7 Mental Habits That Highly Successful People Can Overdo

Wisdom is knowing when a helpful trait no longer serves you

Shot of a young businesswoman using her laptop while working late at the office.
Photo: AJ_Watt/Getty Images

Something I discuss often with my coaching clients is the importance of taking even the best advice with a grain of salt. There is no behavior, no trait, no habit, that leads to success 100% of the time — in fact, certain mindsets work well until they become the very things that get in your way.

Achieving anything meaningful in life — a big goal, a sense of well-being — requires an awareness of this paradox. When you know that even the qualities and practices we consider good, like the seven below, are not purely beneficial, you can rely on them when they are helpful and leave them behind when they are not. Wisdom is knowing when to do which.

Grit

The ability to grind toward a goal — and to stay focused on that goal when the going gets tough — is a key element of success (and, for that matter, of a life well-lived). That said, sometimes we can overglorify perseverance, sticking with something simply for the sake of sticking with it, even if we no longer find value or pleasure in it.

In those cases, the right thing to do is to quit. As David Epstein pointed out in his book, Range, if we rely too heavily on the idea of grit, we forfeit the opportunity to try other approaches or activities that might be a better fit for us. Quitting can be the way to make room for other, better things.

Effort

To reach a state of flow — the experience of being in the zone, completely absorbed in what you are doing, be it in sport, writing, art, conversation, sex, meditation, or public speaking — is to release yourself from trying. Flow is an absence of conscious effort; as you approach potential peak moments, trying too hard can lead to choking.

Of course, in order to reach a level where flow is even a possibility, you have to try. You have to focus. To practice. To think carefully about every move. Trying hard is a habit that gets you where you want to go — up until the point that it becomes a barrier.

Routine

The research on routines is clear: They help you activate when you’re feeling low, automate decisions so you don’t burn willpower, and prime your mind to more easily groove into the task at hand. If you log three miles every morning, you don’t have to think about whether you’ll run; you just get up and go.

But there is a danger in becoming overly attached to your routine. If for whatever reason you can’t stick to it — you’re traveling, there’s a storm outside, you’ve pulled a muscle, your schedule changes — you’ll be thrown off for the whole day. The first rule of routines is to develop one and stick with it. The second rule is to cultivate the capacity to easily let go of it.

Self-discipline

Pushing yourself to do what needs to be done, even when it’s hard, is a superpower—until what you need is a break. Unrelenting self-discipline takes you to the top of your game. But without caution, it is a habit that can also take you down a steep slope toward burnout.

Conviction

Flexibility without strength is instability, but strength without flexibility is rigidity. And being rigid is neither fun nor particularly effective in getting you where you need to go.

Self-monitoring

As someone who makes their living in part by helping others develop good habits, I see regularly just how appealing it can be to measure your progress in real time through tools like step counters and productivity apps. I also understand, more than most, the problems that can come with relying too heavily on those tools:

  • What happens if they stop working?
  • These technologies can sometimes prevent you from realizing a breakthrough performance.

While the first point is self-explanatory, the second one requires a bit more detail. If you are primed to run the best race of your life or have the best writing day of your career, but your GPS watch says you are going too fast or your word-counter says you’ve exceeded your daily target by two standard deviations, then you run the risk of pulling back on the pace or stopping too soon. You get in the way of your big day. On the flip side, if you feel like crap, then regardless of what your tracker says, you should probably slow down or stop altogether lest you push yourself into an injury or burnout.

Remember, the things you’re tracking, like steps taken or tasks crossed off, are secondary outputs. The purest and most accurate indicator of your progress is how you feel about what you’ve gotten done. As I’ve written before, tracking is great while you learn to listen to your mind and body, but you’ve got to be willing to leave these tools behind, at least occasionally, once you have.

Freedom

If too much reliance on routine can be problematic, then so, too, can the pursuit of too much freedom. Psychologist, philosopher, and sociologist Erich Fromm wrote often about the difference between negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from constraints. Positive freedom is the freedom to express yourself as you want. Just about everyone thinks of freedom as unequivocally good, but, according to Fromm, this isn’t always so: Negative freedom is often associated with anxiety, insecurity, and depression.

One problem with our culture of individualism is that it fails to separate negative freedom from positive freedom and instead unquestionably celebrates both. It also fails to separate productive constraints from unproductive ones, looking down upon them all. A constraint can be clarifying, forcing you to focus on what matters and leave the rest. As with everything else, the key is to know when they hold you back and when they pull you forward.

A version of this post originally appeared in my newsletter, The Growth Equation.

Bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness (https://buff.ly/3zgpxLa). Co-Creator of The Growth Equation. Coach to executives, entrepreneurs, and MDs.