long lines at the register.

Lastly, we don’t think about all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task, and consider how long each part of the task will take.   When you think about painting a room, you may picture yourself using a roller to quickly slap the paint on the walls, and think that it won’t take much time at all – neglecting to consider how you’ll first have to move or cover the furniture, tape all the fixtures and window frames, do all the edging by hand, and so on.

So while we all tend to be prone to the planning fallacy to some extent, some of us fall into its trap more often than others. People in positions of power, for example, are particularly vulnerable, because feeling powerful tends to focus us on getting what we want, ignoring the potential obstacles that stand in our way.  A recent set of studies by Mario Weick and Ana Guinote shows that such a narrow focus does indeed turn powerful people into very poor planners.

In one study, half of the student participants were made to feel powerful (by being told that their opinion would influence the course requirements established for future students).  Next, all students were asked to estimate how long it would take to finish an upcoming major assignment.   Everyone was overly-optimistic, but the powerful ones were significantly more so.  Powerful students estimated that they would finish their assignments 2.5 days before they actually did, while the control group was on average only 1.5 days late.    So feeling powerful makes you think you’ll take a whole day less to complete the assignment than you would have guessed had you been feeling a little more ordinary.

A second study induced feelings of power by having some of the participants recall a time in their past when they felt very powerful, and this produced a similar result.  Powerful participants estimated that it would take them only 4 minutes to complete a proofreading task that actually took 9 minutes, compared to the control group’s estimate of 6.5 minutes.

In a third study, participants who were made to feel powerful thought it would take them less time to write an essay, get ready for an evening out, shop at the supermarket, and prepare a 3 course meal, than the control group.   Importantly, these effects completely disappeared when powerful participants were explicitly told to recall how much time these activities had taken them in the past, and use that information to make their estimates.  So when powerful people are forced to focus on all the relevant information, their planning is far more accurate.

When you’re making a plan and estimating how long it will take, be sure to stop and 1) consider how long it has taken you in the past,

2) identify the ways in which things might not go as planned, and

3) spell out all the steps you will need to take to get it done.

This is particularly important when you are in a position of power, so make sure that there are safeguards or reminders in place to help you to consider all the information you should.  Otherwise, you may fall victim to the everything-takes-15-minutes kind of optimism that can lead to disaster.

Longer May Not Be Better, But It Feels that Way

Thinking about trying to shake things up at work?  Brimming with new ideas and strategies?  Hoping to get your organization to try a new way of doing things, or maybe just get your family to alter their holiday traditions a bit?   Good for you.  But if you are going to be an advocate for change, it might help you to start by understanding what you are up against, psychologically speaking.

It’s not just that people fear change, though they undoubtedly do.  It’s also that they genuinely believe (often on an unconscious level) that when you’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things.  And the longer you’ve been doing it that way, the better it is.

So change isn’t simply about embracing something unknown – it’s about giving up something old (and therefore good) for something new (and therefore not good).

Recent research shows that people have a very reliable and tangible preference for things that have been around longer. In one study, students preferred the course requirement described as the status quo over a new version (regardless of whether the new version meant more or less coursework), and liked it even more when it had been around for 100 years rather than only 10 years.   In another, people who were told that acupuncture had been in existence for 2000 years expressed more favorable attitudes toward it than those who were told it existed for 250 years.

The bottom line is, unconsciously we all believe that longevity = goodness.  There are, admittedly, plenty of instances where this is perfectly rational.  When a particular product or way of doing things has stood the test of time, it is probably a superior to alternatives in at least some respects.

The problem is that longevity and tradition aren’t always accurate predictors of goodness – inertia, habit, marketing prowess, market monopoly, and fear of change can all be the real reasons why we haven’t tried something new.  Also, there are areas of life that really should be unaffected by this sort of bias - in domains like art or cuisine, how long something has been around should have little to do with how aesthetically pleasing or delicious you find it.

And yet, it does.   In one study, people who saw a painting described as having been painted in 1905 found it far more pleasing to look at than people who saw the same painting described as created in 2005.  In another, they admired the appearance of a tree described as being 4500 years old more than did those who thought the same tree just 500 years old.

In my favorite example, study participants were given a piece of European chocolate.  It was described to them as having first been sold in its region either 73 years ago or 3 years ago.  Guess which group rated the chocolate as better-tasting.

