There’s a saying (often attributed to various people) which goes something like: “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

It’s true. Your thoughts, words, actions and habits do affect the quality of your life. Practice the right things over and over again, and you’ll reap the rewards and benefits. Continually engage in behaviors which are harmful and you’ll undoubtedly suffer in one way or another.

Along those lines, a lot can be learned by looking at the habits of successful people. Here are the simple things nearly two dozen top-performing executives credit for helping them get ahead in business and life.

1. Be clear about what you need from others

“I've spent a lot of time on my own personal development to become a better leader, and one of the tactical but important things that I’ve implemented is to put in writing the expectations of my team. Whether that's sending an agenda before a meeting, sending a follow up email after a discussion to capture the next steps, or sharing my candid thoughts on the business, I have made a dedicated effort to communicate clearly and put things in writing to help people I interact with each day have a better understanding of what I need from them for our team to be successful. This helps everyone work more effectively, fostering an atmosphere of accountability and collaboration.”

--Jude McColgan, CEO of Localytics, a digital intelligence platform that supports over 400 enterprise customers and handles three billion contextual consumer data points each day

2. Consider your priorities for the day ahead

"When I wake up and make snack boxes and lunches for my kids, I get 15 minutes when the house is still asleep. Every morning, I run through the mental exercise of making two to-do lists: One is the list of things that are important, items in my daily life and at work that need my attention, and one list of things that are urgent. Anything that falls on both lists takes priority for the day. Looking at my time holistically when I can think clearly allows me to set realistic goals around what I need to accomplish, and identify what tasks add the most value to my personal and professional life.”

--Pascal Zuta, cofounder and CEO of GYANT, an AI-driven patient connection and relationship management company that saw 300% growth in its customer base in 2019 and has engaged with 3.9 million users to date

3. Listen intently

“In today’s technology-driven, gadget-enhanced world, we are often together alone. We find ourselves operating remotely, focusing on work and collaborating online. As such, I make a conscious effort to listen intently, ask questions, remember interests and more. The goal is to make each engagement more personal, and to engage in each conversation as if it were the foundation which to build a relationship. This focus on fostering personal connections has enabled me to have strong relationships at work, which yield trust and collaboration. To achieve this, fun needs to be part of the equation. The truth is that laugh therapy needs to be part of our everyday existence, especially at work.” 

--Craig Maloney, CEO of Maestro Health, an all-in employee health and benefits company that was recently acquired by AXA for $155 million

4. Hold yourself accountable

“Let’s face it, nobody likes to admit to making a mistake, but in order to be successful, learning to hold yourself and your colleagues accountable is essential. Accountability is something people want, though it can be difficult to uphold. To be truly accountable to others, you need to first be accountable to yourself. Once you have a clear idea where you or your company is headed, you are able to set the right goals to keep yourself and your team on track for success each day. Stripping away the cycle of blame and excuses and replacing it with a culture of accountability can be stressful at first, but in my experience, has proven to be my most valuable asset in the long run, in both my personal life and professional career.”

--Mike Wessinger, CEO of PointClickCare, a cloud-based software vendor for the senior care market, supporting over 10,000 senior living and assisted living communities across the country

5. Turn your nine-minute snooze into productive reflection and pre-flection time

“When that alarm clock goes off, hit snooze, but don’t go back to sleep. Instead, use those nine minutes to do a body/mind/spirit scan. Here’s how: First, check in with your body (how you’re feeling, what you need, what parts may need extra TLC today, if you want or need to exercise, or if you want or need rest). Then, your mind: how you feel about that issue you were trying to figure out yesterday, the solution that you were just on the edge of resolving but couldn’t quite get there yet (sleep does wonders for problem solving), what you want to create today, and any other first thoughts that come in the morning. And finally, your heart and spirit: what your emotions are today, how your heart is, and where you might need a bit extra care or nourishment… It is during this time that I often find solutions to problems I couldn’t get to previously, where I find out how I really feel about something, and when my intuition is the strongest.”

