THE BLOG
12/15/2014 12:18 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

The One Habit of Successful People Those Lists Forget to Mention

Dirima via Getty Images

There's a thing all of those lists of productivity habits always forget to mention.

You know, we all love to read them. Ten things all successful people do. Top eight habits of highly-productive people. Top tips for best-selling authors.

But whether we are talking about tips that give us a road map to creative or business success, or tips to live a happier life, there's one key thing all of these lists neglect to mention:

We must experiment.

We look at these lists because we feel some gap between where we are and where we want to be, and we've become convinced that the solution is finding out what works for someone else and duplicating their efforts. The thing all those successful/productive/magically shiny people have in common isn't that they all did the same thing. They found what worked best for them.

Perhaps you've heard the story about the young woman and the ham.

The story goes like this: A young woman was preparing a ham for a holiday dinner, and as she had always seen her mother do, she cut off the end of the ham before putting it in the oven. A friend observing her do this asked why she had cut off the end, and it made her pause; she didn't know. It was just what she had always seen her mother do. So, she asked her mother... why do we cut off the end of the ham? Her mother thought about this for a bit before realizing that she didn't know why it was done, just that she had always seen her mother do it that way. Curiosity getting the best of her, she telephoned her mother and asked. The grandmother laughed and replied that when she first married, they had a tiny oven; without slicing the end off of the ham, it wouldn't fit.

How much time do we waste on doing things simply because it's how they've always been done?

If we believe that part of the creative process is about making something new and effecting change, we must stop doing things the way they've always been done and begin to experiment.

For a long time, I tried to force myself to do "morning pages" and thought there was something wrong with my writing process when that felt uncomfortable. Writing first thing in the day works best for many people. But if I want to write what I need to write -- what the world needs me to write -- I need to find my own process instead of trying to slice of the end of the ham and fit my writing into a pattern, just because it worked for another writer. Maybe you write best in a coffee shop; maybe you need to be at home. Maybe inspiration hits you most often at night and working in the morning feels like drudgery. While there is something to be said for pushing and challenging ourselves, the key is that we experiment -- we get curious -- instead of trying merely to do what worked best for someone else.

We know inherently that we need to take the proverbial road less travelled, to cut our own paths if we want to make a difference in the world. And yet, we fall into that trap of insanity trying the same old thing and expecting new results. Is it worth listening to and learning from others about the tools and habits they find useful? Absolutely. It ceases to be useful when we treat it as dogma and become frustrated or stifled by trying to make someone else's process our own.

As we wind down 2014 and look ahead to next year, it's a good time to take stock of where we are, how far we've come, and the tools we've used to get here.

This month, may you let go of doing what's always been done if it has ceased to serve. May you widen your eyes with curiosity instead of fear at the approaching new year. And may you look at each blank page, empty stage, clean canvas and new day as the beginning of a grand experiment.