Most of us strive to be “our best selves”. We want to be as successful as possible, to reach whatever heights we’re capable of – while never losing grip of what’s important or a healthy work-life balance. But what’s the best way to go about developing yourself? There’s no shortage of articles detailing successful people’s working habits and techniques, but research shows that studying your own success is actually far more effective in furthering your professional development.
The idea that positive affirmation and praise can help with success isn’t new. Multiple studies show that when teachers use positive feedback and provide encouragement and support, their students are more motivated and engaged, and thus more likely to succeed. On the surface, the workplace isn’t very different – we’re still learning and trying to impress – so the idea that positive feedback helps our self development here too isn’t very surprising.
What is surprising is that, judging from new research, we don’t need others to praise us to get this positive effect: we can do it ourselves. Why should we rely on other people to discern what our strengths are, or recognize our more effective contributions? Happiness comes from self-belief that isn’t swayed by other people’s opinions of you. Getting another perspective and having different outlooks is important, of course, but we can learn a lot from studying our own successes, too.
When you receive positive feedback or praise from others, rather than just accepting it and moving on, use it to help inform your everyday development. Reflect on the experience and your performance: what worked and what didn’t? Many people find writing down accounts of their experiences to be helpful for this; it can make it easier to notice which bits you found hard or challenging (often we try to push them quickly from our mind!), or where you felt most fulfilled or rewarded.
Keeping a simple activity log is a great way to jog your memory and appreciate the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to. Alternatively, you use an automatic time tracking app to record all the detail for you. With a complete timeline of your day – detailing what you worked on, time on different tasks, the tools you used, the locations and events you went to, and any interruptions – you are in the easiest position to go about effective self-analysis.
When you try to review your own work objectively it becomes easier to set benchmarks and isolate best practices for future work. Once you make analyzing your success a habit, you’ll be able to better understand how your strengths can be utilized to complement your weaknesses. You can then start cultivating a more complete and consistent understanding of the ways you work.
Once you’ve studied your success – pinpointing your strengths and the ways you work best – use that knowledge to create a positive daily routine. It’s all about having a productive structure, but remember that routines can still be flexible. You don’t have to stick to them rigidly; rather, use them to form positive habits and create a framework that keeps you motivated during quiet days at work.
Bear in mind that what works for other people may not work for you. When you read the daily routines of wildly successful people, you’ll see many of them get up at 4am and begin their day with an hour of fierce exercise or peaceful meditation. Clearly, this isn’t for everyone! But starting a daily routine that fits with your habits and your working flow helps create priorities, restrict procrastination, and keep sight of goals.
Always begin your day positively. Tell yourself it’s going to be a good day, and don’t kick things off with menial tasks like checking email. It may seem like a good way to ease you in, but replying to emails isn’t productive. It’s distracting and stressful; if we open an email in the morning and see a request for information or work, we often start prioritizing other people’s objectives rather than our own. Put yourself first: email can wait. If something is urgent, people will find a way to reach you.
Set goals for the day – but not too many! We work better when we work towards a few, specific, goals: not only do they give us focus, but they also give our actions direction, and allow us to work with purpose. When you set too many goals you spread yourself thinly, hopping from one task to another in your quest to get things done – a sure fire route towards “shallow”, unfilfilling work. Intead, focus your attention on three of the most important tasks for that day and prioritize them.
Figure out where you get distracted and find a way to limit these distractions. Conveniently, if you’re keeping an automatic activity log, this becomes pretty simple. With a record of how your days play out, you can identify your unconscious habits and productive patterns. If you find yourself spending far too long in a low-value work tool, find a more intuitive alternative. If you see you’re constantly checking Slack or email, set availability hours and limit the times you check it to just twice a day. If a task is taking too long, revisit the workflow and process around it. If you’re saying “yes” to people too much, learn to say no!
By studying your own success you can see where and why you go wrong; where you get disrupted, where you focus best. You can then use these insights to change the way you work, for the better. Just remember, analysis is not a one-off; reflect on your successes often to keep learning as you grow.