As I prepared for my annual New Year’s Resolution exercise (see related blog post Making Resolutions Work), I asked a number of successful people a few questions about what has contributed to their success and how they stay productive. The responses to this unscientific survey were both inspiring and humbling. A few themes emerged:

Love what you do and work hard at it – Many attributed their success to their passion for what they do. Said a colleague, “I have always liked the work I do. I enjoy the challenge of marketing, communicating and selling something that can help people be financial successful such as a good investment or investment service.” Also, a willingness to jump in and work hard helps. Said one manager, “I had a willingness to volunteer to take the lead on projects or jump in to help in a particular area – shows initiative and you learn a ton.” Said a PR exec, “Being thorough with every task – however rudimentary or menial – helped me gain more responsibility quickly and the trust from those with whom I’m working.” Another said, “Work really, really, really hard and take big risks.  Learn fast, take an interest, refuse to be labeled ‘expert.’”

Focus – Getting to the essence of a situation is key. Said a marketing executive, “Have the ability to cut through the clutter and organize thoughts and actions quickly. I think I can package and position concepts/ideas/plans in a way that helps people understand and act on them better.” Said one CFO, “Part of what I’ve done is focus on things that really impact the business. The finance and accounting for the business needs to be attended to, but the real impact to the business comes from things that impact the bottom line.” Persistence is important too. “Persistence, passion and the development of a very thick skin over time.” Said a fund raising executive, “Steal from Nike and Just Do It.”

Quality people – Surrounding yourself with good people and working well with them is critical to many.  “Definitely the group of people with whom I have been fortunate enough to work is part of my success. Each has had a profound impact on my professional development and I owe much of my success to them.” Said another, “I surround myself with a great network, being gracious to EVERYONE, but focusing the most energy on people who lift me up, offer constructive feedback, and live by values I respect regardless of their status or power.” Said one successful project manager, “An ability to work well with others – I think teamwork is extremely important and being able to be effective in getting things done comes down to working across teams.” Said a colleague, “Come at any situation with an attitude of ‘How I can be helpful?’”

Count your blessings – I was touched and inspired by the humility and gratitude of some very successful people when asked about their success. Said one, “I remind myself how lucky I am to enjoy the opportunities and privileges that have come my way and motivate myself to be worthy of my good fortune.”  Another said, “I have always worked hard and am reasonably intelligent, but as I look back on my life up until this point, I cannot in good conscience say that I have made this for myself. So many factors outside of my control have fallen into place to my benefit and I attribute it to God’s blessing.” Said the CFO, “I’ll attribute much of my success to my wonderful wife. She has always been a good motivator and has always been very encouraging and supportive of what I’ve done.” A similar sentiment from a media executive, “I also have a husband who has been incredibly supportive and has given me many valuable insights into the business world that I could not have learned on my own. And I have been fortunate to have two or three champions who have given me opportunities to succeed and advance. I try to pay that forward with others who are coming up.”

On how you stay productive, most stay focused, have a list or goals, and take good care of themselves and others:

Stay focused on the big picture – Select one or two things to focus on. Said a business owner, “I focus on fewer things.”  Said one inspired educator, “To stay focused, I remind myself daily of my basic, personal, professional mission: to collaborate with adults and prepare children for lifetimes of community re-building.”

Keep a list – Most focus on a plan or a daily to-do list. Said one PR executive, “I always have one or several running ‘to-do’ lists, and keep them full with the highest priority items at the top. Do you ever notice that the shorter this list gets, the less productive we are? Keeping a full list actually helps me stay more focused and productive.” Planning ahead is important for many, “I like to plan an entire project or overall goal, break it down into smaller steps and then execute on those steps.” One education leader said, “To stay productive, I have cultivated a habit of thinking about work in terms of concrete plans, deadlines, and deliverables.” Said a writing professional, “During the course of a day, I ‘live’ inside my calendar spreadsheet rather than continually referencing a separate to-do list. This minimizes time spent weighing out priorities and deciding what to focus on next. I transfer a set of items into my daily calendar spreadsheet first thing in the morning. Then I work from there. Any items I don’t finish go back to the general list at the end of the day.”

Exercise and eat well – I was surprised how many pointed to exercise and good nutrition. Said one creative director, “A good habit is my obsession with staying fit and eating healthy. Working out clears my head and relieves tension and stress, not to mention makes me feel good about myself.” Another business leader listed daily workouts with a specific goal in mind. One former colleague does five minutes of abs daily. She says this discipline helps her start her day alert and focused.  “If I happen to miss a day, it throws me off.”

Stay inspired – Finding inspiration and motivation on a daily basis can be a challenge, but not if you love what you do.  Said the creative director, “It doesn’t hurt that at age 55, I love what I do and love going to work. And every day is a new challenge that I hadn’t experienced before. I think the fact that every new project starts with a blank piece of paper and the initial thought to myself of ‘What the hell am I going to do this time?’ and ‘it’s due when…are you nuts?’ That’s enough to keep me focused.” Said the fund raiser, “Think daily about your purpose and the value you can bring to your clients, your colleagues, your friends and your family.”

Be good – Perhaps the response I liked the most was this humble response from a very skilled portfolio manager: “I have tried to focus on being good each day. Good first as opposed to bad or evil, but good also in terms of skills, judgment and interactions with others. Having said this, I am ashamed by how often I do not do a very good job of being good, in any sense of the word.” Said the media exec, “It might seem hokey but I’ve always believed that if you work hard, are honest and stick to your values, it will pay off. It has for me.”