Labor & Work-Life Issues

Traits of the 'Get It Done' Personality: Laser Focus, Resilience, and True Grit

Silas Crews for the Chronicle

Angela L. Duckworth (left) of the U. of Pennsylvania studies personality traits, including grit, that help people succeed. She is shown here working with Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, a graduate student.
August 05, 2012

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Traits of the 'Get It Done' Personality: Laser Focus, Resilience, and True Grit

Traits of the 'Get It Done' Personality

Silas Crews for the Chronicle

Angela L. Duckworth (left) of the U. of Pennsylvania studies personality traits, including grit, that help people succeed. She is shown here working with Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, a graduate student.

By Katherine Mangan

Robert J. Sternberg has written 40 books and at least 1,400 articles and chapters over a career in which he has juggled jobs as professor, provost, and president of the American Psychological Association.

As a psychologist who has studied the way people accomplish goals and stay motivated, he probably has a better insight than most other prolific scholars into what it takes to get things done when distractions tug and self-doubt creeps in. He's one of several experts The Chronicle asked for tips on the traits and habits of people who are particularly effective at accomplishing their goals in academe.

Being passionate about your work and resilient in the face of setbacks are key, most experts agree.

"You're going to go through periods where your articles get rejected, students are giving you bum ratings, and your grant applications are rejected," says Mr. Sternberg, who, after 35 years at Yale and Tufts, became provost and a professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University in 2010.

"If you don't believe in yourself, it's easy to think that you're a loser and to stop trying," he says.

He learned that lesson the hard way. From elementary school on, Mr. Sternberg was a terrible test taker and did so poorly in an introductory psychology class at Yale that his professor urged him to consider another major. Instead he earned a doctorate in the field and went on to become a pioneer in alternative-assessment methods. In his book Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life (Simon & Schuster, 1996), he wrote about how his early academic struggles spurred him to work harder.

Self-regulation—being aware of what matters to you and having the discipline to avoid temptations and see it through—is another important quality, he says. "What happens to a lot of people is that they get totally caught up in trivia, and later they complain they were asked to do too much of this or that. Ultimately it's your responsibility to regulate yourself and decide what's important and what isn't."

In his own case, getting home to his toddler triplets is a top priority, but he won't leave the office until he has prepared discussion questions for at least five chapters of the textbook he plans to use in a course this fall.

That kind of specific, detailed strategy is much more useful than setting a general goal, such as having a course ready by the end of August, says Peter M. Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University and an expert on goal attainment and motivation. Using an "if then" plan, a person can spell out the steps he or she must take to achieve the goal and deal with inevitable obstacles: "If X happens, I'll cope with it by doing Y." 

 A scholar who plugs away on a book month after month, refining a thesis and deepening her understanding of a complex topic, needs the same kind of determination that an avid soccer player displays in persevering through injuries and losses, says Angela L. Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. Duckworth, a former middle-school math teacher, became interested in studying the traits, other than intelligence, that help some students succeed. She zeroed in on the dogged determination and focus shared by successful students, spelling-bee champions, and West Point cadets. Taking a page from a John Wayne movie, she called it "grit."

"The gritty person approaches achievement as a marathon," she writes in an article published in an online journal. "The gritty person sticks with it, whereas others might be distracted by boredom, failure, adversity, or plateaus."

Scholars who get sidetracked in their research and fail to maintain a tight focus on their topic often struggle to finish dissertations or books, Ms. Duckworth says. "You don't get anywhere in academe unless you narrow in on one tractable topic" and stick with it, even if other, potentially more interesting topics tempt you along the way.

In addition to maintaining a laserlike focus on a goal, people who get things done in academe often score high in one of the traits studied by Brent W. Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Conscientiousness is one of five major traits that psychologists have identified in describing personality, and many believe it is the one most closely related to job performance. The others are extraversion, or openness to experience; neuroticism; and agreeableness.

People who are highly conscientious tend to be more organized and responsible, more likely to follow through on their obligations, and more likely to follow rules. A conscientious graduate student shows up for class on time and won't give up on her dissertation when experiments go awry or writer's block hits. Mr. Roberts and his colleagues have developed a survey that gives people an idea of how conscientious they are.

But some characteristics of conscientious workers can be a liability later in an academic career, he says. While conscientious people often tend to be traditional, to respect authority and follow socially prescribed norms, successful academics often are those who shake things up and refuse to accept the status quo. "If you look at the profile for someone who's realized creative success, they can't be conventional," Mr. Roberts says. "Whether you're an engineer or an artist or an English professor, your job is to create new knowledge."

While academics have to work hard, being creative is probably more important than being conscientious, says Mr. Roberts, whose own CV lists more than 100 articles in psychology journals on topics including the impact of personality traits on major life goals and personality development across the age span.

Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, says some of the most successful academics are flexible, creative thinkers who are confident, even arrogant at times:. "If you're really cutting-edge, you're going to be bucking the system, and people are going to fight you."

Highly productive academics focus on one thing at a time, Mr. Feist says. "We know from all kinds of psychological research that multitasking doesn't work for anyone." Switching back and forth between ideas breaks up concentration and eats up valuable time. By contrast, people who meditate and focus on breathing are better able to concentrate and focus on their immediate tasks.

Highly productive academics "take care of things very quickly," he says. "The small things they do—they don't leave them on their desk. But they also block out hours of time to write without e-mailing or tweeting or Facebooking."

That's easier said than done, he admits. For those who can't resist the urge to browse for bargains on eBay or peek in on the kids on Facebook, programs with names like SelfControl, Cold Turkey, Concentrate, and Anti-Social allow users to temporarily block access to such distractions.

"It's hard to have a sustained, meditative reflection on anything when you can always change the channel or click on another link or download another app," agrees Ms. Duckworth, the Penn scholar.

One of her colleagues has her own theories about what makes some people take on more tasks when their plates seem to be full.

Cassie Mogilner, an assistant professor of marketing at the university's Wharton School, came to that counterintuitive conclusion after analyzing a series of experiments that she helped conduct, which concluded that people who spend time volunteering are able to tackle more tasks at work.

"Counter to what you might expect, when people spend their time helping others, they feel like they have more time, not less," Ms. Mogilner says. Having helped someone other than themselves, they tend to feel more confident that they can accomplish more.

Successful academics are creative, take risks, and have a good sense of their strengths and weaknesses, says Mr. Sternberg, of Oklahoma State. A person who, for example, is passionate about teaching but struggles to get grants will be more successful at a college that rewards good teaching.

No matter where you are, though, "it's very easy to let pushing papers and attending meetings consume all your time," Mr. Sternberg says. "You have to decide what your priorities are and say, 'I'm going to make it happen'—and then just make it happen."

The Successful Academic

People who get things done and accomplish their goals often share these traits:

  • Resilience
    The ability to recover from setbacks and cope effectively with stress
  • Grit
    Perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals
  • Conscientiousness
    A tendency to be orderly, self-controlled, industrious, responsible, and willing to delay gratification
  • Creativity
    The willingness to break with convention, challenge the status quo, and come up with new ideas
  • Focus
    The ability to zero in on one thing at a time, tune out distractions, and avoid multitasking
  • Self regulation
    An awareness of what matters and the discipline to avoid temptations and see a task through