15 Key Differences Between a Successful and Unsuccessful Person

Have you ever wondered what causes one person to succeed in life while others never seem to get ahead? I have, so I decided to look into the differences between a successful and unsuccessful person.

Successful people aren’t afraid to take action or to fail. When they do inevitably fail, they are quick to rebound, learn from those mistakes & move forward trying again in a different way. Unsuccessful people tend to repeat negative behaviors and patterns, and often have a negative mindset rather than a positive one.

But there’s a lot more to know about so-called success and why some have it and others don’t. So let’s keep going!

In this article, we’re diving deep into the world of mindset. We’ll explore why some people seem to “have it all” while others flounder or tread water. We’ll answer some basic questions such as “are successful people smarter?”.

Ultimately, we’re explaining the key differences between a successful and unsuccessful person.

Let’s dive in.

So what are my . . .

15 key differences between a successful and unsuccessful person?

1. Focus on 1 task at a time

Monotasking has replaced multitasking as the new norm.

Show me someone who says they can do 2 (or more) things at once and I’ll show you someone who isn’t doing either to the best of their ability.  Successful people may well have a lot of goals and items on their to-do list, but they focus on doing them one at a time.

Mindfulness, the idea of being focused, intentional and present to what you’re doing is the key here. Explore this concept more in this excellent edition of Time Magazine (click to get it on Amazon)!

Time Magazine The Mindful Revolution cover successful people vs unsuccessful people Middle class Dad

2. Have an organizational system to keep track of daily tasks

Whether you use a dry erase board, a notebook, an old-school planner or an online calendar or app; have a system to keep track of what you need to accomplish. This is a key difference between  successful people vs unsuccessful people.

GQUEUES is a great web-based to-do list program.  They also have mobile apps as well. 

You can create many different lists, or queues, and share them with whoever you like.  When a task gets completed, they can check it off and it gets archived.  You, in turn, can see what has been archived and what is still pending.  Sync it with your Google calendar and set due dates for all tasks. 

Read more about it in my GQueues Review.

3. Learn how to say no and not feel guilty

The more successful the person, the more requests they get.

And you can bet, the more they say no. If you say yes to everything everyone asks you, you’ll run yourself ragged and never accomplish your goals. Plus, think of it this way.

For everything you say yes to, you’re effectively saying no to something else. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day.

There’s no shame in saying no.  Just make sure your communication is timely & professional

4. Take ownership of mistakes and choices

If you’re constantly blaming everyone else for your shortcomings or troubles you’ll never get ahead.

If you never accept your role in a failure, you’ll never learn the lesson from it. Thus you’re much more likely to repeat that mistake.

The only shame in making mistakes is in not owning it and/or repeating them. If there is one defining difference between successful people vs unsuccessful people, it would be this one.

5. Successful people surround themselves with other successful people

If your circle of friends is constantly griping about the world or what they don’t have in their lives, guess what you’re likely to start doing?

Success breeds success.

We are the product of the people we spend the most time with. Distance yourself from negative people and seek out those who inspire you to be a better person.

6. Make time for themselves

Think of your energy, motivation and drive as being fueled by a gas tank. Time to yourself is what refills that gas tank. Even if it’s just 15 minutes of meditation each morning, fitness a few hours a week or some other practice outside work and family, make it a priority!

You can’t serve anyone else well if you’re run down.

7. They get the right amount of rest for their body

As I mentioned above, Chris Bailey debunks the myth that you have to rise at 4 or 5 am each day to be successful. However, it is important to get the right amount of rest for your body.

The “right amount” will vary by age and other factors, so figure out what your body needs. Einstein reportedly got 10 hours per day.  I, on the other hand, like between 6 and 8.  Find what’s right for your body and make it a priority.

8. Avoid comparisons

If you want to succeed, focus on your life, your goals and learning from your mistakes.

It’s OK to be mentored or inspired by others. But avoid comparing yourself to others or constantly wanting what someone else has; that’s energy and focus that could be directed at your goals.

9. Don’t listen to the naysayers

It’s totally OK to get feedback or opinions, but there will always be someone in our lives who doesn’t think we can accomplish our goals. Maybe it’s a jealous family member or friend who hasn’t made a lot of great choices.

