Over a 24 year career, FBI Firearms instructors made us repeat the same series of actions on the firing range. After a while, it got so repetitive that I wondered how I would fare in a shootout if I didn’t have my firearms instructor barking out orders on what to do next!

In fact, our repeated behavior patterns became involuntary. In short, they became a habit.

I no longer needed to think about what to do when pulling my gun and aiming it at a target. My actions were involuntary so my mind could be used for something more productive—like assessing the crisis unfolding in front of me.

With a habit, there is a cue that triggers a response. Usually, our behavior is rewarded in some way and the closer the proximity to the behavior and the reward, the stronger the habit becomes. Sometimes we’re not even aware of the connection between the behavior and the reward; this is when bad habits can form if we’re not careful.

According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for around 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day. So it’s important to understand how to build new habits (good ones) and how to recognize old habits (bad ones) if we want to move toward success in both business and life. 

Here is how you can develop habits that will lead you to success: 

1. Pull Back From Social Media

The irony is that you’re probably reading this article because of…social media! The point is to be in control of the amount of time consumed by both social media and online browsing because you guessed it, it can be habit-forming.

Companies spend a lot of money to persuade you to get an app or look at websites that can fast-track you into something that resembles Dante’s spiral into hell. It comes so fast you don’t know what hit you. Two hours later you’re wondering where the time went.

Social Media can be good and beneficial. It can also develop into a habit that needs to be constantly fed with alarming speed.

How To Make It Work For You: Take a close look at your goals and decide how you can utilize social media to help attain those goals. Set perimeters around the time you spend online in activities that don’t help you network or promote yourself and your work. Cut the fat from your already busy schedule and make sure you spend your time well. Use a timer if necessary.

2. Pursue Meaning, Not Wealth

The modern generation of employees is motivated by things other than money and wealth. Instead, they pursue the things in life that bring them meaning, joy, and contentment.

This means there will be a shift in the way that people measure success. Younger employees are looking for job satisfaction, ways to contribute to society, and personal empowerment.

Successful people are not seduced into thinking that success and happiness are the same things. When they hit tough times, they use mental toughness to keep moving forward because their heart and passion are hitched to a cause—failure or adversity is not enough to compel them to quit and move on and settle for something that provides less value and meaning in their life.

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How To Make It Work For You: Ask yourself these two questions: “What will make me happy?” and “What will make me successful?” Do not mistakenly assume these two questions are one and the same.

3. Embrace Challenges and Do The Hard Things

In recent years there’s been a blending of leadership development and personal empowerment. We cannot succeed without first achieving personal growth, which requires a willingness to accept and overcome challenges and obstacles. 

For many, this means pulling on our big girl/boy pants as we prepare to listen to constructive criticism when we reach one of those ego-trashing moments of defeat. Failure reminds us to be humble because we still have a thing or two to learn. 

Like everyone else, successful people feel the sting when confronted with defeat, but the difference is that they make it a habit to seek out feedback that will highlight areas in which they need to improve. Wimps and losers are only interested in affirmations of their strengths as an individual. 

A strong mind is willing to draw valuable life lessons from their disappointing experiences. Easier said than done, though, because a strong mind requires the ability to extract the lessons from each failure and apply them to future attempts at success.

How To Make It Work For You: The next time you feel that you’ve failed at something, confront the issue head-on. Identify exactly where things went wrong, and why. Take actionable steps to ensure you don’t make the same mistake again in the future.

4. Explore All Opportunities, Whether You Feel Prepared Or Not

Successful people seldom feel 100% ready when an opportunity arises. But, they understand that all great opportunities will stretch them beyond their comfort zone. They will be stretched emotionally, intellectually, and philosophically.

The key is to stay stupidly small when your grasp is beyond your reach. Failures are great learning tools but they can also be a real downer if you’re not smart about it. 

Don’t expect to be perfect every time out the chute. If you wait to be 100% certain of success, you’ll remain stuck at the back of the line. The important thing is to consistently correct your course when you get off track. 

How To Make It Work For You: Commit to taking a step toward achieving an important goal every single day. It might not take a huge bite out of the goal, but it is a movement forward. This is important because it means that, despite the pressures of everyday life, you don’t allow your focus to be diverted to something urgent, but not important. 

5. Distinguish Between Urgent And Important 

In 1954 Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower explained how he organized his workload. He recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. He made it a habit to make this distinction:

Important activities have an outcome that leads us to achieve our professional and personal goals.

Urgent activities demand immediate attention and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. These are often the ones we concentrate on.

When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can overcome the natural tendency to focus on unimportant urgent activities. Eisenhower explained that this is an easy habit to develop as we move away from a “firefighting” response into a position of growth. 

How To Make It Work For You: List your tasks and activities and put each one into the following categories: 

  • Important and urgent—These arise for two reasons: they were unforeseen and represent a crisis, or you’ve left them to the last minute. Decide how you can schedule activities ahead of time so they don’t become urgent. 
  • Important but not urgent—important activities that help you achieve your personal and professional goals.
  • Not important but urgent—other people are usually the culprit here so learn how to say no when you need to focus on one of your priorities. 
  • Not important and not urgent—distractions that should be avoided.

6. Focus On The Goal, Not Perfection

Despite assurances from your favorite aunt, you are not perfect so don’t beat yourself up. Habits will make you better, not perfect. Those who develop solid habits will be 100% perfect in their determination, which may or may not lead to a perfect result. 

When you focus on the goal, you’re not only able to consistently correct your course, you’re also able to continually move into your discomfort zone. Winning is not everything, perfection is not everything—what is important is what you learn from each iteration.

One of the biggest obstacles to long-term success is complacency. FBI agents learn early that it’s not guns that will kill them; it’s complacency. The moment they fail to be alert to the environment around them, they run the risk of being obsolete in a split-second. 

It’s the same for you and me because early success can breed a complacency that assumes we’ll always be on top of it. We delude ourselves into thinking we have the golden touch; we’re invincible! That attitude can leave us in a vulnerable place because once we realize that we’re not our own God, we start to look like the appetizer snack for the young whipper-snappers climbing the ranks behind us. 

How To Make It Work For You: Make it a habit to focus on your goal and not be distracted by people who are intimidating. At the heart of it, all is the dedication to a cause important enough to you that you’ll develop the mental toughness to work hard enough to make a difference in the world.

© 2021 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” 

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