It’s not impossible to overcome an unconscious bias, but if you want to succeed you need to start be realizing that it’s there.  Change and innovation requires that we not only convince others that new can be good, but that we address their (often unconscious) assumption that what’s been around longer looks, works, and tastes better.

3 Keys to Finding Love and Hanging On to It

If you want to be happy in your relationship, what are the most important ingredients?  Everybody has a theory about what it takes to live happily ever after, and no two people seem to agree.  So let’s look instead at what science tells us will lead to relationship bliss, and how best to tackle three of the major challenges we face when trying to find, and keep, that Special Someone.

#1. What to Look For In a Mate: Someone Agreeable, Conscientious, and Emotionally Stable

According to the researchers, people with spouses who are agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable report being significantly happier in their marriages.  So if your romantic partner is a sourpuss, selfish and irresponsible, and has a tendency to fly off the handle, your chances of finding marital bliss together are not good.

Look for someone generally pleasant, responsible, and even-tempered, and in fairness to them, be willing to return the favor.

#2. How to Know If He (or She) Loves You Back:  It’s The Little Things

“If you really loved me, you would….”

Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship has had thoughts like this one.  If he loved me he would bring me flowers, or compliment me more often, or remember my birthday, or remember to take out the damn garbage.  When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words, right?

Well, not necessarily.  According to new research, romantic feelings like love, intimacy, and commitment reliably lead to some loving behaviors – the smaller, spontaneous acts of kindness that occur without much forethought, like offering a backrub, making a nice dinner, or letting you have the last brownie in the pan.  These “little things” are a much better indicator of the depth of his love than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash.

#3  How to Fight Well:  Treat Little Problems and Big Problems Differently

The best way to deal with conflict in a relationship depends on how serious or severe the problem is.  Did your boyfriend drink too much at the party last night, or is he drinking too much every night?  Did your wife splurge a little too much on clothes last month, or are her spending habits edging you closer and closer to bankruptcy?  Did he invite his mother to dinner without discussing it with you first, or did he invite his mother to live with you without discussing it first?  Little problems and big problems require very different approaches if you want to have a lasting, happy relationship.

When it comes to relatively minor problems, direct fighting strategies – like placing blame on your partner for their actions or expressing your anger - predict a loss of relationship satisfaction over time.   Flying off the handle when he forgets to take out the garbage yet again, or when she spends a little too much money on a pricey pair of shoes, is going to take its toll on your happiness in the long run.  You really are better off letting the small stuff go.

On the other hand, in response to major problems, couples who battle it out do a better job of tackling, and eventually resolving those issues, than those who sweep big problems under the carpet.

So when you are deciding whether or not something is worth fighting over with your partner, ask yourself if, in the scheme of things, the problem is a 10 or a 2.  If it’s a 2, try letting it go.  But if it’s a 10, let the battle begin.  You’ll both be happier that way.


How to Walk Away When It’s Not Working

Sometimes, you don’t know when to throw in the towel.   As time passes, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as you planned.  You realize that pursuing whatever it is that you’re pursuing, whether it’s being successful in your current career, mending a troubled relationship, or renovating your house from top to bottom, will cost you too much financially or emotionally, or take too long.  But instead of moving on to new opportunities, all too often you simply stay the course and sacrifice your own wellbeing in the process.

You aren’t alone.  Most of us know what it’s like to stay in a job or a relationship long after it has ceased being satisfying, or to take on a project that’s just too big for us and be reluctant to admit it.  CEOs have been known to allocate manpower and money to projects long after it’s become clear that they are obviously failing, digging a deeper hole rather than trying to climb their way out of it (Remember how long it took to get rid of New Coke?)

The costs to the person who can’t see reason, in terms of time, effort, and lost opportunities for happiness, can be enormous. We recognize this kind of foolishness immediately in others, but that doesn’t stop us from making the same mistake ourselves.  Why?

There are several powerful and largely unconscious psychological forces at work here.   We may throw good money after bad, or waste time in a dead-end relationship, because we haven’t come up with an alternative, or because we don’t want to admit to our friends and family, or to ourselves, that we were wrong.   But the most likely culprit is our overwhelming aversion to sunk costs.

