How Successful People Achieve Their Goals, According to Psychologists

It’s easy to set goals, but it’s much more difficult to actually follow through on them. Just ask the 92% of people who set New Year’s resolutions and never accomplish them. But why is it so difficult for most people to achieve their goals? And what sets apart those people who regularly turn their goals into reality? It turns out your mindset has a lot to do with it.

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Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck is a leading developmental psychologist at Stanford University, and her theory on fixed and growth mindsets provides insights into how people view the world.

Dweck conducted a study on elementary school students who were identified as helpless—unmotivated and disengaged. The type of students who had essentially given up on school. They gave the students a set of problems and split the students into two groups. When the students struggled or failed to solve the problems correctly, Dweck and her team encouraged one group to keep working and put in the extra effort. The other group of students—the control group—didn’t receive any encouragement or training.

On additional sets of problems, the first group of students was largely successful, while the control group continued to struggle and recover slowly from errors. Dweck saw these two approaches as influential in “driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns”—what came to be known as fixed and growth mindsets.

People innately look for ways to validate their fixed mindset beliefs. Click To Tweet

The fixed mindset assumes that people are born with certain characteristics and abilities. These qualities are essentially static and can’t be changed or improved. With this mindset, if someone believes they’re bad at math, then there’s nothing they can do to get significantly better at math—they’re “helpless” in this field. Likewise, if someone sees themselves as intelligent or creative, then they look for ways to validate this belief. They want to avoid any failure that would threaten their identity as an “intelligent person”.

The growth mindset believes that characteristics are not a given. It assumes that we’re capable of growth and improvement and that new skills can be mastered. To use the math example again, if someone struggles to solve problems, it’s not due to a personal shortcoming or flaw. They see the challenge as an opportunity to improve at math and they’re willing to stretch themselves to achieve growth.

The growth mindset believes that characteristics are not a given. Click To Tweet

Dweck put these two mindsets to the test in another experiment, where she gave four-year-olds the option to do easy or difficult jigsaw puzzles. The kids who chose the easy puzzle showed a fixed mindset. They wanted to solve the puzzle quickly to validate their intelligence. The kids who chose the difficult puzzles saw them as an exciting challenge and an opportunity to learn—the definition of the growth mindset.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that successful people tend to display a growth mindset. Rather than looking at failure as a personal flaw— “What’s wrong with me?”—they look at it as situation-specific— “What could I have done better in this scenario?” This ability to recover and be resilient when challenges arise is what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit”.  

Below are other qualities and strategies that psychologists have found to be common in successful people:

The Psychology of Success

Self-Compassion

Emma Sepala, another researcher from Stanford, says that successful people regularly display “self-compassion”. They’re kind to themselves. They don’t beat themselves up over mistakes.  This is a key component of the growth mindset. Again, failure isn’t the result of personal shortcomings, it’s a part of life. The quicker you can recover and learn from mistakes, the quicker you can grow.

Successful people regularly display self-compassion. Click To Tweet

Focus

Maintaining focus isn’t easy in our world today. Emails, texts, phone calls, instant messages, and app notifications are all fighting for our attention. If you get too swept up in these daily distractions, it’s easy to lose sight of your big-picture goals.

NYU psychologist Adam Alter says that successful people deal with all the same distractions that we do, they’ve just developed systems for tuning them out and maintaining focus. Maybe that means putting your phone away while you’re working or turning off text notifications on your computer. Maybe that means not checking up on your fantasy football team while you’re in the office.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, from the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, says that blocking out time on your calendar to specifically focus on goal-oriented tasks can increase your odds of success by 300%.

Think mindfulness, not multitasking. You want to be able to focus on the present moment, whether that’s a meeting or a specific task. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can all sharpen your ability to remain calm, present, and cool under pressure.  

Set Specific, Challenging, and Comprehensive Goals

According to researchers Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, when people set specific and challenging goals, it led to a higher success rate 90% of the time.

When people set specific and challenging goals, it can lead to a higher success rate. Click To Tweet

But what do “specific and challenging” goals look like? A goal like “I want to exercise more” is too vague. A more specific version of that goal could be: “I will wake up at 6 AM to exercise before work. During the next month, I will go to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I will jog on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

Rather than just thinking about the end result, plan specific steps that can help you get there, says Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy. Completing each step along the way can help you maintain momentum.

Develop A System for Reviewing Goals

It’s too easy to set and forget goals. You have to interact with them regularly. Consultant David Allen recommends reviewing your annual goals once every week. This is the perfect opportunity to measure and reflect on your progress, account for new obstacles, and stay focused on what needs to be accomplished.

Practice Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice takes the idea of practice one step further. Rather than simply repeating the same tasks, deliberate practice requires you to stretch outside your comfort zone. It’s about constantly challenging yourself to develop skills that don’t come naturally and turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson pioneered research on deliberate practice and his work influenced Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. To be truly effective, deliberate practice requires a teacher/coach/mentor who can provide feedback and help develop goals and a step-by-step plan for achieving them.

Ericsson says, “Practice really involves failing a lot until you eventually reach your goal.”

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