May 12, 2014
When I picked up Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness, I thought I was reading a book about positivity. It turns out, it’s also a book about success – and I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Achor’s famous TED talk explains why our ideas about work and happiness are backwards: it’s because happiness leads to productivity, and not the other way around. Happier people are smarter, more creative, and more energetic. They burn out less and quit less often.
But what makes us happier in the first place? That’s the question Achor set out to answer in Before Happiness. What he came up with is a step-by-step guide to cultivating a positive mindset, beyond the platitudes of just “look on the bright side” or “stop and smell the roses.”
Here are three techniques from Achor’s book, proven by psychology research to help you accomplish your goals faster:
1. Make the goal seem closer
In one study, researchers compared the usage of “buy 10 get one free” cards and “buy 12 get one free cards.” But they added a twist: they punched two holes in the “buy 12” cards, so they were effectively the same. The result? People used up the “buy 12 get one free cards” faster.
They discovered that the closer your goal seems, the faster you move. If you engineer the feeling of a headstart, you’ll be more motivated. That’s why it’s not crazy to add things you’ve already done to your to-do list and check them off immediately. In fact, go even further and add things you’ll do no matter what, like attend meetings.
Another way to make your goal seem closer is to break a big task down into lots of discrete chunks. As you approach each mini-achievement, you’ll speed up. According to research, the 70% mark is a magical motivational place, and celebrating 70% progress gives you a big boost to cross the finish line.
“Changing your brain’s perception of the distance to a target – whether a sales goal, the completion of a project, a promotion, or any professional goal – provides drive, focus, and motivation and gets your brain working at maximum capacity,” writes Achor.
2. Make success seem more likely
We work harder when goals seem closer, but we also work harder when they seem more achievable. In another study, researchers projected a ring of either big or small circles around a golf hole, making it look smaller or bigger. When the hole looked bigger, golfers made more putts.
You can actually manipulate your perceived likelihood of success by thinking more positively. If you’re feeling pessimistic about a goal, remind yourself of how often you’ve succeeded in the past and all the resources you have on your side. Again, 70% is the magic number – if you think your chances of succeeding are less than 70%, you’re much less likely to persevere.
Competition is your biggest threat here – but only mentally. In one study, SAT scores had an enormous -0.68 correlation with the number of test takers in a room. When students felt their competition was high, they performed worse. If you’re launching a new product or pitching your startup, don’t obsess over the competition. Ask to pitch first in a competition or schedule an early-morning meeting with VCs so you don’t have to run into your competitors.
3. Make the work seem easier
We all have limited amounts of cognitive energy, and you’re probably depleting yourself in ways you don’t realize. Do you agonize over lunch choices? Put up with annoying people? Read complex articles online? All these activities are sapping energy that you could be putting toward your startup.
Here again, creating mini-goals helps. A huge abstract project like “raise funding” or “launch an iOS app” can seem impossibly daunting, so list out all the small steps.
When you finish a particularly grueling task, take that ten-minute break. You may not realize it, but your cognitive muscles are silently screaming in pain. The same way you rest between sets at the gym, rest between sets at the office.
“Researcher Roy Baumeister has found that your brain’s self-regulation, or willpower, is exactly like a muscle in your arm,” writes Achor. “You can strengthen your willpower, but only if it is rested.”
All these techniques can help motivate you as an individual, and your team as a whole. Achor calls them “success accelerants,” and they may be the key to making the wheels turn faster and the engine run more smoothly.
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