Sunk costs are the resources that you’ve put into an endeavor that you can’t get back out.   They are the years you spent training for a profession you hate or waiting for your commitment-phobic boyfriend to propose.  They are the money you spent on redecorating your living room in the hot new style, only to find that you hate it living in it.

Once you’ve realized that you probably won’t succeed or that you are unhappy with the results, it shouldn’t matter how much time and effort you’ve already put into something.  If your job or your boyfriend have taken up some of the best years of your life, it doesn’t make sense to let them use up the years you’ve got left. And an ugly living room is an ugly living room, no matter how much money you spent making it so.

The problem is that it doesn’t feel that way.  Putting in a lot only to end up with nothing to show for it is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider.  We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, and not nearly enough about the costs of not moving on  - more wasted time and effort, more unhappiness, and more missed opportunities.  So how can we make it easier to know when to cut our losses?

Thanks to recent research by Northwestern University psychologists Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui, there is a simple and effective way to be sure you are making the best decisions when a things go awry:  focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you have to lose.

As I’ve written about before, psychologists call this adopting a promotion focus. When we think about our goals in terms of potential gains, we automatically (often without realizing it) become more comfortable with making mistakes and accepting the losses we may have to incur along the way.

When we adopt a prevention focus, on the other hand, and think about our goals in terms of what we could lose if we don’t succeed, we become much more sensitive to sunk costs.

For example, in one of their studies, Molden and Hui put participants into either a promotion or prevention mindset by having them spend five minutes writing about their “personal hopes and aspirations” (promotion) or “duties and obligations” (prevention).  They also included a control group with no manipulation of mindset.

Next, each participant was told to imagine that he or she was president of an aviation company that had committed $10 million to developing a plane that can’t be detected by radar.  With the project near completion and $9 million already spent, a rival company announces the availability of their own radar-blank plane, which is both superior in performance and lower in cost.  The question put to participants was simple – do you invest the remaining $1 million and finish your company’s (inferior and more expensive) plane, or cut your losses and move on?

Molden and Hui found that participants who had been put in a prevention mindset  (focused on avoiding loss) stayed the course and invested the remaining $1 million roughly 80% of the time.  The control group, included to provide a sense of how people would respond without any changes to their mindset, was virtually identical to the prevention group.  This suggests that when things go wrong and sunk costs are high, most of us naturally become prevention-minded, and more likely to try to keep waging a losing battle.

The odds of making that mistake were significantly reduced by adopting a promotion mindset (focused on potential gain) – those participants invested the remaining $1 million less than 60% of the time.*

When we see our goals in terms of what we can gain, rather than what we might lose, we are more likely to see a doomed endeavor for what it is, and try to make the most of a bad situation.

It’s not difficult to achieve greater clarity if you make a deliberate effort to refocus yourself when making your decision.  Stop and reflect on what you have to gain by cutting your losses now – the opportunities for happiness and growth.  If you do, you’ll find it much easier to make the right choice.

*Why not a bigger drop? Good question.  Remember that promotion focus was manipulated very indirectly through a totally unrelated writing task.  If you adopt a promotion focus directly with respect to the decision itself, considering what you could gain by moving on from your failure, the effects should be even stronger.


A Simple Fix for Miscommunication Part 2: Putting It Into Practice

(From my Fast Company Blog)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on miscommunication in the workplace, and how so much of it is caused by the fact that people routinely fail to realize how little they are actually communicating. We think we’ve said a lot more than we actually have.  As a result, our colleagues are left guessing as to what we meant, or what we want from them.  All too often, they guess wrong.

Judging by the popularity of the post, Fast Company readers can relate.  You know how frustrating it is to be on the receiving end of communication that is confusing or vague.  But most of us have no idea that we are guilty of the same crime.  It’s easy to see why – after all, we know what we mean.  Unless we are confronted directly about how poorly we are communicating (something people are generally loathe to do, for a number of reasons), how are we to know if we’ve said enough?

I received a number of emails asking how to put the insight gained from the last post into practice on a daily basis.  Here are three strategies you can use to make sure that you are saying everything that needs to be said.

1)    Take a few moments before communicating to identify the key points you need to get across. Write them down if you think you might forget something when you are actually conversing (this is very common).  If you think any of your key points “go without saying,” you are probably wrong.

