Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result –Oscar Wilde
Do you aspire to be a truly successful person, yet run out of time and energy to get things done? Or perhaps you are performing well at a demanding job, being a supermom, or a straight “A” student, but the stress is getting to you and you know you can’t keep it up. You look enviously at that colleague, boss, or neighbor who seems not to have the same struggles. They have the same time limits and demands as you, but seem so much further ahead in their career path, or they look fit and relaxed whereas you feel tired-eyed and bedraggled. Do they have boundless energy, superhuman capabilities, or have they figured out the secret of not needing sleep? The truth is “None of the above.” These successful people have likely figured out the secret of working smarter, rather than harder. They understand the secrets of willpower and know how to schedule their priorities, rather than prioritize their schedule. They manage their stress and nurture their relationships. Read on to find out how you can do this too.
In the information age, there are constant demands on our attention and energy. We face a barrage of demands that are urgent—that just have to be done by a certain date and time. These may include doing the laundry, studying for an exam, responding to an e-mail, preparing a presentation, taking the dog for a walk, attending your son’s soccer game, or having Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives. The problem is that by the time you’ve attended to all the urgent things, it’s much more difficult to do the more complex, difficult, uncertain, but important tasks that will really move you forward towards your goals. To get to the next step in your career, find a new job, write a book, or start a small business, you need to put in a lot of time and cognitively intense effort. It all takes planning, research, networking, and preparation of materials. Unless you devote several productive hours to these activities each week, it’s not going to happen. Whereas most of us underestimate the time it will take and overestimate our willpower, successful people are realistic about the effort involved. They are clear about their priorities, have a vision of where they are headed, and are truly committed to these goals. That means they limit the time they put into the urgent stuff and sometimes just do what’s absolutely necessary, so they preserve time for building their dreams.
Successful people understand that it’s not enough just to set goals; you also have to keep track of your progress and create incentives for yourself. Otherwise it’s all too easy to put off doing the complex and difficult tasks. Changing your habits and routines is a very difficult task, and it takes commitment, effort, and persistence. Research shows we are motivated by short-term rewards and find it difficult to sustain unrewarded effort for long periods if the task isn’t intrinsically satisfying. While following your passion may give you a pleasant sense of accomplishment eventually, you have to put up with the initial uncertainty and feelings of being overwhelmed or not up to the task. The best way to tackle this is to break up larger tasks up into short-term goals, which you track and check off to give you a sense of accomplishment. At the early stages, goals will probably consist of finding information and making contacts. So, instead of beating yourself up for not finishing your first chapter, you can happily check the box for finding a well-written chapter by another author that can guide you in structuring yours. That way, when you do write your own chapter, you will do so more efficiently and effectively. And a weekly check-in on your progress can help you adjust your goals and estimates to be more realistic, and reinforce your sense of progress and accomplishment.
Life presents us with a myriad of distractions when we try to get things done. E-mail and social media can be a time drain. It’s much more fun to look at our friends’ vacation and family pictures or the beautiful nature scenes posted by life coaches than to practice a talk or finish Chapter Six. Even when you do try to write, your thoughts may drift away into making vacation plans or fretting about why your boss/spouse/neighbor/teenager is so disrespectful. It’s so easy to go mindless, especially when you are tired, sick, or stressed. Truly successful people know that they have to remind themselves to be mindful several times throughout the day. That is why top companies, such as Google, have a “Mindfulness Officer” to teach their employees these skills. To adopt the habits of these mindful, successful Googlees, you will need to set yourself cues for mindful check-ins. You could use the Mindfulness Bell app on your cell phone, just set your phone alarm, or use an external cue, such as every time the phone rings. At least once every hour, stop and ask yourself: “Where am I? What am I noticing, thinking, feeling, and doing right now?” And “Is this what I want to be thinking, feeling, or doing?” If the answer is “No,” gently redirect yourself back to where you want to be. You’ll be surprised how much more time you actually have for your priorities when you train yourself to be more mindful.
