The Single Biggest Barrier to Success

I’ve been a student of self improvement for nearly twenty years. I’ve read a library full of books on success. I’ve absorbed a ton of information on what it takes to be successful.

Yet here I sit at forty-one years old fairly mediocre. I’ve only sometimes achieved what I’d call success. And then only very modest success at that.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I already know what I need to do to succeed. Yet I routinely fail to do what I know I should do, what I know I could do if I just would do it.

Over the past couple months I have become acutely aware of the fact that even though it feel like something is holding me back from doing the things I know I need to do, in reality I am my own worst enemy. I am my problem. I just couldn’t figure out why I was so thoroughly and effectively sabotaging my own success.

Until last night.

Ah-Ha Moment

Last night I read something in yet another self improvement book, The Slight Edge: Secret to a Successful Life, on page 28, that was like a light bulb going off in my brain. For me it was one of those powerful “Ah, ha!” moments that comes along and can change the course of your life.

I’d figured out the first half of the equation on my own, even before reading those powerful words last night.

Easy To Do

I already knew that the deep down, core truth is this: everything that we need to do to become successful is relatively easy to do. And, for the most part they aren’t secrets either.

Do you want to lose weight and be healthier?

We all know that the surest way to lose weight is to eat smaller portions and increase physical activity by exercising regularly. And eating healthier foods will make our bodies healthier. These are all relatively easy things for most all of us to do. It’s just going to take a little time.

Do you want to improve your financial situation?

The basic steps involve reducing expenditures, paying off debt, increasing savings, investments and ultimately increasing income. While there are a number of strategies for accomplishing this, it really isn’t rocket science. But even following a good plan financial success isn’t going to happen overnight.

The way to succeed at most anything we want to achieve has already been mapped out by someone. Someone out there has done it and left a record for us to follow.

Often we find that road map with the things we need to do to achieve our desired goals laid out in easy to follow step by step fashion. We know how to follow directions, especially when the individual steps are so easy.

And yet in the overwhelming majority of the time we fail to follow the steps laid out for us and the weight doesn’t come off, the debt mounts and the years flow by while we plod along in the very mediocrity that sucks the life out of our spirits.

It’s like there is a huge mountain barrier that keeps us from following the steps so clearly laid out for us.

The mountain of a barrier blocking our success.

The mountain of a barrier blocking our success.

Easy Not To Do

Last night I discovered the reason I don’t do those things that I already know I could, should, and really need to do to become successful is because, not only are they easy to do, but they are easy not to do.

What do I mean?

Success and failure are both made up of the sum of thousands of tiny decisions, do this thing or don’t do this thing, that when compounded over time lead in one direction or the other. But each individual decision taken by itself is small enough that it won’t make or break you.

Just as it is fairly easy to choose to eat smaller portions, it’s easy to choose not to as well. I mean really, it’s not like you eat one fast food meal or skip one work out and you’ll have a near fatal heart attack that same day.

Truth is, if we don’t make that deposit in savings from this paycheck we won’t end up in bankruptcy court tomorrow.

Because the consequences of any one decision are incredibly small it is very easy to loose sight of the fact that they string together into a series of decisions, most of which we make out of habit, that march us down an unwavering path.

It is just as easy to choose not to do the things we know will lead to success as it is to choose to do them. We won’t see the effects of either choice until some time later down the road. Whether you eat a healthy meal or nothing but junk food today, you probably won’t see a difference in your weight today. Both meals are easy to choose.

Charge that next purchase or make one extra principle payment won’t have a dramatic influence on your portfolio either way today.

Because doing the right thing and not doing the right thing are both easy choices to make, all too often we find ourselves choosing poorly because it is just as easy & feels a little more comfortable. Well it’s more comfortable today anyway.

Eventually we’ll see the cumulative results of our daily choices. What we may not realize is that those results were inevitable because they naturally resulted from all those little, easy, choices we made along the way.

How To Make Better Choices

So then the key getting choosing to do those things that we know we should be doing is to put each and every decision, every little choice, into the larger context of where it will take us. We’ve got change our habits.

Instead of making the easy choices to not do those things we know we should, we’ll start making the equally easy choices to do those things.

