Recently, I did a show of hands exercise in a room full of people. For those who don’t know what that is, the presenter asks a Yes/No question and attendees raise their hand to indicate a Yes.
The first question I asked was, “How many people want to achieve success in life, irrespective of what you consider success to be?”
Almost all hands went up.
I followed up with another question, “how many of you have thought of ideas to achieve success?”
Again, many hands went up, but the number was fewer than the first time.
I asked another question, “How many of you have a plan to implement your idea?”
The number of hands reduced.
And finally, I asked, “How many of you have taken the first step, no matter how small, to achieve your definition of success?”
This time, I could count the raised hands.
I have done the exercise on various occasions, but the last time I did this only 3 out of 67 people had taken the first step towards the goal.
I have repeated the exercise in different locations and settings(albeit in professional environments only), and the results are similar.
Everyone wants to achieve success, most have given it a thought, a few have a plan, but only a handful have taken any action.
Which category do you fall under?
- The flowchart of success
- Final takeaway:
The flowchart of success
(I will only refer to career success in the article, you can apply the same logic to non-professional aspects of life too)
I’ll take the risk of oversimplifying the road to success, and depict it with the image below.
The flow of events falls under 4 broad categories. At first glance, each of these aspects appears motivating, but unfortunately, not all of them lead to action.
Therefore, I separate them into two segments – the left and the right.
The left side of inaction:
Step 1 – Desire:
Desire forms the crux of success. Just like you need a solid foundation to build an exquisite structure, you need a strong desire to achieve success. Of course, you’ll hear of stories of celebrities and entrepreneurs who accidentally stumbled upon fame and wealth, but they’re outliers, an exception to the norm.
Most people have a desire to achieve one goal or another, but unfortunately, many linger on this phase for a long time, if not forever.
Signs of being stuck in the desire phase:
- Watching endless motivational videos or reading quotes to invoke a false illusion of making progress
- Dreaming of big things, but not following up with any further action
- Thinking of the big final result, but neither knowing a way nor making an attempt to get there
The desire phase isn’t unhealthy in itself. You don’t have to beat yourself up if you’re spending time on the three behaviors listed above. But desire alone isn’t useful.
Two questions you need to ask yourself are:
- How long have I been doing it?
- Am I in an endless loop of such behavior with no further progress?
Success begins with desire, but the longer you linger, the more worthless it gets.
Step 2 – The method:
Once you have a desire, you need a method to get there. Desire is the outcome whereas your method is the way you choose to achieve it.
“Isn’t desire the same as the method?” you ask.
In some cases it is, but more often it isn’t. If you want to win a gold medal in gymnastics, your desire and the method are the same. But what if you desire to make 10 million dollars? You can achieve your goal using different means:
- Grow up the ladder as an employee and reach a high paying position
- Start your business and generate profits
- Grow your expertise in a specific domain and turn into a celebrity
- Buy lottery tickets every day and win a jackpot
- Smuggle drugs across borders
Each one of these can fetch you 10 million dollars, but they differ in aspects of effort, risk, and chances of success.
Now, ask yourself, “How do I want to achieve my desire?”
At first thought, you might assume, “I don’ care as long as I get what I want.” But reality doesn’t work that way.
- You want to reach the summit of the 7 most difficult mountains of the world
- How would you feel if a billionaire sponsored a helicopter to drop you directly at the summit?
- You want to own a successful business
- What if your parents had handed you the reigns of an already proven business?
As much as you care about the result, you also care about the journey to get there.
But, what if you are the person who feels, “I wouldn’t mind landing on the summit or taking over a proven business. I only care about the end result. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the journey”?
The problem is, the above examples are hypothetical. In real life, any massive goal takes massive effort. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you’ll lose motivation along the way. In the process, you’ll look for shortcuts that cause more damage than good.
If you have a desire which is an end result, take the time to dig into your soul and find out the right method to get there which resonates with you. “I’m OK with any method as long as I achieve the result”, is a recipe for failure and also a reason why you fail to take the next step.
Desire and the method form the left side of the road to success. Most people move back and forth between these two areas. They come up with new desires, think of a method to achieve them, daydream about the results, never take any action, and eventually give up. Sooner or later, they stumble upon a new desire, and the cycle repeats.
I call the left side, the side of inaction because you don’t need to get your butt off the seat at all. You can dream of your desire and come up with a method, and feel satisfied with yourself, but, so far you haven’t taken any real action.