2)    Create a process for assessing understanding.  Everyone on your team needs to participate – don’t single anyone out.  When you communicate something to a team member, end the encounter by asking them to summarize in their own words what they heard.

For this to work well without anyone feeling patronized, you need to make it clear that this is not a test – your concern is that you didn’t communicate effectively, not that they weren’t paying attention.  Also, it has to work both ways.  When your team member brings something to your attention, you should summarize what you heard as well.

Without direct feedback, there is no way to figure out if the message was fully received.  But people are reluctant to provide this feedback if there is no explicit process in place.  They worry about looking foolish, or irritating the communicator (particularly when the communicator is the boss.)

3)    Invite questions should they arise.  Sometimes, you don’t realize that you didn’t understand what a colleague asked you to do until you actually try to do it.  At this point, it can be embarrassing to go back and admit “I don’t get it.”  Take the embarrassment out of it by reminding your team members that you are always happy to answer any questions that may come up later.  When you are asked for clarification, provide it with enthusiasm.

I know that all of this seems like a lot of work, and it is.  But the extra time and effort you put in to improving your team’s ability to communicate will be well worth it.  You’ll spend far less time fixing mistakes and putting out fires.  Your team will be more motivated and productive.  And you’ll have confidence that everyone is finally, and permanently, on the same page.

2 Ways to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables (That Actually Work!)

As a part of every check-up, my pediatrician asks me about what my children (ages 2 and 4) are eating.  “Are they getting lots of vegetables?  Especially dark leafy greens, and iron-rich foods like broccoli?” she asks, one eyebrow raised skeptically.

“Oh, absolutely.  Lots.” I reply, while avoiding direct eye contact.  I’m not exactly lying – my kids are getting plenty of healthy foods.  They just aren’t really eating them, at least not as much as I’d like them to.

I’ve heard all sorts of advice about overcoming the Vegetable Problem.  Hide them in other foods, serve them first and leave the chicken and pasta for later, add lots of seasonings for flavor, make a big fuss over how much you love broccoli to fool them into thinking it’s delicious.  In my experience, these techniques aren’t all that helpful.  So like many a desperate parent, I have decided to resort to bribes.

Psychologists (myself included) frequently warn against using rewards to encourage behavior in children, because extrinsic rewards like treats, money, or even effusive praise can undermine a child’s intrinsic motivation to do something they already enjoy or find meaningful.  Once a child is rewarded for eating particular foods (the logic goes), they are less likely to eat those foods willingly once the rewards are removed.

While studies have shown that the danger of rewarding desired behaviors is very real when it comes to activities children already enjoy, like reading or solving math problems, it’s possible that rewarding a child for eating vegetables might prove more effective.  When your child already doesn’t like vegetables, there isn’t any intrinsic motivation to undermine.

In fact, new research by psychologist Lucy Cooke and her colleagues at University College London shows that with rewards, children not only eat their vegetables, but learn to like them, too.

At the beginning of the study, 422 children (ages 4-6) where shown six vegetables  (carrot, red pepper, sugar snap pea, cabbage, cucumber, and celery).  They were asked to taste a piece of each, rate how much they liked it (on a scale from yummy to yucky), and put them in order of best-to-worst tasting.

The researchers focused on the fourth-ranked vegetable for each child, inviting them to eat as much as they wanted, and measuring the amount eaten (usually, not much.)

The children were then offered that vegetable again on each of the next twelve days.  Some of the children were offered a tangible reward  (a sticker) for eating it, some were enthusiastically praised for eating it, and others were not given any kind of reward.  (Children in the control group were not offered the vegetable each day.)

At the end of the twelve days, and again after 1 month and 3 months, the researchers offered the vegetable again to all the children, but this time without any rewards, and observed how much they freely chose to eat.

Initially, after the rewards were removed, the children who were given a tangible reward ate the most of their vegetables.  Those who received praise, and those who were simply exposed to the vegetable each day, ate less than the sticker group, but still ate significantly more than the control group.

But after three months, the sticker group was no different than the praise group – and both groups were eating nearly twice as much of their vegetable, of their own free will, than the control group kids.

