What does Richard Branson know that we don’t? Or Bill Gates? Or even Barack Obama?

As a writer obsessed with productivity, I’ve scoured the lives of successful people to discover what they do differently from the rest of us.

Here’s what I found out:

1. They keep healthy

Successful people recognize the importance of exercise and keeping healthy. It’s almost impossible to be productive if you’re sick, tired or generally in poor shape.

One high-profile example is the body-builder turned actor turned politician turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Whatever you may think about his politics or his acting, you can’t deny he’s committed to physical health. Schwarzenegger won Mr. Olympia seven times before he became a famous film actor, and even when he served as Governor of California he was regularly pictured working out.

You can learn from Schwarzenegger by making time for physical exercise.

2. They fail and fail often

Successful people fail more often than the succeed.

One of the best examples of this is British business man and entrepreneur Richard Branson. During his career, he has set up over 100 companies.

Some of his failures include Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka and Virgin Clothing. Today, however, he’s worth over USD 4.6 billion. You can learn from Branson by taking educated risks and by following his advice:

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

3. They work outside of the norm

Albert Einstein is the most famous scientist of all time, and he made a career of going against the grain. During the early part of his career, his peers (incredibly) refused to hire him and he struggled to find meaningful employment as a scientist or researcher.

So Einstein took a job working in patent office in Bern in Switzerland, and he conducted scientific research in his spare time, after he’d finished working for the day.

Even after he became famous, Einstein took pride in his outsider status. He spent his later years working on scientific projects that his peers had little interest in. Einstein’s life shows us that it can be good to work outside the norm and to question prevailing wisdom.

He said:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

4. They pursue outside interests

Even if you have a passion or are committed to your career, it’s important to pursue outside interests and cultivate your hobbies.

Presidents of the United States probably don’t have much time for outside interests, but Barack Obama still makes time for regular basketball games while Bill Clinton and George Bush both liked to jog and play golf.

If they can manage some time to unwind, so can the rest of us.

5. They hold themselves accountable

The inventor and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin made a daily habit of holding himself accountable. Every night before he went to bed he asked himself: what good have I done today? 

He also examined how he spent his day, read and overlooked his business and accounts.

Holding ourselves accountable is important because it helps us work on the right things, at the right time. You can learn from Franklin’s life by getting into the habit of reviewing your day in a journal or by meditating.

6. They begin with the end in mind

Almost every productivity guru I’ve read or wrote about recommends beginning each project with an idea of what you want to accomplish. The thinking is this type of planning will save time (and pain) later on. As someone who has started and abandoned more than his fair share of writing projects, I can vouch for this.

Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, put this best. He explains the importance of having a system in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

“We may be very busy, we may be very efficient, but we will also be truly effective only when we begin with the end in mind.”

7. They are action orientated

Successful people always ask what do they need to do next to move a project forward.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, is the best example of this. He’s made a career out of getting people to consider what their next action is. You can do the same by working towards your goals through small, incremental actions.

8. The are always seeking out information

The marketer and author Ryan Halliday has written two books including the recently  published The Obstacle is the Way. To help with his writing and research, Halliday keeps information for his upcoming projects in a personal commonplace book.

I’m writing a book and I know how important it is to have a personal library or a resource of information to draw upon (it makes research easy). Halliday recommends a pen and paper system for his commonplace book. You can do the same, or you could use uses apps like Evernote and Simplenote to save your favorite articles and information that you could use for your work.

9. They seek out criticism

Successful people know that criticism enables them to improve. And they even welcome it.

As a film director, Martin Scorsese has to accept more than his fair share of criticism for the work he creates and shares with the world. He said about criticism:

“There are two kinds of power you have to fight. The first is the money, and that’s just our system. The other is the people close around you, knowing when to accept their criticism, knowing when to say no.”

10. They are mentally and physically tough

If you want to be successful, cultivate mental and physical strength.

The best example of this is Michael Phelps. So far, he has won 22 Olympic medals, he is the most decorated Olympian of all time and one of the most focused. His workout routine includes speed training, endurance training, dry land work and weight lifting. Phelps also mentally prepares for competitions, saying

“In Beijing, when my goggles filled with water, I didn’t panic. I went back to all of my training. I knew how many strokes it takes me to get up and down the pool, so I started counting my strokes. I didn’t reach the time I was aiming for, but I did win the race.”

11. They challenge themselves

J.K. Rowling could have called it quits after the Harry Potter series. She was already worth more money than the Queen of England and her legacy as an author was secure. Instead, Rowling changed her name and published the crime book Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Gailbraith.

The media quickly discovered her secret, but her experience shows that really successful people push themselves towards new kinds of success. They are never complacent.

12. They know when to say no

Successful people recognize the importance of saying no. They don’t agree to commitments that won’t add value to their lives. Bill Gates is just one successful person who routinely says no. He keeps an empty schedule so that he can fill with with activities that he values.

We don’t all the the luxury or power of Gates but you can still take some lessons from his life. You can recognize that you can always earn more money, but time is limited commodity. I’ve tried to put this advice into practice by saying no to projects that prevent me from writing more frequently.

And finally now that you’re more successful than ever, don’t forget to consider your weekends.

Did you find this post helpful? What lessons have you learnt from the lives of successful people? Please let me know in the comments section below.

Featured photo credit: Photo by Andy Mettler via upload.wikimedia.org

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