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Be successful: 9 ways to gain resiliency AND achieve your goals

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In my last post, I discussed nine ways that families with special needs children can become more resilient. One of the ways was to be hopeful and realistic at the same time, what some may call realistic optimism.

Being a realistic optimist is a great resiliency skill and it’s also a trait of successful people, according to psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson. The author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Halvorson has developed a list of nine things that successful people do differently to reach their goals that includes realistic optimism. Here’s the entire list:

1. Be specific

2. Seize the moment to act on your goals

3. Know exactly how far you have left to go

4. Be a realistic optimist

5. Focus on getting better rather than being good.

6. Have grit.

7. Build your will power muscle.

8. Don’t tempt fate

9. Focus on what you will do rather than what you won’t do.

I really like Halvorson’s approach because she talks about being specific, being realistic in both outlook and with yourself, and being patient with yourself. It’s very easy to set a goal such as “I want to eat better” but that sets a vague goal that is neither motivating nor descriptive of what success looks like. Being specific – “I want to include one serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner for the next month” – gives you a marker to know when success is achieved and lets you know how far you need to go to achieve your goal.

While being optimistic and visualizing the best outcome can be great skills, they are not enough on their own to achieve goals. In another article, Halvorson reports on a study which asked obese women embarking on a weight-loss program to say “what they imagined their road to success would be like — if they thought they would have a hard time resisting temptation, or if they’d have no problem turning down free doughnuts in the conference room and a second trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet. The results were astounding: women who believed they would succeed easily lost 24 pounds less than those who thought their weight-loss journey would be no walk in the park.”

Finally, Halvorson encourages people to focus on the process of change and how they are getting better at skills needed to reach their goals rather than expecting that they will suddenly and magically become successful immediately.

Several years ago, I was working out at a gym after New Year’s day. Like every year, there were a lot of New Year’s resolutionists there for the first time. I noticed two women who were quite heavy walking on the treadmills and chatting with each other. The third time they were at the gym, I struck up a conversation with them.

“You look great,” they remarked on my toned (at the time) body, “How long did it take you to get there?”

“Well,” I began honestly, “I’ve been working out off and on my whole life, but this time around, I’d say it took me about a year of doing both cardio and weightlifting.”

“A year!” one of the women gasped. They exchanged glances and shook their heads.

I never saw them at the gym again.

While I initially felt bad that I had discouraged them, I also realized that they held a couple of unrealistic expectations: They thought the process would be easy and they thought they would immediately be successful. And they would have felt immediately successful had they realized that dropping a pound per week is fantastic, that going five minutes longer on the treadmill is a great achievement, that they were getting better at the skills needed to achieve their goals.

Want to successfully achieve your goals? Read Halvorson’s article and remember to be specific, be a realistic optimist, and give yourself kudos for getting better at new skills.

Takeaway points: Achieving goals is a terrific way to be resilient. The more specific we are with goal-setting, the more motivated we become. Realistic optimism helps us to hold high expectations for ourselves while not underestimating how difficult goal achievement will be. And give yourself a lot of credit for getting better at new skills and habits.

What do you think about Halvorson’s nine things successful people do differently?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.