Set Boundaries & Say “No”
Another time drain for most of us is the things that we commit to out of feelings of obligation, unassertiveness, or just not thinking through how much time it will take. Sometimes we say “yes” impulsively just to feel like we’ve answered the e-mail and can check it off our list. This happened to me when I volunteered for the PTA at my daughter’s new school without finding out exactly how much time it would involve. I thought it would be a good way to make friends and integrate into the community. Instead, I realized that I really didn’t have the time, energy, and commitment that the position deserved, because I was also trying to build a clinical practice and begin a career as a writer. From this I learned that, even if you have good intentions, taking on too much, leads to stress, frustration and ineffectiveness. Successful people know that you have to give up some opportunities and potential rewards to honor your commitment to your highest priorities. Sometimes you even have to disappoint other people. This is easier to do if you give yourself permission to be “good enough,” rather than perfect.
The English poet, John Donne, wisely said, “No man is an island alone unto itself.” Yet many of us forget these words. Your fear-based brain may narrow your focus exclusively onto your own goals and performance, so that you forget to care about others and support their progress. Perhaps you were raised to believe that we need to be self-sufficient and that asking for help is a sign of personal weakness. In the Western United States, where I live, many people’s ancestors were farmers or ranchers. Because the nearest town was often a distance away, people had to be self-sufficient and that mentality became ingrained through the generations. I once read, in a Family Therapy book, that “In the Western United States, a cousin is a distant relative.” Truly successful people know that doing it all alone can only take you so far. Our human brains are wired for connection and we need the support of others to persevere and put up with the disappointments on the road to success. We can also learn much from the examples and advice of people who have travelled the path before us, as well as from the mistakes and victories of colleagues travelling the same path. As the Social Learning Theorists discovered, we don’t have to be bitten by a snake to learn that snakes are dangerous. We can learn by watching other people’s behavior and consequences or even by verbal advice and anecdotes from others. So swallow your pride and ask for help. And schedule some time to reach out to others in your field both in person and through social media.
Make Time to Replenish Yourself
Researchers have spent thousands of hours studying both willpower and stress. From these studies, two main findings emerge: (1) While acute stress can be healthy, chronic, unrelenting stress is toxic for your mind and body, and (2) Willpower is like a muscle and wears down with overuse. Acute stress lasts for a defined period, followed by physiological recovery. This type of stress is a challenge that can be healthy and provide opportunities for growth and mastery. Examples of acute stress are: running a marathon or giving an important presentation. Chronic stress on the other hand, is often uncontrollable and continues over long periods with no end in sight. Examples of chronic stress are being exposed to bullying at work or school, distressed marriages, or ongoing threat of losing your job. Chronic stress of this type can put a strain on your heart and cause inflammation, increasing your chances of getting diabetes, asthma, arthritis or even the common cold.
With respect to willpower, expecting to maintain a high level of performance in many different areas over long periods can wear down your willpower muscle. If the stakes are particularly high or you worry and ruminate about potential bad outcomes, your subjective stress is increased and demands on your willpower increase. Emotionally intelligent people know that they need to learn “stress tolerance.” When you’re in it for the long haul, you need mental and physical breaks to replenish your stores of willpower and grit. You will not make it through unscathed if you don’t take the time for exercise, meditation, spending time with people you care about, reading a book, celebrating your successes, or doing other things that replenish you. Adequate sleep and nourishment can help both to decrease stress and strengthen your willpower. You can’t look after others if you don’t first look after yourself!
Now you know the secrets of truly successful people, it’s time to take a good, hard look at your life and the habits that hold you back. Find the courage to do an accurate self-diagnosis and ask friends or family for feedback. Do you need the help of a psychologist or life coach or can you find a support group of like-minded friends? Then get going by setting a long-term goal and breaking it up into smaller steps. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,”or so the saying goes. Are you willing to make a commitment to behavior change over the long haul? If yes, you are following in the footsteps of giants and are on the way to achieving your dreams.
About The Author:
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Managing Anxiety, and Depression, Succeeding at Work,, and Mind-Body Health. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for your organization and coaching and psychotherapy for individuals and couples
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