So if you want to encourage your children to embrace the delights of broccoli and green beans (and be able to look your pediatrician directly in the eye), try introducing rewards into your dining routine.  If you aren’t comfortable with the idea of paying your kids to eat, the good news is that some enthusiastic cheerleading works just as well in the long run.  Personally, I’m planning on investing in a lot of stickers.


Giving Employees the Feeling of Choice, When You Are Really Pulling The Strings

A Guest Post for SmartBlog on Workforce:

Most managers and leaders have, on a regular basis, the unenviable task of trying to get other people to adopt particular goals.  Companies have agendas, and employees need to support those agendas if the company is to succeed.  But if you want your employees to live up to their full potential, it’s not enough that they do what you tell them to - that they work hard and meet deadlines because you said they have to, and you are watching.  Ideally, you want the members of your team to see that the goals they are pursuing have real value.

In fact, you want them to make the goals their own – and with good reason.  Again and again, studies show that the greatest motivation and most personal satisfaction comes from those goals that we choose for ourselves.   Self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivationthe desire to do something for its own sake.   When people are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy what they are doing more, and find it more interesting.  They feel more creative, and process information more deeply.  They persist more in the face of difficulty.  They perform better.  Intrinsic motivation is awesome in its power to get and keep us going.

Autonomy is particularly critical when it comes to creating and maintaining intrinsic motivation.  But in the workplace, goals have to be assigned.  What’s a manager to do?

It turns out that it isn’t so much actual freedom of choice that matters when it comes to creating intrinsic motivation, but the feeling of choice.  Choice provides a sense of self-determination, even when choice is trivial or illusory.

The good news is, while true autonomy in the workplace can be hard to come by, the feeling of choice can be created fairly easily, using these three tips:

Tip 1: First, and most obviously, your employees need to understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.  Don’t assume the why is as obvious to your team as it is to you.

Tip 2: When the goal itself is predetermined by Management, allowing your employees to decide how they will reach the goal can create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.  (If you can’t give them total free reign, try giving them a choice between two options for how to proceed.  If even that is not possible, skip directly to Tip 3.)

Tip 3: If you have to assign both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by inviting your employee to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task.  For instance, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goals and method for reaching it predetermined), you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in.  Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.

Take time to reflect on how you might be able create a greater sense of autonomy in your own workplace using these three steps. Choice is incredibly motivating – to bring out the best in your employees, harness its power.

Why Chewing With Your Mouth Open Can Make You Seem Powerful

When A Little Bad Behavior is a Good Thing

(From my Fast Company blog)

Powerful people often act as if the rules don’t apply to them, or that even if the rules  do apply, they don’t really care.

Research shows that when people feel powerful, they are more likely to act according to their own goals, rather than what’s best for the group.  They are less sensitive to what’s happening around them, disregard input from others, and ignore social norms.  They are more sensitive to their own internal states and feelings, and  care less about what others may think of them.

(And this happens even when the experience of power is new or temporary -there’s something about power that seems to immediately turn our vision inward).

The net result is a lot of bad behavior – not necessarily illegal, but certainly obnoxious.  Powerful people are apt do all sorts of socially inappropriate things.  They interrupt more frequently, invade personal space, take credit for other people’s ideas, make insulting remarks, and are more likely to engage in sexual harassment (ok, that last one actually is illegal).

One study actually showed that powerful people are even more likely eat with their mouths open.  I had noticed that one myself in graduate school.  It often seemed like the more prominent and well-regarded a professor was, the more unpleasant he was to share a meal with.

One of the great ironies of all this bad behavior is that while we may find it personally offensive, breaking the rules of good conduct actually makes these people seem even more powerful.

New research from psychologists at the University of Amsterdam shows that when someone violates a social norm, we assume, often unconsciously, that they are somehow free to do what they want.  In their studies, men and women who took someone else’s coffee, brushed minor mistakes under the carpet rather than correcting them, put their feet up on the table, or flicked cigarette ashes on the floor, we judged as more powerful than those who were better-behaved.

Despite being seen as rude and somewhat unpleasant, the rule-breakers were seen as more influential, more likely to hold a leadership position, and more able to “make life difficult for others.”

I hate to be an advocate for bad manners, but since so much of any individual’s success depends on how they are perceived, it’s worth taking a moment to think about how a little strategically bad behavior might raise your profile.  Eccentric is better than offensive, because eccentricity is about breaking the rules in relatively harmless ways, and keeps ill will to a minimum.