To help keep this new insight in front of me I’m printing out a sign and posting it on my desk right in my face. Here is what it says:

Easy to do… Easy not to do…
You Decide! runs on the Genesis Framework

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  1. You hit the nail on the head. I read once from I think Napolean Hill something like “the foundation of success is work”. I have shown many people HOW to be successful but very few choose to do the action required to make it happen. You could also argue that people are simply not motivated enough to make the right decisions.

  2. Well, anything is possible in this 21st century… The only matter is how strong your inner wills to make the dreams becoming a reality!

  3. Don’t you just love those aha moments? This one, Chris, sounds like a particularly good aha. As I was reading, I began thinking of some instances of natural phenomena that reflect the kind of accumulative effect you discuss here. The grand canyon, for instance, carved out of solid rock by the movement of water, and the depositing of tiny sediments of rock which build to form natural cathedrals of stalactites and stalagmites. It’s by focusing on the small without losing sight of the larger context that gets us moving in the right direction to effect positive change: a concept you have so eloquently captured here. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

  4. Yeah Amy. We all know that it’s the little things that add up over time to produce big outcomes. The trick is to find a way to keep sight of the difference each tiny little decision is making when compounded over time with all the other seemingly insignificant decisions.

  5. Do you want to lose weight and be healthier?
    Glad you asked! Yes I want to exercise more and stop smoking!

    Do you want to improve your financial situation?
    Yes I would like more money which is why I stay up to date with your great blog! ;-)

  6. that is hitting the nail on the head… most of the time what hinders success is the person himself… just like in my case, i have been smoking for more or less fifteen years, i obviously know how bad it is for my health; that aside from nicotine it also contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and host of other harmful chemicals… i have read writings about stopping, i have tried, but always failed… i was successful for two years but now i’m back puffing like a dragon…

  7. The challenge is not only sorting through the little things, but avoiding the ones that waste your time. Of course, this leads back to understanding your main goals (big picture). A big picture is painted with thousands of tiny strokes. Each stroke is a decision to reach the big picture. It’s way too easy to get derailed from your path with all of today’s distractions.

    Every decision comes with a choice, and our habits often influence those choices.

  8. This is like saying common sense is not common at all.You’ve hit bull’s eye in me.Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas here!

  9. No one can really affect your decision, do or not to do is totally depends on the person himself. Just find a reason to do it & you are ready to go!

  10. Thanks for writing about that, it was quite inspiring. That’s one of the most useful self-help tips I’ve ever heard, as many books of that type are actually not very helpful.

  11. Great points! I think many people don’t have an equal opportunity to improve their financial situation. We have seen a de-industrialization of American and all jobs have shifted from manufacturing to service. There is only high end service (doctors, lawyers, stock brokers) and low end service like retail or fast food. There just aren’t enough resources for all of us to succeed. Granted many have poor money management, but if they didn’t the companies of the products they buy would go out of business.

  12. Chris, you are way too hard on yourself! You are agreat success in life, wonderful wife, and you live where you want to live. The barrier is only there because you have decided not to remove it. there is risk in making the decision to remove the barrier. For example, if you remove the barrier and try your best and make it in a huge way, you feel good you remain smart. but what if you try your best and fail, are you still smart, can you handle failure? That is why many of us hold is the what if, what if we try hard and just are not good enough or smart enough, It is like going to a nice club and not dancing, because you are not sure if you dance well, a couple of beers and you no longer care. The attitude must be it is harder to not try that it is to quit. If you quit you can try something different. If you do not try, you spend a lifetime on the sidelines. You have given food for thought. Let me know if you move the barriers.

  13. I think people first need to sure of things they DON’T want in their lives. This makes decisions simple. At least clear about the “NO” elements.

  14. Well, anything is possible in this 21st century…

  15. Great writing indeed. And the point is hit. It is really easy to see what are the problems in our life, but it is very hard to choose the correct way when you come to semaphore point, as we all have habits, and the most important thing is to change. When one achieves that, he made the goal, and all doors and paths will be opened to him to be successful human.

  16. I know the feeling of telling myself that something is easy to do. I have found that when I need to tell myself that it is easy to do, then it is because it is esynot to do. I am continuesly working on the things that are easy not to do.

    My experience is that those things i tell myself are easy to do become much easier when I admit that they are hard to do.