--Anese Cavanaugh, author of “Contagious You: Unlock Your Power to Influence, Lead, and Create the Impact You Want,” speaker and advisor to global organizations, and founder of the IEP Method (Intentional Energetic Presence), a framework for helping people create positive impact

6. Manage your email brutally

"Email is a necessary evil so I've had to learn to manage them well otherwise too many things would fall between the cracks. In the mornings I recommend responding to anything that's quick to answer, and for everything else I read the first couple of lines and then leave as unread until you find time to get back to your inbox (my Gmail is set to have them stay at the top in conversation view). Critical messages should be typed out quickly, then if needed you can let them sit in draft form, but try not to overthink things too much and never re-read a message more than once before sending. Everything else can be left unread until you can find a chunk of time to really put your head down and blow through emails one by one to reach a reasonable level of unreads. Lastly, on days where you aren’t able to even look at emails until late at night, do your best to only answer those that are the most critical, and remember sometimes things can wait.”

--Kurt Goodjohn, cofounder and CEO of Dvele, a customizable, pre-fabricated luxury home company which raised $14 million in funding in March 2019

7. Remove dependencies

"I took a look at my day and made a list of everything that I was dependent on. I was dependent on some form of caffeine to kick start my day because I often didn't get the best sleep. I forced myself to disconnect and become responsible enough to get a good night's rest. I was dependent on several alarms every morning to wake me up, I forced myself to find the passion that drives me enough to wake up every morning on my own, which stemmed from knowing my responsibilities. I was dependent on my huge list of to-dos to let me know what I needed to complete; instead, I forced myself to be responsible enough to segment out my to-do list with due dates for myself, so I was held accountable. Removing dependencies gives you the ability to act on what you need to do without having to wait on something to give you the ability to do it."

--Ronak Shah, CEO of collagen-fortified cereal company Obvi, which has thousands of customers globally, and cofounder of Ghost 3 Media, which has helped more than 25 Inc. 5000 brands scale their digital footprints

8. Subscribe to daily or weekly newsletters that aggregate content relevant to your industry or goals

“This could be an industry newsletter focused on technology or one that does deep dives in various subjects, like McKinsey and Company’s. This will allow you to get away from day-to-day tasks and elevate your thinking, without having to spend lots of time seeking out this content. What you read might provide inspiration that helps you be a better leader, encourage you to explore a new technology solution, or provide you with an idea from a different industry that might have applicability to your business.”

--Mike Gomes, chief experience officer at Cortland, a multifamily real estate investment, development and management company that is involved with more than 180 apartment communities with over 60,000 homes in the U.S., while also expanding in the build-to-rent market internationally in the U.K.

9. Take time to do what’s right for those around you

“While it’s easy to become distracted by meetings, activities, and deadlines any given day presents, it’s also important to take the time to think. Think about doing the right thing for the people around you. Think about being kind. Think about being present.  Think about making a difference for someone else. So often, we rush projects to meet the deadlines or cross them off our to-do list, often at the expense of doing the right thing or quality work. At the end of the day, ask yourself: Did I listen and support the needs of the people who rely on me? Did I help someone to learn and grow? Did I fully engage and support the needs of my team so we could all be successful? Did I serve as a good leader, friend or partner and make a difference by doing the right thing?”

--Dan Knotts, President and CEO of RRD, a global provider of multichannel solutions for marketing and business communications with more than 50,000 clients across 34 countries

10. Live by the calendar

“As part of my preparation for each week, I transfer tasks from my to-do list to my calendar. This means that meetings, errands, events, and specific work tasks each get their own block of time. It helps me to be more efficient in the use of my scheduled and free time, gives me a higher chance of getting things done, and helps me be more accountable to myself and others.”

