HBR Guide to Getting the Right Work Done - by Harvard Business Review

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

  1. Get Specific. Spelling out exactly what you want to achieve removes the possibility of settling for less--of telling yourself that what you've done is "good enough." It also makes your course of action clearer. What you really need to do is go back and forth, thinking about the success you want to achieve and the steps it will take to get there. This strategy is called mental contrasting, and it's a remarkably effective way to set goals and strengthen your commitment.

  2. Seize the Moment to Act on Your Goals. Decide when and where you'll take action, in advance. Studies show that this if-then planning helps your brain to detect and take advantage of the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300%.

  3. Know Exactly How Far You Have Left to Go. Check your progress frequently--weekly, or even daily, depending on the goal. When you're assessing your progress, stay focused on the goal and never congratulate yourself too much on a job half-done. Save it for a job well--and completely--done.

  4. Be a Realistic Optimist. Cultivate your realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don't just visualize success; visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.

  5. Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good.

  6. Have Grit.

  7. Build Your Willpower Muscle.

  8. Don't Tempt Fate. Don't try to take on two challenging goals at once, if you can help it, and make achieving your goal easier by keeping yourself out of harm's way.

  9. Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won't Do. If you want to change your ways, ask yourself, "What will I do instead?" For example, if you're trying to gain control of your temper, you might make a plan such as, "If I'm starting to feel angry, then I'll take three deep breaths to calm down." By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your success-sabotaging impulse will get worn away over time until it disappears completely.

A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed

  • Write down everything you have to do on a piece of paper. Resist the urge to use technology for this task. Why? I'm not sure, but somehow writing on paper--and then crossing things out--creates momentum.

  • Spend 15 minutes completing as many of the easiest, fastest tasks on your list as you can. Make your quick phone calls. Send your short e-mails. Don't worry about whether these are the most important tasks on your list. You're moving. The goal is to cross off as many tasks as possible in the shortest time. Use a timer to keep you focused.

  • Work on the most daunting task for the next 35 minutes without interruption. Turn off your phone, close all the unnecessary windows on your computer, and choose the most challenging task on your list, the one that instills the most stress or is the highest priority. Then work on it and only it--without hesitation or distraction--for 35 minutes.

  • Take a break for 10 minutes, then begin the cycle again. After 35 minutes of focused work, take a break. Then start the hourlong process over again, beginning with the 15 minutes of quick actions.

To-Do Lists That Work

Break it down. Take a task and carve it into bite-sized chunks. Then break it down some more. Don't confuse to-do's with goals or projects. A to-do is a single, specific action that will move a project toward completion. It's just one step. Use specific action verbs and include details.

Use a 10-Minute Diary to Stay on Track

You'll get five benefits from keeping a work diary. You:

  • Track your progress. The diary is a record of your "small wins," incremental steps toward meaningful goals, that can boost your motivation--if only you take a moment to reflect on them.

  • Plan. You use the diary as a tool for drafting your next steps.

  • Fuel personal growth. The diary gives you a way of working through your difficult--even traumatic--events, gaining new perspectives on them.

  • Sharpen your focus. You identify your strengths, passions, and challenges by looking at patterns in your entries over time. For example, your diary may reveal that you've been spending a lot of time on low-priority issues. Reviewing your diary and identifying this pattern can help you recommit to focusing your time and energy on your most important work.

  • Develop patience. The diary serves as a reminder during frustrating days that, in the past, you've persevered through days that, at the time, seemed even worse.

Manage Your Energy

  • Defuse negative emotions--irritability, impatience, anxiety, insecurity--through deep abdominal breathing.

  • Fuel positive emotions in yourself and others by regularly expressing appreciation to people in detailed, specific terms through notes, e-mails, calls, or conversations.

  • Look at upsetting situations through new lenses. Adopt a reverse lens to ask, "What would the other person in this conflict say, and how might he be right?" Use a long lens to ask, "How will I likely view this situation in six months?" Employ a wide lens to ask, "How can I grow and learn from this situation?"