The right side of deliberate action:
If you take a step beyond the desire and the method, you’ll land on the side where you need to take real action. No more fancy dreams, no more hypothetical plans, and no more false illusion of living your dream without achieving it. It’s time to clench your fists, flare your chest and take action.
Step 3 – Plan:
Once you have a desire, and a method to achieve it, what you need next is a plan. Don’t worry about making a sophisticated business plan that you can pitch to investors or create a colorful presentation with.
Create a plan with the following things in mind:
- A rough unorganized plan is better than no plan
- It doesn’t need to make sense to anyone other than you
- It will go wrong somewhere or the other, so don’t try to perfect it
- You will need to change it based on unforeseen events, new information, and your learning along the journey, so allow room for flexibility
- Don’t consider a change in plans as poor planning. The question isn’t if your plans need to change. The question is when.
Above all, don’t forget the primary purpose of the plan – to take action. Any plan, no matter how perfect, exhaustive, and vibrant is futile if it leads to no action.
What should you watch out for during planning:
Planning fallacy: Creating a plan feels like getting real work done. But it isn’t(especially if you’re more focused on the plan than action). Avoid endless planning.
Important aspects of planning:
- Prepare for things to go wrong.
- If you assume you’ve made the perfect plan, you’ll lose motivation when things go wrong.
- Accept major changes
Once you begin your journey towards your goal, you’ll implement only a small fraction of your plan. Circumstances, new knowledge, and obstacles will force you to deviate from your original route.
Don’t be adamant about sticking to the plan. Improvise as per the situation and accept major detours if necessary. When you’re chasing a large goal, you cannot anticipate the route of your entire journey beforehand. Use your plan as the guideline to get started and revise it every now and then.
Keep goal size and target duration proportional:
A small goal needs a short time while a large goal needs a long time. If you aim to achieve a gigantic goal in a short duration, demotivation creeps in when you don’t see enough progress even if you were well on track. Therefore keep your timeline in proportion with the size of your goal.
Step 4 – Action:
The final step in the road to success is action.
In theory, in this step, all you need to do is take action. Sounds simple, right? But, most people never reach here because they’re stuck at dreaming about their desire, rambling about their method, or pondering over their plan.
If you’ve not taken the first step of action to reach your goal, ask yourself:
- Are you chasing different goals every now and then?
- Are you planning forever looking for perfection?
- Are you procrastinating the action for “later”?
Tips to take action:
Divide your large goal into simple tasks:
You fail to take action because you look at the goal as one single entity, a large outcome to reach. The end result of a massive goal makes the action look overwhelming, and therefore, you give up before you start.
Break the target down to simple tasks, down to the level that you can complete one simple task today. Not next month, not next week, not tomorrow, but today.
Once you have broken the goal down into simple tasks, take action, even if it’s only a small step to begin with. Action leads to momentum, which leads to further action, which leads to further momentum causing a snowball effect.
Two methods of taking action:
Your approach to taking action can vary based on your personality. Though you can achieve your goal in different ways, these are the two common methods. Both these techniques have their advantages and disadvantages.
Plan Well And Act Late:
We’re not talking about planning to the point of inaction. But, you might be the person who likes to think their actions through before performing them.
Such an approach can be depicted as follows:
You spend a good amount of time planning before taking action.
- Since you’ve applied thought, you’re likely to commit fewer errors
- You have a clear roadmap for action
- Your plan is based on assumptions. If you’re targeting a difficult goal, your assumptions will go wrong.
- Planning can lead to procrastination of real action and thereby delay the time taken to achieve the goal
Act Fast and Improvise:
In this approach, you put together a short plan and jump into action. Based on the response and result, you improvise and execute your further actions.
I use this approach for entrepreneurship and most other goals I chase.
Such an approach can be depicted as follows:
You focus on taking action faster than making a detailed plan.
- You take swift action and build momentum
- You know the real outcome of your actions which you can use to improvise and correct your plan
- Since you’re jumping into action sooner, the chances of errors are higher
- You will need to put in rework to correct your mistakes
Neither of these approaches is better than the other. You can make a judgment on what’s suitable for your goal and personality. But irrespective of the approach you choose, if you take action, you’re already way ahead of many other people.
If you want to achieve success, you have to reach the final phase – the stage of action. Everything that precedes it is both useful and useless. Useful if you follow it up with action and useless if you don’t.
You need a foundation to complete a large building, but if you don’t build the walls, and paint the structure, the foundation means nothing. Similarly, your goal, the method, and a plan are necessary prerequisites to achieve success, but by themselves, they’re nothing.
So, get up and take action. Finally, that’s all that matters.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.