Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

April 2014

What Do Successful People Do Differently?

By Barbara Palmer

are not, some things are less aversive [laughs] and others aren't. Or we get distracted — there are a lot of different reasons why we can miss that moment.

The strategy of if/then planning basically gets around that. It's incredibly effective — the research suggests that you're about two to three times more likely to reach your goals if you use this strategy. It's very simple: When you set a goal for yourself, you identify the specific actions you need to take. And then you pair those actions with when and where you're going to do them in advance. If you just take that extra moment to think, I want to return that phone call to Bob today — when am I going to do it? Taking that extra moment to decide in advance dramatically increases the odds that you'll actually remember to do it and that you'll seize that moment when it happens.

It also turns out that it takes a lot less willpower. If you decide in advance that you're [only] going to order coffee when the dessert menu comes, you're much more likely to make that choice than if all you said to yourself is, “Well, I'll just try to be good.” It's a very, very simple strategy, and it's just profoundly effective.

We know, for example, that people who decide exactly when, where, and how they're going to exercise each week in advance are three times more likely to actually do it. The success rate goes from about 30 percent to about 90 percent. And that's something we find again and again in professional goals as well as personal ones.

You write that people reach their goals because of what they do, not who they are. Do some people have to work harder at success?

I think there is certainly truth to the idea that some people will, say, pick up on new technology faster than others. Interestingly, that often has to do with things like comfort level.

So it's not necessarily, again, an innate ability, but you'll find that some people are temperamentally more anxious.... And so when they encounter something new, like a new technology or a new system, they'll have a little bit more trepidation and maybe it will take them a little bit longer to get comfortable.

Again, it has a lot more to do than people realize with the amount of effort and the time you're putting into it, and, again, how many other things you're juggling. The reality is that none of us are just pursuing one goal or trying to learn one thing. We're all trying to pursue lots of goals and learn lots of things. And so those trajectories will look different. And some people will appear — and I use that word very deliberately — to learn things very effortlessly. And that's almost never really what is going on.

People may have different attitudes or different emotional states. They have more or less on their plate. But in general, what is always true is that if you use the right strategies and you persist, you will get better. You will improve over time. And sometimes improve dramatically.

I think the much bigger problem that people have is not that they're doing things that they're never going to be great at, but that they're closing the door on things that they might have been actually very good at if they had given themselves a little bit more time and been a little bit more patient.


As a frequent keynoter, as well as through your academic work, you attend a lot of conferences. As a motivational psychologist, do you observe things that are very conducive to success, or that are not?

[Successful event organizers] leave a lot of room for engagement between the people who are presenting and the audience. I think that is really important. There is a whole other level of processing and retention that happens when people feel engaged in the process of learning.

Participation in even very simple ways, like allowing people to rate what they've seen or to give them time to talk about it afterwards, creates a whole level of engagement with the material such that people will, a year later, say, “Oh, I remember this conference I went to was really rewarding. I learned X, Y, and Z, and so I'm going to go back. Because I can't wait to learn A, B, and C.” It really is necessary for people to engage the things in order to retain [them].

The other thing that is very, very powerful for learning and for engagement is the feeling of choice. Psychologists call this the feeling of autonomy — that you're participating, that you have a voice, and you're choosing your own experience. And what we know, very interestingly, is that the feeling of choice matters more than actual choice.

So, for instance, you can go to a conference and choose different seminars you're going to go to. And that is actual choice, right? But sometimes that isn't the nature of the event. Sometimes you're going to sit there and we have certain speakers lined up and that's whom you are going to hear.

But you can create the feeling of choice by doing things like having people choose things like where they sit or what they eat. I do a thing, for example, in one version of the “Nine Things” talk, where I talk about a couple of the strategies and then have [the audience] vote on which of the nine things they want me to talk about with the remaining time that I have. It's kind of like “American Idol” — I have them vote using SMS polling, where you text to a number.

I did it just for fun once, because I couldn't decide what I wanted to talk about. And what has been fascinating for me ever since is that every organization, every place I go to, I get different answers to what people really want to hear about. They get really engaged. I've had people offer to buy someone else's choice — “I'll pay you $5 if you'll text number seven.” They'll shout this stuff out and they become really involved in it, because they feel like the speaker is responding to their choice. And even if they don't get the one they voted for, they feel like a choice is made by us as a group. And I get really good feedback about that.

So to the extent that planners can incorporate these little choices in ways that people feel they can participate and make a choice, you're going to see a much bigger increase in satisfaction and a much bigger increase in engagement from people just feeling that their voice was heard in some way, even if it's a really, really minor way. It's going to have a big effect on their experience.

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.

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