--Tomide Awe, founder of Olori, a brand that offers high quality handbags which showcase the African cultures, and has served hundreds of customers across the globe, doubling revenue by 100% in the past year

11. Take one deep breath

“What is the difference between being mission-driven and emotion-driven? One deep breath. We all have natural human emotions: anger, happiness, sadness etc. That's normal. We don't control feeling them. However, mentally and emotionally resilient people control how they react to them. They take one deep breath and think (‘think’ is the key word), ‘How do I best respond to this emotion so that it will help my team best accomplish its mission?’"

--Eric Kapitulik, author of “The Program: Lessons from Elite Military Units for Creating and Sustaining High Performance Leaders and Teams”

12. Schedule a learning workout

“Like many, I struggled to balance work and health. I felt guilty taking time off in the middle of day to hit the gym because I felt I should be working. If I worked through to the end of the day, I often was too tired to work out. Then, I found a great way out of this dilemma: the learning workout. I select a book or podcast I should be reading for work, queue it up on my phone, then listen to it at the gym or while on a run. This gives me an hour of uninterrupted reading time (which I rarely get sitting at the office), has tripled the number of books I read a year, and keeps me in shape.”

--Kaihan Krippendorff, author of “Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs” and founder of Outthinker, a growth strategy firm which has generated over $2.5 billion in new annual revenue for clients to date

13. Sit with a difficult question

“I know that two of my most obvious flaws are being seduced by busyness, and avoiding conflict; and of course, one feeds the other. I’ve become a fan of the Bullet Journal method over the last number of months (after years of journaling fails), and I start many days by writing out my answers to two questions. First, ‘What would meaningful progress look like today?’ That word ‘meaningful’ allows me very little wriggle room in thinking that just crossing off tasks is a good use of my time. And second, ‘What am I pretending not to know?’ That question makes me laugh nervously every time. It forces me to confess to not only what might not be working, but my role in what might not be working. It spurs me on to be more courageous than I might otherwise be.”

--Michael Bungay Stanier, author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller “The Coaching Habit” and the forthcoming “The Advice Trap”

14. Start with your top priority for the day

"I spend the first part of my working day tackling my top priority.  It's when my energy has been restored through a good night's sleep and I'm able to give the work my best self. I think most of us would agree that as the day goes on the risk of being pulled into other people's priorities or being distracted by intervening events only increases. Starting the day with what matters to you is how you give it your best self and mitigate the risk of losing the opportunity to focus on it."

--Jamie Brown Hantman, author of “Heels in the Arena: Living Purple In a Red/Blue Town” and former senior White House and DOJ official

15. Be portable and adaptable

"You can’t control what happens in life just how you respond to what happens. The only thing permanent in life is change. And change is guaranteed. We have to embrace the ebbs and flows, by responding with adaptability. That’s one of the virtues that helps us get in front of anxiety, because anxiety is all about control and the fear of losing control.”

--Achea Redd, founder of female empowerment organization Real Girls F.A.R.T. [Fearless, Authentic, Rescuer, Trailblazer] and author of the book “Be Free. Be You.”

16. Engineer your environment

“We can really thrive when we work to understand how our environment impacts our habits and derailers. We'd like to think we make decisions rationally, but research shows that more often than not, we don't. Making micro-decisions about your environment can set you up for success.  Over the years, I've found these changes can be hard to make at first, but they're worth the pay off. Let's say you need time for strategy work and deep thinking. Log off email or Slack, silence your phone, and put it in the other room. Or if you know you have a tendency toward perfectionism, create deadlines so you're accountable for turning in 60 percent of the work, then 80 percent, and so on.  Ultimately, we choose to be our own best friend or our own worst enemy.”

--Kerry Goyette, author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence,” a Forbes Best Business Book, and president of Aperio Consulting Group, whose clients have included Shell Oil and the Houston Texans

17. Identify your three things

“Take a few minutes before you start the day to write down what are one to three things that would make you consider this day a success. It should be no more than three, and they can include personal goals (i.e., go to the gym, leave by a stated time) or work goals (get the next step of that project done, stay calm no matter what comes my way). Doing this can change your day more than you’d expect. Too often we end days having been busy but not feeling like we achieved enough-;but that changes when you have this to evaluate your day by.”