Follow what’s in your heart and don’t be deterred by those who don’t believe in you. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?

10. Use the T.R.A.F. system

I fell in love with this system 25 years ago. Essentially when you come into contact with a piece of paper (or an email), do one of the following things with it right away:

1. Trash it
2. Refer it (to someone else to deal with)
3. Act on it (right then or at least put it on your schedule)
4.  File it (as in something you might later need to access but for now it’s unnecessary

Many of us fall into the habit of picking up a bill or opening an email and then just leaving it to come back to later.

Repeat that process a few times a day every day and it’s no wonder we have giants stacks of paper at our desks, have hundreds of emails in our inbox, and never accomplish our goals.

11. They set daily, short term and long term goals and regularly measure their progress

You can’t get to Anchorage Alaska without a roadmap (or at least GPS).

So how do you expect to accomplish your goals if you aren’t clear on what they are and don’t measure where you’re at on the journey of hitting them?

Break your goals down into digestible and realistic chunks for the day, week, month, year and beyond.  Then check in periodically to see where you’re at in working on them.

12. Schedule time for distractions rather than getting distracted throughout the day

How much time do all of us waste checking Facebook or email throughout the day? 


What if you scheduled a time to do those things and ONLY did them during those scheduled times? How much more productive could you be if you weren’t constantly stopping one task to do those others? Even better, take social media apps off your phone and only check them when you’re on a computer at set times.

13. Practice Gratitude

As Tony Robbins is fond of saying” trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant”.

In other words, don’t focus on what you think you deserve or should expect from others. Focus on being grateful for what you have and what they do.

That doesn’t mean if you’re the boss you shouldn’t hold your people accountable. But if you go your whole life only focused on what you don’t have, you’ll never be happy or as successful as you could be.

Do you struggle to feel grateful?  Or maybe you’re always having expectations not met and feeling frustrated?  I’ve been there!  If that’s you, take a moment and check out my recent article. In it, I break down all of the proven benefits of being appreciative.

These easy steps helped me and I know they can help you! Just click the link to read it on my site.

14. Learn to be OK with moving tasks to the next day’s list

I used to be that guy that HAD to get everything done on my to-do list or I felt like a failure.

Learn to be OK with moving less important things to other days and not feeling like you have to do EVERYTHING.

The most successful people pick from 1 to 3 top goals for each day; setting that intention in the morning. Everything else takes a back seat to accomplishing those top goals.

15. They don’t expect anyone to do anything for them

It’s great to have a team and to count on your team, but don’t fall into the trap of expecting others to make your dreams happen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self Reliance motivated me in high school to make things happen for myself and not wait for others to do it for me. You are in the driver’s seat of your life.

Don’t like where you’re at?  CHANGE IT!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do some people succeed while others fail?

You see successful people bandied about across TV, news and social media.  You can’t look anywhere, even at the grocery check out lanes, without seeing someone in front of you more successful than you.

What is it about these people? 

    • Were they just born smarter than you?
    • Did they go to an Ivy League school?
    • Perhaps they had rich benefactors who gave them their success on a silver platter?
    • Do they know something we don’t?
    • Were they given something we don’t have?

The short answer is no.

While some of that does happen, on average over 80% of millionaires weren’t born into wealth and earned it on their own.

And you too can have the kind of success that others only dream of. The differences between a successful and unsuccessful person are just a few key habits!

For the record, I don’t want you to think I only equate success with being a millionaire. That is one, but certainly not the only, measure of success.

Successful people aren’t necessarily smarter than you.  They may not have even completed college, such as my old boss, John Mackey CEO and founder of Whole Foods Market.

The main difference between a successful and unsuccessful person is they just think differently.  They behave differently. Over time, they have developed habits that less successful people don’t have.

The good news is that their behaviors, habits and mental outlook can be adopted by ANYONE!

Successful vs unsuccessful mindset

In this article, we’re breaking down all of the habits successful people tend to share.

These habits are often the key things missing from unsuccessful people. In a success mindset, we are focused on the positive. Sure, we suffer setbacks like anyone else.

