Heidi Grant Halvorson: An interview by Bob Morris

Heidi Grant Halvorson

Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is a motivational psychologist, researcher, and consultant. She writes about the scientifically-tested strategies we can use to be more effective reaching our goals at work and in our personal lives. Her new book is Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press). Heidi serves on the Board of Advisors to Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center. She is also the co-editor of the academic handbook, The Psychology of Goals, a regular contributor to the BBC World Service’s “Business Daily,” and an expert blogger for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, SmartBrief, Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Her website is www.heidigranthalvorson.com.

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Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) in your life that set your career on the course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Halvorson: I started college, believe it or not, as a chemistry major.  I’ve always loved science, probably because I have always wanted to solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes, and science is essentially about problem-solving and figuring out what’s really going on beneath the surface.

I took a psychology class my junior year, just to fulfill a course requirement, and discovered that not only was it a science, but it was the best possible kind – a science about people, why they do the things they do, and how to change what they do for the better. What is more interesting than that?  Or more useful?  That course changed my life, and put me on a path to using the methods of science (testing, objectivity, etc.) in order to help people lead happier, more effective lives.  Succeed is my attempt to take the scientific findings, and break them down into easy-to-implement steps (in plain English), so that people can find the solutions they need.

Morris: You have written countless articles and a few books in which you share what you have learned about human achievement. More specifically, about why people tend to blame their failures on the wrong reasons. For example?

Halvorson: There is a strong tendency, especially in the U.S. but in Western cultures more generally, to attribute our successes and failures to ability.  And by that we usually mean some innate quality or aptitude.  So you either win the DNA lottery and end up with lots of intelligence, or creativity, or willpower – and are therefore successful – or you don’t, and you fail.

This explanation is wrong in two very important ways.  First, ability simply doesn’t work that way.  No matter which ability you’re talking about – whether it’s intelligence, creativity, athletic prowess, conscientiousness, or self-control – research shows them to be profoundly malleable.  In other words, no matter what you start with, what you end up with has everything to do with experience, learning, and effort.  If you want to be smarter, you can get smarter.  If you want to have more self-control, you can build your willpower “muscle.”  But when we think of our abilities as fixed and innate, we give up on ourselves when we encounter difficultly, and resign ourselves to failure (“I guess I’m not just good at this sort of thing.”)

The second way in which this explanation is wrong is that no matter how much ability you have, successfully reaching a goal has everything to do the actions you take (or don’t take) along the way.  Effort, strategy choice, help-seeking, mindset, motivation, confidence, planning, and monitoring of progress are the true keys to achievement, and they are much more powerful than “ability” or “aptitude” when it comes to predicting who will ultimately succeed.  But until we start rejecting explanations like “I’m just not smart enough” or “I don’t have what it takes,” we won’t start looking in the right places for the real problems, and figuring out solutions.

Morris: Are there any “right” reasons to explain failure? Please explain.

Halvorson: Absolutely – we need to look to our actions, rather than our abilities.  We need to think about the aspects of our performance that are under our direct control:  the effort we put in, the strategies we used, the critical steps we may have neglected to take, whether or not we considered the obstacles to success and made plans for how to deal with them, etc.  Succeed is, more than anything else, a guide to diagnosing where you went wrong, and putting you back on the right path.

Morris: The term “success” seems so subjective. Is there a definition that seems to have universal applications? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

Halvorson: You’re right, “success” is very subjective. In the book, I typically use it to mean reaching whatever goal you’ve set for yourself, so “success” will look very different from person to person depending on what they want out of life. There do, however, seem to be goals that are more likely than others to lead to lasting happiness and well-being, because they satisfy three universal human needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.  In other words, pursuing goals that make us feel connected to others, help us to master skills and acquire knowledge, and allow us to engage in activities that reflect our personal values, will lead to the kind of life satisfaction that we can probably all agree constitutes “success.”

Morris: In Denial of Death, a book published two months after his death, Ernest Becker said physical death is inevitable but another form of death could be denied: that which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. What do you think?

