How do the habits of successful people differ from those of the less successful? Our daily actions are what make or break us. This is obvious to see with health, as over time the consequences of healthy or unhealthy behaviours accumulate to either keep us healthy or make us sick. The key is that there is often a delay between cause and effect. When you don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, the full health consequences can take months or years to manifest. This often makes us blind to the effect that habits are having in our own lives.
Of course, this is not to say that all successful people are that way because of their routines. Many, obviously, inherit their wealth. Some just get extremely lucky then run with it. But those people can’t tell us very much! These people are often particularly prevalent in what I call the ‘winner takes all’ industries. These are the industries like the entertainment (movies, music) and publishing worlds where you find a small number of superstars and then thousands of often equally hard-working or talented people who never quite get their break and make it through to mainstream success. Sometimes it’s a matter of a person with the right idea at the right time. Other times its just because they were given a chance by someone. Elton John, the most successful pop music artist of all time, admits that his first album wasn’t a big success and he was lucky that his music publisher stuck with him to commission a second album – something, he says, that would not happen to a young artist today.
So there is an element of luck in some industries. Yet even then the successful people still need to work really hard if they are to make it in the long run. We are often unaware of just how much hard work these people do. All we see is their luxury lifestyle and we think they live a life of ease. In recent years our image of successful people has been skewed somewhat by the visibility of people who seem to ‘get rich quick’, either in the world of entertainment or web-businesses. Even though there are people who do get highly successful very quickly, most people still build up their success over time, through having the right habits.
Before I go into those shared by successful people, a quick word about what I mean by success habits. There are undoubtedly many psychological traits shared by successful people. For example, many highly successful people are driven by feelings of childhood inadequacy or pain. However, these inner drivers are not what I’m talking about here. Instead I'm talking about the actions that people take. They are not something that’s going on just inside their heads (although they may have their origins in a person’s thoughts), they are external.
The exciting thing about these habits is that they tend to be simple, deliberate things that almost anyone can do. These are success blueprints that we can copy that don’t rely on talent or luck.
So what are these simple things that the most successful people do on a daily basis? Based on a lot of reading on the subject, these are the most common ones I’ve come across.
Getting up early
One habit that comes up time and time again amongst the successful is getting up early. Whilst ‘early’ is a relative term, we can at least say that its rare to find a successful person who regularly lays in bed late. Yes there are many successful ‘night owls’ who work through the evening/night, however there seem to be more who enjoy better productivity in the morning. So getting up early maximises their number of productive hours. It’s also, generally, a quiet time, as most other people aren’t yet up, so you can get work down without interruption. Finally, getting up early gives you a feeling of being ahead of the game, and that feeling alone can be really useful to getting even more done.
Here are some examples of successful early risers:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 6am
Benjamin Franklin: 5am
Ludwig Van Beethoven: dawn
Anthony Trollope: at least 5.30am
Ernest Hemmingway: between 5.30 and 6am
B.F. Skinner (pioneering psychologist): between 6 and 6.30am
Immanuel Kant: 5am
Franz Schubert: 6am
Tim Cook (CEO of Apple): 4.30am
Oliver Sacks (Psychologist and author): 5am
Charles Schulz (Cartoonist creator of the ‘Peanuts’ strip): dawn
Of course, as you might expect, those who are exceptions to this rule, and sleep and work late, are usually artists of some kind, whilst those who are successful through running businesses are the most likely to wake early.
If we don’t keep track of our ideas, they are quickly forgotten. So it’s no surprise that many successful people have the habit of writing them down or sketching them out in notebooks. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, continuously made notes (in mirror-handwriting to prevent others reading!), and Sir Issac Newton left over 1.5 million words of notes from his lifetime. We can’t all be geniuses on their level, but we all have ideas and thoughts that can be captured or forgotten!
This is particularly true of successful business-people. They find time in their daily schedule – often very early in the mornings – to hit the gym, or run outdoors. Even successful people with more sedate lifestyles often have some form of daily exercise, like the daily walks of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.
