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Most effective habits of influential leaders

From tucking their phones into bed to escaping into a remote cabin for a week at a time, learn how you can incorporate these habits into your daily routine to live more skillfully.

Habits of successful people

We’re living in a time when leaders are expected to wear multiple hats and to be the shining light for their organisations as well as demonstrate confidence and exude a strong presence.

Yet, all these qualities can only flourish when balance and self-care practices are in place. While you might be expecting the habits of the wealthy and successful to be remarkably different, quite the opposite is true. Many have tailored their busy lifestyles to include habits that support their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, from cycling to digital detox regimes.

They prioritise regular exercise

Despite the well-documented benefits of physical activity, from preventing cancer to boosting your cognitive health, it remains one of the most simple yet easily avoidable habits. Yet how you choose to move is not as important as your decision to prioritise exercise in your busy schedule.

In Richard’s Branson’s blog, he mentions how his well-rounded lifestyle includes various forms of movement.

“I exercise daily in the form of tennis, kitesurfing, swimming, weights and cycling (sometimes to my detriment!),” the 71-year-old writes.

Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, admits to PEOPLE magazine that exercise isn’t an activity she enjoys – instead it’s something she chooses to do because she knows it’s good for her.

“I think everyone’s waiting to love it,” she says “You’re not going to love it but you do the thing you need to do to make yourself feel whole and well.”

Simple ways to incorporate exercise into your schedule:

  • Try a new fitness app: From yoga to strength training, sports apps have come a long way, offering a convenient way to exercise at any time of the day.
  • Find company: Instead of catching up with a friend for coffee, you might like to consider hiking or rock climbing together.
  • Schedule a walking meeting: Research suggests that walking increases our creativity and engagement. Many of us sit for long periods of time, so why not expose yourself to some sunlight while you have a meeting and move your body at the same time?

They have a growth mindset

Failure can be a painful experience for anyone, but the type of mindset you have can determine how you deal with setbacks and learn from them. Branson, for instance, states in his blog that, “Life is all about striving and growing. I never want to have made it; I want to continue making it!”

A growth mindset is a belief in which life is perceived in a more fluid way, whether that be with regards to intellect or personality – people are able to change and grow through their applied effort. Individuals with this mindset are better equipped to problem solve and handle change.

Elon Musk’s response to a major flaw – a shattered windshield – at the unveiling of the Cybertruck revealed his growth mindset. ​​“Franz [Tesla’s chief designer] throws steel ball at Cybertruck window right before launch,” he tweeted. “Guess we have some improvements to make before production haha.”

The best leaders see challenges as opportunities and are curious to identify areas that require improvement.

Fast ways to cultivate a growth mindset:

  • Embrace challenges: If you fear something there’s a good chance you should try it simply to overcome your self-doubt and the belief that you won’t be able to handle failure.
  • Reflect: Being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and your strengths can help you on your journey to reaching success rather than choosing not to acknowledge the things you find difficult.
  • Ask for feedback: When learning new skills or working on a project in an entirely different area seeking constructive feedback can help you to understand the subject matter on a deeper level as well as test your understanding.

They are lifelong learners

A common thread among influential leaders is their hunger to learn and unlearn the things that don’t serve them. This skill is particularly necessary in order to compete in our fast-paced and ever-changing world that requires innovative and insightful thinking.

Whether you listen to podcasts, read a book, take a course or speak with someone face-to-face, investing in lifelong learning and the ability to retain relevant information are vital for success. In his bestselling novel What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith states, “80 per cent of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen.” Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Barrack Obama are all avid readers, who attribute their success to this daily habit.

Easy ways to become a lifelong learner:

  • Create a plan: Write down all the things you would like to learn within a specific timeframe. This could be a three-month photography course, a new language or a specific leadership course.
  • Ask questions: Those who are secure in themselves are willing to ask questions and thus deepen their understanding. Doing so indicates that you’re also able to be vulnerable – an important aspect of leadership.
  • Practice: The best courses are those that don’t merely teach new skills, but also apply this new found knowledge. If you’re learning coding for instance, build a website to put these skills into practice.

They unplug themselves from technology

With digital detox retreats like ‘Time to Log Off’ on the rise it’s fair to say that many people feel a need to detach themselves from the invisible impacts of technology. For leaders, who are paid to make decisions as well as to think creatively and strategically – the qualities that technology can sometimes inhibit – the need to distance themselves may even be greater.

For Cynthia Hansen, Managing Director of The Adecco Group Foundation, unplugging is “like opening a window and letting in fresh air. If you always keep the window closed, your thinking becomes stale and stuffy,” she explains.

Ariana Huffington revealed in a recent interview with Steve Forbes that she literally puts her phone to bed with a device that functions like a charging station for the entire family. She believes having a break from technology is essential when recharging our bodies.