Halvorson: When we think about our goals in terms of seeking validation and approval from others (wanting to prove that we are smart, likable, and worthy – or what I call trying to “be good”), it has several very unfortunate consequences.  First, it diminishes our interest and enjoyment, because we are too focused on the final performance rather than the process of getting there. We can’t savor the experience of the journey, because we are too worried about the destination.

It also increases the tendency to see our performance as a measure or reflection of our ability or self-worth. When things get difficult, it creates anxiety and withdrawal – two very powerful goal saboteurs.  People who seek validation are more likely to give up on themselves too soon, and suffer from longer, deeper episodes of depression.

If instead, we look at our pursuits as opportunities to learn and develop – to seek growth, rather than validation – a very different pattern emerges.  I call this kind of goal a “get better” goal, because it’s more about progress.  It’s about getting smarter, rather than proving that you already are smart.  When we frame our goals this way, studies show that we enjoy what we do more, feel less threatened by challenges, and persist longer when the going gets rougher.  We are less concerned with making mistakes, and consequently we make fewer of them.  We’re less likely to be anxious or depressed, and more likely to experience lasting well-being.    Switching from the be good to the get better mindset is the subject of a full chapter in Succeed because it has been shown to have so many life-altering benefits.

Morris: You believe that there is a “science” of success. How so?

Halvorson: Absolutely!  Success isn’t random or accidental – there are reliable principles involved, ones that have been uncovered through hundreds and hundreds of studies over the last 50+ years.  We know a great deal about why some people reach their goals and others don’t – and why otherwise successful people still end up having goals that give them trouble.

We know which strategies work, and which ones don’t.  And we know why some intuitions about success are spot on, and why others are dead wrong.  It can be very difficult (actually, it’s impossible) to look at your own behavior objectively and figure out what you did right or wrong, but the picture becomes clearer when we step back and look large groups of people striving for the same goal.  We can identify more easily the key elements that bring about success, and feel more confident that we’re on the right track.

Morris: In your opinion, what relevance (if any) does the subconscious have to the achievement of success, however defined?

Halvorson: We tend to think of pursuing goals as a very conscious, deliberate affair – we weigh the pros and cons, commit to a goal, make a plan, etc.  But the truth is, the vast majority of goal pursuit happens below our conscious awareness.  In any given situation, you are thinking and behaving in ways that will accomplish multiple goals, without even realizing it.  And this is a good thing, because our conscious mind is very limited – it can only focus on so many things at once.   The unconscious mind, on the other hand, has enormous operating power – and the more we can delegate to this part of our mind (the more “automatic” we can make goal pursuit), the better.  The trick is to learn to use triggers to engage your unconscious when you are otherwise preoccupied – if you do, it will significantly increase your chances for success.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Halvorson: I started out thinking I would write a book for teachers and parents, focused on the challenges of motivating children, because much of my own research has been conducted in the context of the classroom.   But when I started to write it, I realized that the problems children face – not knowing how to set goals, how to create effective plans, how to fight off temptation and distraction, how to deal with difficulty – are big problems for the grown-ups too.  So Succeed became a book not only for parents, teachers, managers, and coaches who want to learn how to be effective motivators, but for anyone looking to be more effective in their own lives.

Morris: Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have much of value to say about what they characterize as the “Knowing-Doing Gap.” In your opinion, what are so many knowledgeable executives unwilling and/or unable do whatever is necessary to reach their goals?

Halvorson: Intentions alone, unfortunately, won’t get you very far.  Research suggests that while strong commitment to a goal is necessary for success, it is far from sufficient (estimates of failure, despite commitment, range from 50-80% across studies).  There are two key problems:  not giving enough thought to the specific actions that need to be taken to reach a goal, and not seizing opportunities to act on the goal.  Too often, we make only vague plans (e.g., if I have the goal of losing weight, I’ll “eat less” and “exercise more”), and a vague plan is really no plan at all.  Without getting specific about what we’ll do, and where and when we’ll do it, we can’t begin to close the Knowing-Doing Gap.