Success requires continual improvement, and one of the best ways to do this is to reflect on your past performance and try to learn from it. For example, Muhammad Ali used to think about and feel each successful punch for several seconds. This way he was more likely to remember how to perform another similar successful punch. Another example is something that the business writer Peter Drucker talks about in one of his books. He describes how both the Jesuit and Calvinist churches spread so quickly throughout Europe due to the fact (he believes) that both their members were instructed to adopt the ‘feedback technique’: whenever they made a decision, they would write down the decision and how they expected it to turn out. Nine months later they would return to their notes and compare reality to their predictions. This quickly taught them where their strengths lay, and made them more effective. It’s also a similar habit to note taking.
As well as these habits, there are also several books I’ve come across that list some important success habits. (Despite me having defined habits as actions, some of the habits these authors talk about are more like states of mind).
7 Habits of highly effective people, Stephen R. Covey (1989)
1. Be proactive
Successful people have a predilection for action. Being habitually proactive helps you build momentum. All success requires action, so you need to ensure it comes easy to you.
2. Begin with the end in mind
Before taking action, make and visualise your plans.
3. Put first things first
When making your plans (e.g. for the day or for the week), prioritise. Covey writes about drawing out a square with four sections that represent the four types of activities we can get involved with: Important and urgent, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, not urgent or important. Often we spend too much time on the non-urgent tasks, and not enough time on the urgent but important activities that could make a huge long-term impact on our lives.
4. Think win-win
The seeking of mutually beneficial solutions.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
The practice of listening carefully and objectively as possible to what others say. Then, having taken into account their point of view, try to get yours across.
Combine the strengths of others to go further than you could go alone.
7. Sharpen the saw
Constantly repair and renew yourself through good health, exercise and education.
The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko (1996)
Based on research, this book identifies some success habits that occur frequently amongst American millionaires:
1. Spend less than you can
Rather than lead lavish and ostentatious lifestyles, most millionaires preferred to live below their means.
2. They regularly spend time on financial planning
Whether it be making budgets, or planning their investments, millionaires regularly set aside time for planning their finances.
(Incidentally, the most interesting finding from this book, in my opinion, was that millionaires were most likely to be owners of ‘dull’ and unglamorous businesses.)
The Luck Factor, Richard Wiseman (2003)
Psychologist Richard Wiseman has studied what makes some people luckier than others. He believes there are four things that lucky people tend to do that helps them generate their own luck:
1. Maximise Chance Opportunities
Opportunities are all around us, but the lucky are more likely to notice them and cease upon them. This comes from their being more open to new experiences.
2. Listen to Lucky Hunches
We all, potentially, have intuitive feelings that can help us make better decisions. Lucky people cultivate theirs.
3. Expect Good Fortune
Often our beliefs become self-fulfilling as they can determine the way we interact with others, and the way we interpret the world around us. Lucky people expect good luck to come, and more often than not it does.
4. Turn Bad Luck to Good
By actively trying to turn a bad situation around, reminding themselves that things could be worse, and then refusing to dwell on negative thoughts, lucky people turn bad situations around.
You can find out more here: http://www.richardwiseman.com/Luck.shtml
Rich Dad/Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki (2000)
This book contrasts the habitual behaviours of those who become wealthy Vs those who don’t. There is some overlap with the books I’ve already mentioned (e.g. looking out for opportunities, and regularly spending time planning their finances), however there is one major theme that the other books don’t mention. Those who aren’t rich typically have the habit of working for a regular paycheck, to give them security. The wealthy, in contrast, focus their behaviour on building assets that will work for them. Part of this is mastering fear and cynicism, and learning to regularly take action.
The habits that I’ve mentioned are ones that seem to crop up often amongst successful people. But it’s also easy to find examples of successful people who don’t practice these behaviours. Also, there are many instances of successful people who develop their own idiosyncratic daily rituals. For example, the genius inventor Nicola Tesla used to prefer to work in the dark (drawing the blinds/curtains if it was daytime). Also, the writer Michael Crichton, when deep into working on one of his best-sellers, said he used to have exactly the same thing for lunch every day. Its usually impossible to know how or why these personal rituals work, but perhaps you could look out for similar types of rituals that help you become more productive.
“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.” - Warren Buffett
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” W.H. Auden
“The individual who wants to reach the top in business must appreciate the might of the force of habit and must understand that practices are what create habits. He must be quick to break those habits that can break him and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires.” - J. Paul Getty
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” - Benjamin Franklin
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” — Mahatma Gandhi