But we don’t let that stop us. We don’t dwell on the mistake, setback or failure. What successful people do is learn from that mistake so they don’t repeat it. Then they keep moving forward.

Successful People just don’t accept defeat

Anyone who has tried has failed.

Anyone who claims they haven’t failed is either lying or playing it way too safe.  Failure is a part of life.  But what separates a successful from an unsuccessful person is how they handle defeat.

Successful people don’t just roll over and accept defeat.  They challenge it.  Successful people learn from defeat.  They try again.

Yoda very famously said, “do or do not; there is no try”. 

What he means is either you’re going to accomplish your goal or you’re not.  And if you don’t accomplish it on your first attempt you just keep trying until it works.  Each time you attempt it you tweak it a little from what you learned about the prior failure.

Show me someone failing in life and I’ll show you either someone who isn’t even trying, or they keep trying the same thing expecting different results. Continuously doing the same negative pattern despite knowing it’s not healthy or will lead to failure is known as repetition compulsion.

I have a recent article that not only breaks down why we tend to do that. But, more importantly, what we can do to break out of it. Just click the link to read that on my site.

What is the difference between success and failure?

Successful people don’t wallow in mistakes and failure the way most of us do.

They may feel the spark of disappointment, but they don’t stay in that head-space.  The learn from it, try again, and keep going until they achieve their desired goal.  Perseverance and tenacity are the defining differences between a successful and unsuccessful person.

It’s not whether they make mistakes, but how they see mistakes.  They see them as an opportunity to gather vital information not previously available.

Sure the mistake may have been costly, but you sure aren’t going to earn that money back or fix the problem by feeling sorry for yourself.  No; the only way to recoup what was lost in the failure is to try again. 

And keep trying until you succeed.

The only shame in a mistake is not taking ownership of your actions and/or repeating the same mistake.

Does fear hold you back or prevent you from taking action?  Then I highly recommend you check out a recent article where I break down how to get past a fear of failure or rejection. 

Not that I have it all figured out, but I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes and I’ve also had the benefit of listening to a lot of great people expound on failures and change.

Can failure lead to success?

Yes, is the short answer.

But the key is recognizing the failure. Learn from it. Understand why it happened. Figure out what to do next time so that doesn’t happen. It’s fine to figure out why it happened. If it was your choice, take ownership of that. If it was someone else’s choice, hold them accountable.

But don’t stay in the place of blame or shame. Learn what you need to learn, apply it, and move forward.

At the end of the day, ALL people fail and make mistakes. We do. We are human. Unsuccessful people stay in that mindset. They say things like “why does this always happen to me?” or wallow in self-pity.

Successful people, on the other side of the coin, don’t do that.

They do take ownership of the failure; especially if it hurt someone else. But after being accountable for the failure, they figure out what happened, and see what lesson they can learn from it.

Then, while they will make plenty of other mistakes, they don’t make that one again. Eventually, with perseverance, that leads to success.

What are the habits of a successful person?

I was listening, as I often do, to Pat Flynn‘s podcasts the other day and he was interviewing productivity expert Chris Bailey, author of the book The Productivity Project(click to see the book on Amazon).

In the interview, Bailey deconstructs several myths about productivity and the differences between a successful and unsuccessful person in terms of productivity habits.

For instance:

  1. He explores (and debunks in some cases) the impacts on being successful of wake up time, meditation, diet, and physical exercise
  2. How many hours a week you work is irrelevant (it’s what you do in those hours that matters)
  3. How much you do is not as important as how meaningful your accomplishments are (meaning doing 1 great thing is better than 10 less important things)

But beyond that, successful people have plenty of other good habits we can learn from and adopt. Those include:

1. Being organized

Successful people use organization systems and tools.

Not just to be more productive. But when you’re organized, you’re not scrambling. You aren’t frazzled or stressed, or constantly remembering to do something at the last moment.

Being disorganized robs us not only of time but also a positive mindset. And that mindset, as we get into more below, is crucial for success.

2. Not forgetting about self-care

Successful people may be driven. They may be goal-oriented and maybe even work crazy hours. But they know that to deliver 100% to their family, friends, career, and goals, they can’t be running on empty.