Being able to project an air of indifference, to make it seem like you don’t really care what other people think (even if you really do) and are free to do whatever you want, will leave others with the impression that you are a force to be reckoned with.    Just do yourself a favor, and however you decide to break the rules, keep it legal.  And seriously, don’t chew with your mouth open.


Why Letting Yourself Make Mistakes Means Making Fewer of Them

Think back to the last time your boss assigned you a new project or task at work, or the last time you tried to tackle something really difficult in your personal life.  How did it feel?  I’m guessing scary, right?

While some people seem eager to tackle new challenges, many of us are really just trying to survive without committing any major screw-ups.    Taking on something totally new and unfamiliar is understandably frightening, since the odds of making a mistake are good when you are inexperienced.  Small wonder that we greet new challenges with so little enthusiasm.

How can we learn to see things differently?   How can we shift our thinking, and approach new responsibilities and challenges with more confidence and energy?

The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising:  Give yourself permission to screw-up. Start any new project by saying  “I’m not going to be good at this right away, I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.”

So now you’re probably thinking, “If I take your advice and actually let myself screw up, there will be consequences.  I’m going to pay for it.”  Fair enough.  But you really needn’t worry about that, because studies show that when people are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them!  Let me explain.

We approach most of what we do with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning a new skill.  It’s the difference between wanting to show that you are smart vs. wanting to get smarter.

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard.  We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety.  Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail.  Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does – it is the goal-killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago with my graduate student, Laura Gelety, we found that people who were trying to be good (i.e., trying to show how smart they were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when I made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently while they were working, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).

The amazing thing was, the people who were trying to get better (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of my dirty tricks.  No matter how hard I made it for them, students focused on getting better stayed motivated and did well.

Too often, when the boss gives us an assignment, we expect to be able to do the work flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be.  The focus is all about being good, and the prospect becomes terrifying.  Even when we are assigning ourselves a new task, we take the same approach – expecting way too much too soon.

The irony is that all this pressure to be good results in many more mistakes, and far inferior performance, than would a focus on getting better.

How can you reframe your goals in terms of getting better? Here are the three steps:

Step 1:  Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.

Step 2:  Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble.  Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable – in fact, the opposite is true.  Only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.

Step 3: Try not to compare yourself to other people – instead, compare your performance today to your performance yesterday.  Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.

Too Much Miscommunication At Work? A Simple Fix

From my Fast Company Blog:

“I’m sure he understood what I meant.”

“I’m sure it was obvious.”

“It goes without saying…”

The most common source of miscommunication in any workplace is a very simple one:  people routinely fail to realize how little they are actually communicating.  In other words, we think we’ve said a lot more than we actually have.

Psychologists call this the signal amplification bias (because we can’t resist slapping esoteric names on things – calling it the “I’m Sure It Was Obvious” Effect would be much more to the point.)

Studies show that the vast majority of us tend to believe that our behavior is much more expressive than it actually is, and this occurs across a wide variety of situations.

For instance, we often think people know when we’re lying – that our discomfort with deception is obvious - when they rarely have any idea.  We also assume that others understand our goals and what we’re trying to accomplish, when in fact they don’t have the first clue.  Most of what we say and do every day is open to multiple interpretations, and when other people try to figure out what we really mean, they are apt to guess wrong.

We are particularly likely to be “sure it was obvious” with people we know well or who we’ve worked with for a long time – we assume our thoughts and behaviors are transparent, when they are far from it.  So, ironically, the risk of miscommunication is greater with a close colleague than a brand-new coworker.

When we assume that other people know what we’re thinking, and what we are expecting of them, we do them a real disservice.    Assuming that we’ve been clear about what we wanted, we blame them when things don’t go as planned.

The next time you catch yourself thinking “I didn’t expressly say that to Bob, but it should be obvious…” STOP.  Nothing is ever obvious unless you made it obvious by spelling it out.

Remove the phrase “It goes without saying” from your mental lexicon, because it is total rubbish.  If something is important, then it goes WITH saying.  Make a point of saying exactly what you mean, and asking for exactly what you want, and you will be pleasantly surprised by often you get it.