Life is full of challenging tasks that do not always go smoothly. So what is it that characterizes those people who are able to deal with setbacks and difficulties successfully, while others give up? It's not just about persistence, though that's important, too. Being willing to try a new approach when you are stuck on a problem can break the mental logjam, psychologists have found.

Successful people have what researchers at Stanford University and the National University of Singapore are calling a “strategic mindset.” When a project they are working on hits a snag, they are apt to take a fresh look at the situation and ask “How else can I do this? Is there a better way?” It's a little like reaching for a different tool in your toolbox.

“If something you've have been working on isn't going so well, can you step back and ask yourself, ‘How might I go about this differently?’”

“[P]sychological science has long known that having a wide repertoire of strategies matters. But until now, we hadn't understood why some people use their strategies more than others at the right time. We developed our research on the strategic mindset to explain why this might be,” explained lead researcher, Patricia Chen, a member of the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The usefulness of a strategic mindset was explored In a series of three studies. One looked at the degree to which college students reported using a strategic mindset in their classes, shifting learning stategies as needed. Students who used a range of learning techniques performed better in their classes that semester and in new, different classes the subsequent semester.

In a second study, a group of more than 350 adults across the United States were questioned about how much they tended to use a flexible or strategic mindset when they made a mistake or encountered an obstacle. The same group was also surveyed to see how that willingness to change their approach might have affected their success at reaching goals that were important to them. It, too, found a positive relationship — the more flexible a person was in their approach to problems that arose, the more successful they were at achieving their professional, educational, health and fitness goals.

Finally, the third study explored whether people could learn to use a strategic mindset to improve their chances of success. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One learned techniques for using a different approach to a problem; the other group did not. Later, the two groups were given a challenging task to complete as quickly as possible. Those who had learned to try shifting strategies — the strategic mindset group — not only completed the task faster, they also practiced the task more frequently before doing it under time pressure.

“There are key points in any challenging pursuit that require people to step back and come up with new strategies,” the study's coauthor, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, explained in a statement, “A strategic mindset helps them do just that.”

You can easily apply this insight to your life, says Chen. “As you approach whatever challenging goal you are pursuing, you can ask yourself, ‘What are things I can do to help myself (and others)? Is there a way to do this even better?'’ If something you have been working on isn't going so well, can you step back and ask yourself, ‘How might I go about this differently? Is there another approach I can try to help this go better?’”

The study is published in PNAS, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.