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The Real Habits of Successful People (Yes… a REAL List)

Posted on May 09 2017

Have you ever come across a list of the habits of successful people? Yes you have; more than one time.

These lists overlap, yet they always seem to claim to have discovered some key habits that others haven't. The problem with articles like "The 10 Habits of Successful People" or "27 Things Successful People Do Differently" is two-fold: First, they usually define success in narrow terms and second, every time I read over some of the habits, I can immediately think of people who do the exact opposite (think of platitudes like, "they have energy and love being around other people!" and then think of people such as authors who value their privacy and heads of The Federal Reserve, for example).

I've worked with people over the years, who in aggregate, probably had around 80-90 different habits that, from the outside, seemed to cause or simply correlate with their success... when in reality, it may have been neither.

The truth is that a habit is only a good one if it makes sense for the specific person executing it. For example, if I'm generally introverted, getting out and meeting more people may be something I can attribute to my incremental success. But if that's what I love to do anyway, making a conscious "habit" of this may actually distract from doing things like finishing my monthly bookkeeping.

All that said, I'm going to quasi-negate much of what I just said by telling you that there really are habits of successful people, but with two key caveats: first, I'm going to define success as "having the time, freedom, and means to pursue a life you are truly passionate about." Second, just as I described examples where the "success model" didn't quite fit, you may be able to poke holes in the model I choose below. However, these are the habits I've found to be (truly) the most universal to successful people:

They protect their time.

  • They schedule their priorities and stick to their calendar as if it was an airline flight schedule. These are the type of people who come to a cocktail reception after work, stay for one drink, and then just as everyone is starting to relax and consider "keeping the party going," they gracefully say their goodbye's and duck out to get other important things done.
  • They don't let work expand to fill the time allowed; they get things done efficiently and in no more time than is necessary. Enough said.
  • They have ways of saying "no" that they're comfortable with. There are probably hundreds of effective ways to say "no" in a considerate way. These people have found a way to deflect additional commitments by saying "no" in their own way. Some might say, "I'll have to check my schedule and get back to you on that," while others may take the strategy of getting the asking-party to say "no" to them ("Yes - I would consider that. Before I do, though, could you get me ABC document, and send an email to XYZ person? I could probably get to this within the next six months." That answer back is usually, "no thank you." Be prepared, though, to actually give terms you would agree to).
  • They have filters that help them determine what they say "yes" to. Whether formal or not, successful people know what kinds of things they'll say yes to before they're ever asked. For example, they might prioritize things like their wife and children, their company's growth through marketing and product development, golf, travel, reading, and classical music. If they're asked to meet with someone about new accounting software or sponsoring a country music concert, their answer will be a kind "no." But invite them to a high-profile golf outing or ask them if you can help them with their product development and you might get a different answer.

 

They practice a positive frame of mind.

This is different from being an optimist. You can be a pessimist and be successful at selling people disaster survival kits. A positive frame of mind, however, is to say that you believe in what you're trying to make a life doing. This may seem like an obvious habit, but there are many people I know who have built mediocre businesses on something that can make them a decent amount of money, but I don't consider these people successes in the way that I look at it. Quite simply, you need to believe in what you're doing.

 

They have a routine.

The routine can be meditation, exercise, and journaling in the morning or a donut and a beer for breakfast (I cringe to write that, but ignorance can be bliss; while many successful people are healthy, it's not necessarily a personally subjective requirement). The point with a routine (a healthy one is better than an unhealthy routine of course) is that once the routine becomes engrained in you, your brain doesn't need to process the steps of your routine in the same way that it used to. You actually free up more brainpower to focus on they BIG things you need to get done in any given day. If you don't need to decide what coffee to buy and what to make yourself for breakfast or what your workout routine is for the day or when you check your email, you can spend that time thinking about more important things.

 

They take action.

This may be another obvious habit - but it's obviously immensely common among successful people. They don't spend days, weeks, months, or years in "analysis paralysis," they find the best option that serves them in the now and they take action on it.

I always loved the quote about Lincoln taking 4 hours to sharpen the saw and 2 hours to chop down a tree when asked how he would do it in 6 hours (hopefully I didn't botch the details on that too badly)... but he certainly didn't say he would take 5 hours and 59 minutes to sharpen the saw with 1 minute left for execution...

 

They continually learn and grow.

One of the biggest mistakes unsuccessful people make (or people who get a small amount of success and then stagnate) is that they don't continue to learn and grow. As Bill Nye said, "Everyone you meet knows something you don't." It's true and it's also a metaphor for every new day... Successful people are always learning and growing and changing the way they think about things or do things or the directions of their businesses. You may not notice it in the day-to-day, but if you pay attention to successful people over years or decades, you'll notice that they all know more than they used to; they grow in knowledge, wisdom, and character. 

Like Jeff Olson puts it in one of my favorite personal growth books of all-time, The Slight Edge, "It's really easy to do the things that will make you successful, but it's also really easy not to..."

They choose to be ignorant about specific things.

This last habit is one that always surprised me when I was younger; I used to live my life as if the more I knew about everything, the smarter and more successful I'd be. But, if I'm being true to the habit model of success, this just simply isn't true. I can go through almost countless examples of statements and questions I've heard from successful people, where I thought to myself, "You don't know about that?!" (insert: popular 'disruptive' app, major global news event, global sporting event, news about other important people, the correct dates and times of big events, et cetera).

The truth is that if you choose to only be "sort of informed" on a lot of things, you might as well be really informed because it takes almost the same amount of time end effort (for a great narrative on the reasoning behind this, read Tim Ferriss's How to Say “No” When It Matters Most (or “Why I’m Taking a Long ‘Startup Vacation'”)).  So, successful people choose to completely cut the mental "upkeep" of staying on top of certain subject areas out of their life.


My hope is that, while reading this article, you thought to yourself, "These are all really obvious things. Where are the secrets of successful people?" Well, the secret is: there is no secret.

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