So to be successful, sometimes we have to slow down.

We have to remember to take care of ourselves. That includes body, mind, and spirit. You wouldn’t set out for a cross-country road trip with either no gas or low-quality gas. The same is true in life.

Do whatever resonates with you to reset. That could be meditation, yoga, martial arts, a hot tub or sauna. 

Take time to recharge your batteries so you can give your best to your goals.

3. Staying positive

What we say and think programs our brain.

Show me someone unsuccessful and I’ll likely show you someone who is often saying things like “this always happens to me!” or posting “FMY” on social media.

Our thoughts are powerful.

I’m not saying you can’t ever allow yourself to be mad or sad or to vent frustration. But when we stay in those modes or repeatedly come back to them, we are literally programming our brains to rewire themselves this way.

Many people believe in the law of attraction; that the energy we give out comes back to us. That mindset, whether you call it that, or the power of positive thinking, or something else is key.

I have a recent article that breaks down the law of attraction and also includes whether that works for money and wealth. Just click that link to learn more on my site.

4. Taking action

As I often say when driving, “hesitation kills squirrels”.

By that, aside from seeing a lot of dead squirrels in the road, is that when we hesitate, we often lose. I call that mindset analysis paralysis. We get so frozen in weighing the pros and cons that we don’t take action. We don’t do anything.

And every second we spend thinking but not doing is a second wasted. I have another saying I’m fond of (and I don’t claim to have created any of them); “done is better than perfect”.

By that I mean, I’d much rather take action, and then have to go back and make adjustments than get so focused on making sure something is perfect that it never gets done. Or gets done way later.

Taking action, being willing to make mistakes, and learning from them, is perhaps the most defining difference between a successful and unsuccessful person.

Why habits are important to success?

Habits can make or break us.

Case in point, someone who smokes and drinks heavily is harming their health. They will almost assuredly live a shorter life. And they will doubtless have higher medical bills than those who don’t have those habits.

Positive habits, on the other hand, can do the same thing in the opposite direction.

The good news is that any habit can be adopted or dropped by anyone. It just takes focus, energy, and willpower.

When we have something that’s a habit, we almost do it on instinct without thinking about it. If you go for a walk or a jog every morning, after about 2 weeks, you’ll stop thinking about doing it, and will naturally just go do it.

Almost anything can become a habit when we practice it repeatedly.

It will feel unnatural at first. Your brain will try and talk you out of it. You may think of excuses for why you can’t do it today. You just have to push past that at first. As I like to say, “fake it till you make it”.

By that, I don’t mean I want you to be phony.

But anything new and different won’t feel natural at first. Whether that’s stopping smoking, starting a new diet or exercise program, or dating someone new. But if you do it long enough, eventually it feels natural and comfortable.

So when starting a new habit, keep doing it repeatedly and eventually, it just becomes part of your routine.

Does multitasking increase productivity?

No is the short answer.

One key thing that most successful people do is focus on one task at a time.  Multitasking is dead.  It never really worked. It’s a myth that your brain can focus on multiple things at a time.

Think about it from a practical standpoint.

Could you run a 5k race, while making a grocery list in your head, while at the same time, have an emotionally draining conversation with a loved one?

No is again the answer.

Our brains can’t process all of that at once. If you tried, and the conversation got heated, you would naturally slow down (without noticing). You’d also likely forget where you were on your list. 

It doesn’t work because instead of doing all 3 tasks at once, your brain is really bouncing between all 3, back and forth.

If you were painting 3 rooms in your house, would it be efficient to run between all 3 rooms every 5 seconds to paint a little? Or would it be better to finish one room and then move on to the next?

Of course, in that context, it’s easy to see how multitasking fails us. These days, if you want to succeed, it’s time to embrace mono-tasking! 

Final Thoughts

In this article, we explored exactly what causes one person to succeed while another person fails.

We looked at the strategies, tips, and actions we should be taking IF we want to succeed. Most importantly we reviewed how to put those things in motion in our own lives.

Ultimately we answered the question of what are the differences between a successful and unsuccessful person.

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