This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.
Thing #5: Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good
For me, the research behind this tip is the most interesting in the book. I’m only going to give you a taste, but the gist of it is: Nothing kills performance like anxiety. If your goals force you to be perfect, you get anxious. The resulting mistakes lead to more anxiety, and a vicious circle results.
The solution is to focus on learning and improvement. When you see mistakes not as failures but as opportunities for learning, you stay motivated despite setbacks. And counter-intuitively, research shows that when we give ourselves permission to make mistakes, we make fewer of them. The trick is to measure your progress not by some absolute standard by but comparing yourself to your own past performance. This keeps the focus on getting better, rather than being good.
In the summer of 2010, I ran a weekly series of 5K races, held every Wednesday evening. My only goal each week was to beat my previous week’s time. Out of the ten times I attempted this, I succeeded eight. I felt pretty good about that. Then I took a step back to look at my times in an absolute sense, and I noticed that I hadn’t just gotten a little bit faster. I’d taken almost four minutes off. I’d started out running a mile in about nine minutes, but in less than three months, I was able to do it in under eight. I’ve seen these results echoes in other arenas as well. When I was working on the novel, I eventually realized one of my sub-goals was to write more than number of words I’d averages up to that point. Each day I would push the envelope just a little but. Pushing myself to write just a little bit more helped me write a lot better. All it took was a focus on improvement.