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A Stanford professor says eliminating this one daily behaviour can make you more successful

George Clooney accepting a Golden Globe in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

For nearly half a century, Stanford engineering professor Bernard Roth has been teaching a class called “The Designer in Society,” in which students learn how a strategy called “design thinking” can create meaningful changes in their personal lives.

The goal of design thinking, a concept developed by Roth and other Stanford engineers, is to get at the heart of a problem and then fix it, stripping away unnecessary layers of deliberation and hesitation. It can be used to improve on any product or experience, from a light bulb to online dating.

Roth argues that design thinking can also be used to achieve individual goals, like losing weight or reducing anxiety.

His new book, “The Achievement Habit,” is an outgrowth of the “Designer in Society” class, and it’s chock full of strategies for self-improvement. One key idea, central to the design thinking process, is that we hold ourselves back when we try to justify our negative behaviour.

According to Roth, we’d be happier and more successful if we stopped giving reasons for everything.

In the book, he uses a personal example: Earlier in his career, he was consistently late for a particular board meeting. Each time he showed up tardy, he would explain that he got stuck in horrendous traffic.

Eventually, he realised that the real reason for his lateness was that he didn’t see the meeting as a high priority in his life. So he wouldn’t hesitate to answer a few more emails and make some last-minute phone calls before he left.

Once he came to that realisation, however, he would make a point of leaving 10 minutes earlier — and he always made it there on time.

Here’s another example: Roth once spoke with a professor in one of his workshops who claimed he wanted to spend more time with his family, but he was too busy at work.

Yet when Roth pressed him for details about his daily activity, it became obvious that the professor wasted a lot of time at work and then socialised with colleagues afterward.

He ended up looking “macho” by going home later than everyone else and attracting sympathy for not being able to spend more time with his family.

“Clearly,” Roth writes, “he had made a choice, and being too busy at work was, of course, bulls— as a reason. This was immediately obvious to everyone in the workshop, yet it took me a full half hour to get a glimmer of recognition out of him.”

The problem, Roth says, is that our justifications are often lies to ourselves.

“Reasons are often just excuses,” he writes. “We use them to hide our shortcomings from ourselves. When we stop using reasons to justify ourselves, we increase our chances of changing behaviour, gaining a realistic self-image, and living a more satisfying and productive life.”

One caveat: Roth says you should never tell someone else that their excuses are ridiculous. Instead, use this technique introspectively — let other people work on their own behaviour.

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