--Marianne Cantwell, author of “Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9-5, Create a Life You Love and Still Pay the Bills,” and TEDx speaker with 400,000-plus views

18. Actively practice leadership

"Just as attorneys practice law, leaders need to practice leadership. Great leaders influence others toward a better future. Leadership requires public optimism, confidence, practice, practice and more practice. Every day I identify the top eight to 10 people I need to influence, whether they're colleagues, clients, friends or loved ones. Then I write their names on my list and practice leadership: Some require a phone call, others need a direct meeting. Everyone on my daily target list needs to know that they are important to me and my business. When I practice leadership daily, then I stay focused on my objective of being a leading provider of outcome-based leadership development solutions."

--Doug Gray, Ph.D., author of “Objectives and Key Results (OKR) Leadership” and CEO of Action Learning Associates who has worked with over 10,000 leaders in multiple sectors since 1997  

19. Make long-term, consistent and incremental improvements

“My life was in a deep, dark hole at age 42. I was living in a friend’s second home, I was working through my divorce, the economy and my businesses were in a shambles. It was 2008 and all areas of my life were challenged. I made a resolution to mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and financially intentionally improve myself by the time I was 50 by making long term, consistent and incremental improvements. I learned to say no to anything misaligned with my plan which included: learning to delegate without guilt, prioritizing my time and sticking to it, journaling my gratitude for a positive attitude, surrounding myself with supportive people who are champions of possibility, finding clarity in my purpose and personal values, and giving back to others. Over time, adding these small changes and practicing them changed my focus and my life.”

--Sue Hawkes, founder and CEO of YESS!, a $1.3 million consulting firm that helps people succeed

20. Track your habit

“It takes around two months to build a habit. At first, sticking to your habits can feel like a lot of work, but as you progress through the two-month period, gradually it will feel more and more natural. People usually give up at around a third into this two-month period, but the trick is to track each day when you successfully accomplish your target habit. Seeing your daily progress builds the confidence to make it to the end of this two-month period and builds a sense of accomplishment. There are many apps and tools for tracking this easily; even a simple spreadsheet or notepad will work."

--Jono Bacon, CEO of Jono Bacon Consulting, which has clients including Microsoft, Intel, Google, Sony Mobile and Deutsche Bank, founder of the Community Leadership Summit and Open Collaboration Conferences and author of “People Powered: How communities can supercharge your business, brand, and teams”

21. Turn off your notifications

"Humans love being socially included and modern technology has found a way to tug at our sleeve to alert us to every moment of social interaction. Not only do we tell ourselves that we feel happier to be kept updated in the moment, but we also judge our own bosses on how quickly they respond to our own messages. But when we take a breather from this, it seems to have a disproportionately refreshing effect on us. Researchers from Telefonica and Carnegie Mellon University set out to see the impact on people's well-being of them turning their phone notifications off for a week. They couldn't get anywhere near enough people to participate. Cowed by the rejections, they revised their ambitions and asked people to turn notifications off for a day. The participants reported feeling they had clearer thoughts, and their concentration improved as their itchy need to check devices subsided. The researchers reported that -- remarkably -- half of those who had turned off notifications for a single day still hadn't returned to their old alerts two years later."

--Bruce Daisley, VP of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Twitter and author of “Eat Sleep Work Repeat: 30 Hacks for Bringing Joy to Your Job”

22. Learn something every day and write it down

"With knowledge so readily available, it now comes down to a willingness and dedication to learn. Today, we all must be curious and open to learning something new every day. Learning to not block, judge, reject and automatically categorize ideas and beliefs, allows for openness that may lead you to some of the best opportunities of your life. By learning something new every day and writing down your thoughts, you will create a deeper understanding of the world and the different types of unique
people who inhabit it."

--Nikolaus Kimla, CEO of CRM platform Pipeliner Sales, which has thousands of customers in 34 countries and author of over 50 e-books

Published on: Dec 21, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.