“When we’re exhausted we can still be transactional – we can still do mundane things, but leadership right now is not about mundane things,” Huffington points out.

Technology reduction tips:

  • Turn off your phone notifications: Email and social media alerts can serve as constant distractions that steal your attention from engaging fully in the present moment.
  • Go on a detox: Just like you would take a break to visit a beach for the day or a hike in the mountains, consider placing your tech devices out of sight for the weekend for you to recharge.
  • Keep mornings free: Begin your day with rituals that anchor you in the physical world – whether that involves making your bed, meditation or jogging – these activities create better conditions for a productive day.

They surround themselves with people who inspire them

Whether it’s a person, artwork or quote from an inspiring writer, moments like these serve as important reminders of why life is worth living and our purpose. While some of the most accomplished leaders are motivated by the stories of others who have overcome great adversity, others are propelled to embark on life’s next big adventure with a grander gesture.

“There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain to make you feel powerful,” Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, proclaims.

David H Stevens, CEO of Mortgage Bankers Association, reveals his parents serve as his greatest inspiration. “Save for the future; work hard; take measured risks in your career; enjoy life; help others less advantaged; survive any change; and question authority” are just some of the lessons they have instilled in him.

Tips on where to find inspiration:

  • Find new territory: Microadventures can reveal different sides of the city we inhabit. Consider trying a new restaurant or venturing into a suburb you normally wouldn’t.
  • Write a bucket list: Include on your list of possibilities all the things you would like to experience in your lifetime.
  • Reflect: Have you ever thought about the individuals and places that inspire you? Write down their names and in what ways they bring you joy.

They self-reflect

Bill Gates has been known to take a ‘think week’ biannually for seven days in a remote cabin in America’s Pacific Northwest. While there, Gates reads about the latest industry news and contemplates – free of all distractions in a natural setting.

In a similar vein, Warren Buffett believes that thinking time is conducive to making smarter decisions in business. “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think,” he affirms. “So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business.”

Without self-reflection it can be difficult to take the best course of action that reflects our values, priorities and future goals – the things that can’t be ticked off a to-do list.

Simple ways to engage in self-reflection:

  • Integrate it into your daily routine: Self-reflection can take place while you walk, engage in gardening, during your work commute or while taking a tea break.
  • Ask yourself certain questions: Depending on the topic of reflection, it might be helpful to come up with some questions that interrogate where you are at and how you’d like to improve.
  • Talk to yourself out loud: While it might feel strange at first, having a dialogue with yourself can be a great way to elicit questions and to have realisations.

They are organised

Many entrepreneurs and leaders juggle multiple responsibilities or even ventures, which requires careful planning. When Jack Dorsey was managing Twitter in his role as Co-Founder as well as CEO of Square – equating to two full-time roles – he structured his week in terms of a theme. This helped him to stay focused and better deal with interruptions.

“The only way to do this is to be very disciplined and very practiced and the way I found that works for me is I theme my days,” he explains. “And then Sunday is reflections, feedback, strategy and getting ready for the rest of the week.” Dorsey also admits that repetition has never posed an issue for him.

Joel Brown, the founder of insists that writing a numbered to-do list the night before is the key to living a more productive life.

Organisation tips:

  • Listen to your body clock: Schedule work that requires the most mental effort at times when your energy is high and your less demanding work when your energy is low.
  • Mentally rehearse your day: If you plan to write your to-do list the night before, visualising what you intend to accomplish the next day can be a powerful way of taking control of how you would like it to run.
  • Review your to-do lists: We might have a list of priorities, but how often do we actually reflect on our progress? The start of each day can serve as an ideal time to reflect on your goals for the day ahead.

They don’t use an alarm and still wake up early

In his book Change Your Habits, Change Your Life Thomas Corley researched the daily habits of 177 self-made millionaires. Interestingly, almost half of his subjects wake up about three hours prior to the start of their workday.

However, it’s not just when leaders wake up and how many hours of sleep they get that matter. Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bezos reportedly rely on their own body clock to wake up each morning rather than an alarm clock. For Huffington, waking up to the sound of an alarm is a disruptive way to start her day.

“Just think about the definition of the word ‘alarm’,” she says. “A sudden fear or distressing suspense caused by an awareness of danger.”

Tips on how to rise earlier:

  • Fall asleep earlier: Training your body to wake up at the same time each morning has a lot to do with the bed time that you set. Pulling off an all-nighter will disrupt this rhythm though, so aiming for consistency is best.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar before you sleep: Consuming coffee, chocolate or substances that contain a great deal of sugar prior to falling asleep can pose a challenge to developing healthy sleeping habits.
  • Steer clear of blue light: Research suggests that eliminating digital screens two hours before you sleep or wearing blue light blocking glasses is paramount to improving your sleep quality. Instead you could read a physical book or write in your journal.

Read next: Sleeping habits and routines of highly successful people

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