The Minimum Requirement for Success

Success is a fun word, isn’t it? It’s flexible and nebulous, so whoever is saying it gets to define what it means for themselves. To one person, success is $1 million. To another person, success is a great circle of friends. To another, success is both of those and more. But what is the minimum requirement for success?

Regardless of what it means to individuals, success broadly means doing or accomplishing what you want to do or accomplish.

There are many ideas about how to succeed, but I’m only interested in the core. What is the minimum fundamental requirement for success? That is, what is the absolutely necessary first step to accomplish things?

To answer that, we need to ask two more questions, which will immediately put us in the right path.

What do all success cases share in common? Action. Success is the result of action.

What sustains success? Sustained action.

Action is the common factor in all success stories. You can’t succeed by doing nothing. What if doing nothing is your idea of success? In that case, doing nothing would be your chosen “(in)action” for success. Weird example, yes, but necessary to cover the logical bases.

Even if you intend to win the lottery, it requires the basic action of buying tickets. How many tickets will you buy? From what gas station? How many lotteries? Every success story, even one as inherently passive as winning the lottery, has one or more actions behind it.

Drilling deeper: if action drives success, what drives action? The answer to that will be our answer for success.

The Minimum Requirement for Success: You Must Be Able to Create Reliable Intention Every Day

Intent always precedes successful action. Accidental success isn’t really a thing that exists, or if it does, it obviously can’t be relied upon by nature of being accidental. So we’re going with the idea that we need to intend to take certain actions that we project will lead to some form of future success. Recognizing the importance of intention is the first step; making it tangible is the next and often underlooked step.

The type of intention we’re looking for is the type that hawks display when they dive towards the ground at over 100 miles per hour. That’s what real intent looks like.

But have you ever intended to do something and then not done it? Whether it’s changing our minds or forgetting to act, we all do it every day. It’s decidedly un-hawk-like. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed, which is that I’m much less likely to change my mind if I make my intention explicit and tangible.

If we want success, we need to ensure action. If we want action, we need to create unassailable intent! Unassailable means unable to be attacked, questioned, or defeated. Think of the hawk diving downward at 120 MPH. It’s unassailable the moment it begins to dive.

Humans aren’t hawks though. Hawks don’t have to do laundry. Hawks don’t get a distracting email when they’re supposed to be writing a newsletter. In addition, hawk decisions are not based on conscious thought but on instinct. The complexity and power of the human brain makes it so that mental intention isn’t good enough. If you put a human brain inside of a hawk’s body and gave the hawk a cell phone, it would stop mid-dive to check a text, and then forget to dive again. This example is officially out of control and could turn into a sci-fi novel at any time.

To Make Your Intention Reliable, Make It Tangible

Hawks’ power of intent is fine. I’m not worried about them. But you and I need to make our intention explicit. We need to stop juggling ideas, pluck one out of the air, and say, “I’m setting this aside as important and nonnegotiable because it’s going to [bring me success].”

But how? How can one make an intention explicit and unassailable? This is not difficult to do, but it isn’t easy either.

To make your intention explicit and unassailable, you have to write it down, mark it, or otherwise bring it in the physical world. You have to make it tangible.

The only way to truly separate an intention from the crazy chaos of your mind is to take it away from that chaos. If you keep your intentions mental, it’s like marking one of your juggled ideas with a star. “Note to self, I really should do that one.” But during the day, you’re juggling all sort of other ideas and thoughts and your idea marked with a star might not even be in your mental picture when it’s time to do it. You might forget about it, context might make you reconsider its importance, and a million other things can easily destroy these mental intentions.

As David Allen would say, this intention can’t merely be put on a piece of scrap paper that you’ll lose in your car, it needs to be in a system you trust. That system can be as simple as a piece of scrap paper, but only if you know you’re going to look at that scrap paper at the proper time. It will more likely be a calendar, dry erase board, or phone/computer app.

I’ve learned this lesson both ways. I experienced tremendous success with Mini Habits in the first few years tracking them daily, only to slowly drift away later because I thought I had outgrown my need to track them. Oops. I humbly learned that tracking my habits was instrumental to my success with them. Tracking your habits requires you to check them off when completed, which generates a strong, tangible intention to do them. Even something as easy as a mini habit needs intention behind it or it won’t reliably be done. One reason I love the Mini Flex System is because you can mark your intention with a single dot on a dry erase board. It takes 3 seconds to make your intention tangible!

To create unassailable intention, take the intent outside of your mind and create a symbol of intention in the real world. It doesn’t even have to be writing. This is why it’s so effective to put out your gym clothes for the morning ahead. That is a sign of intention in the real world, outside of your crowded thought pool. When you make plans with people, that brings the intention into the real world as well (it’s as if you’re “infusing” your friends with your intention, because you know they’ll call you out if you don’t show up!). We know this intuitively—tangible intentions make us much more reliable action-takers. Mental intentions enable us to be weak and easily-dissuaded.

It is not good enough to mentally intend to do something. Be better than that. Make your intention stronger than that! Mental intention will always be weaker than intention manifest in the real world. When you bring it into the physical world, you show yourself and others that you mean it. Making your intentions tangible is the key to becoming hawk-like in your conviction to do them.

One reason I prefer things like dry erase boards and big calendars over phone apps and computers is that the former are physical presences. A cell phone app exists somewhere between your mind and the real world. It is a digital world within a small piece of technology, and things within that digital world are about as easy to ignore as your thoughts. I’m not foolish enough to claim that the modern cell phone addict would ever ignore their phone, I’m saying that like inside your mind, there are a lot of distractions on a cell phone! Your intentions are now fighting for your attention against millions of apps and the entire internet, and probably losing that battle. Marking your intention in a cell phone app is incrementally better than having one in your mind, but if you experience difficulties, try making your intention more tangible. If you must use a cell phone, at least create a widget to move your intentions to the front screen.

There you have it. The absolute minimum requirement for success (which is actually the bulk of the requirement for success) is to make your intentions for action explicit and tangible.

Next Step: What Type of Intentions Should I Create? Small Ones

The next step is to strategize about the type of intentions you choose to have, and that’s where mini habits come in. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Mini Habits:

“Think about what the following truths mean for your life:

1. Big intentions are worthless if they don’t bring results. For example, I can say that I will exercise for two hours every day, but if I never do it, the size of the intention doesn’t matter. In fact, intention without action harms self-confidence.

2. People have been shown in studies to chronically overestimate their self-control ability.

These two simple points reveal why so many people struggle to change. They have big ambitions, but overestimate their ability to make themselves do what it takes to change. It’s a mismatch between desire and ability. Here are two more facts to consider:

1. Doing a little bit is infinitely bigger and better than doing nothing (mathematically and practically speaking).

2. Doing a little bit every day has a greater impact than doing a lot on one day. How much greater? Profoundly so, because a little bit every day is enough to grow into a lifelong foundational habit, and those are a big deal, as you’ll see.

If these statements seem reasonable to you, the main conclusion to draw is that small intentions are better than big intentions. Interesting, right? We’re just getting started.”

You can see from that short excerpt that small intentions are counterintuitively more powerful than large intentions for three reasons.

  1. They are far more likely to be done. (A little bit is infinitely greater than nothing)
  2. They can easily be done consistently.  (Small actions are the ideal way to build habits)
  3. They are not a ceiling, but a floor. (You can always do more. They don’t limit you.)

In conclusion, if you generate small intentions and make them tangible, you won’t be stopped. If you’ve tried small intentions or tangible intentions separately, you may have had sporadic success. Try them together and you’ll experience a whole new level of success. Read Mini Habits for the full strategy.

(photo by @Michael)

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