Morris: By what process can people formulate what you characterize as a “simple plan”? To achieve what?

Halvorson: The simple planning I have written about is called if-then planning, and it is a remarkably powerful way to help you achieve any goal, and perhaps the single best way to solve the problem of the Knowing-Doing Gap.  To make this kind of plan, you decide in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.

If-then plans take the form: If X happens, then I will do Y.

For example:

If I haven’t written the report before lunch, then I will make it my top priority when I return.

If it is 2pm, then I will spend an hour reading and responding to important emails.

A recent review of results from 94 studies that used the if-then planning strategy found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, including monthly breast self-examination, test preparation, using public transportation instead of driving, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, not drinking alcohol, not starting smoking, losing weight, recycling, negotiating fairly, avoiding stereotypic and prejudicial thoughts, and better time management.

Morris: You suggest that self-control resembles a muscle and needs regular and rigorous exercise.  Please explain.

Halvorson: Research shows that your capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a bicep or tricep.  Willpower varies in its strength, not only from person to person, but from moment to moment.  So just as well-developed biceps sometimes get tired and jelly-like after a strenuous workout, so too does your willpower “muscle.”  But it will also bounce back after a rest, so depletion is only temporary.

Another way in which willpower is like a muscle (and the really great news for those of us who feel that they don’t have enough self-control) is that it can be made stronger over time, if you give it regular workouts.  Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating – or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it – can strengthen your capacity for self-control.

For example, in one study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months not only got physically healthier, but also smoked fewer cigarettes, drank less alcohol, and ate less junk food.  They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to spend money impulsively.  They didn’t leave their dishes in the sink, didn’t put things off until later, and missed fewer appointments. In fact, every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower improved dramatically.

In Succeed, I give lots of examples of self-control “exercises” you can use to build your muscle, along with strategies you can use to compensate for low willpower when your muscle is too tired to get the job done.

Morris: Which principle of effective goal setting do most people have the most difficulty with? Why?

Halvorson: That’s a great question.  I think one of the hardest things for people to really accept is that willpower – no matter how much you have – is limited.  People also routinely overestimate how much they have, and therefore underestimate how hard it will be to resist temptation.  If you’ve spent all your self-control handling stresses at work, you will not have much left at the end of the day for sticking to your resolutions.  Only those who embrace the fact that their willpower has limits will bother to think about when they are likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep themselves out of harm’s way.

Morris: Why do so many people have such great difficulty envisioning the steps they must take to succeed?

Halvorson: I don’t think it’s necessarily difficult to do – it’s just that people don’t bother to do it, because they don’t realize how essential this kind of thinking and preparation is for success.  We assume we’ll just know what to do when the key moment arrives, and unfortunately that’s rarely the case.

Morris: As I read Chapter 12, I was reminded of the Gambler’s admonition: “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” Please explain how to make that determination.

Halvorson: Knowing when to give up on a goal turns out to be essential for long-term well-being.  Sometimes, you really do have to throw in the towel.  Generally speaking, there are two sets of circumstances when you are better off moving on:  when you lack the resources to achieve the goal (time, energy, access to expertise), or when reaching the goal costs you too much or causes you too much unhappiness (e.g., when reaching it means abandoning other goals or concerns that are even more important to you.)

Morris: What is “the right feedback”? How so?

Halvorson:  Feedback should always focus on aspects of the person’s performance that are under his or her control – their effort, strategy, and persistence – whether you’re giving criticism or praise.  And whenever possible, it should include concrete suggestions for improvement.  Good feedback is honest (even when it is negative) and gives direction – in this way, even criticism remains useful and motivating.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: When is feedback “wrong”?

Halvorson: Feedback can undermine motivation when it is either too protective (e.g., telling someone he “did his best” when he very obviously did not,) or when it is focused on ability (“Wow, you did really well – you are so smart!”).  People need to stay focused on their actions – not their abilities – in order to succeed.  Feedback needs to maintain and enhance that focus.

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