  17. I also like that John Maxwell describes Success as a Journey, and not a Destination. It is made up of those many, many little things that define whether we intend to be successful or not.

  18. Ah-ha! moments happen quite often but they require some bravery to dare to follow them, you need to have great intuition and be risky by your nature… Just a plain successful life requires much less – knowing well what you want + DISCIPLINE. I always feel the lack of the latter one:(

  19. Now if the rest of us could become so inspired maybe we could pull our economy out of this little psuedo-recession.

    Great post, great site! Keep up the good work!

  20. Hi Chris,

    There is indeed science behind what you say. Simple inertia is a direct result of what is known as the least energy principle. This is the legacy of a brain that was only interested in keeping the body alive long enough to copulate and spread genes. In an environment where food is difficult to come by, expenditure of energy for anything other than “necessary” was considered ineffective. Being born with this as a genetically predisposed trait causes us to develop habits based on this at an early age and thereby facilitate what is known as “laziness” later in life. There is a ton of study and research that has bee poured into this. My explanation is lacking due to time, but the point of my post is that this not simply perception, but psychology and science.

  21. I completely relate to this article! I’ve been traveling tons this past year and have really gotten out of shape. I’ve been making the excuse that it’s because I’m on the road, where exercise isn’t as convenient and eating the right foods is challenging.

    Then, one morning last week, I decided enough was enough. I got up at 7:30 and went running. I opted for whole-grain cereal for breakfast instead of a coffee and donut. And guess what? I felt terrific! I’ve been doing this for a week now and I’m already starting to feel my old self coming back. Getting what you want is no big mystery – you just have to commit yourself to it and go for it!

  22. My single biggest obstacle towards success is motivation.

  23. True words. I can’t even count the times I’ve sat around or thought about doing something I know I should be doing, only to find myself feeling empty at the end of the day for not doing anything constructive at all. It would be been easier on my well being for sure just to do what I needed to do.

  24. I highly suggest the blog it’s written by a mariner who found himself working more days at sea (and being home less) because of “small” spending. He writes tips on making the right small decisions.

  25. I believe everyone, to some degree, is in the same boat.

    I teach music for a living, as well as running my business (the studio). I don’t practice near as much as I did before I opened the studio, but I know I should. There are enough hours in the day (how many times have you heard the oppostie?) … I just choose to “not” do rather than do most of the time.

    I’m on a good note right now with practice. For me, it is writing down specifically what I need to do and then checking the items off once done. It works, for me at least.

  26. This reminds me A LOT of the difference between how Robert and John treated their motorcycles in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. For John it was just as easy to ignore the process of learning as it was for Robert to become absorbed in it.

  27. This is what the concept of baby steps is based on!

    Making tiny (when possible incremental) improvements towards a desired goal. Reaching each of the tiny goals will bring joy and self-efficacy which in turn enhance the power to reach the next goal!

  28. I would have to say that motivation is one of the biggest barriers that stop people from succeeding. For example, when you hear about a poor, underprivileged person rising from the slums to success it is because they are motivated to get out of the situation that they are living in. But someone who is fairly comfortable will not feel that same motivation as the previous person.

  29. nothing in life that is worthwhile is ever easy, it always takes time and dedication to acheive one’s goals

  30. This is very true stuff! Many people are scared to take that next big step to acheiving success, so I think many people fail before they even start.

  31. It is really easy to see what are the problems in our life, but it is very hard to choose the correct way when you come to semaphore point, as we all have habits, and the most important thing is to change

  32. GREAT article! You are so right! The things we need to do in order to be successful are incredibly simple. I had never really thought about it until I read this, but they are simple! Thank so much.

  33. Napolean Hill’s book is a great foundation for becoming successful. I’ve read it at least 5 times in the last few years.
    Another key element to success: Confidence.

  34. Brad: yes that book is indeed a foundation, like rich dad poor dad by Robert Kiosaky

  35. Along the lines of looking at everything in terms of the big picture is that you can’t sweat the small stuff. You need to keep focused and look at everything from a perspective. Too many times we see people fail because they go to the extreme, are too detailed. They get burned easily worrying about the little mistakes and slips. If you focus on the big picture, slowly but surely you will succeed.

  36. I can direct different emails direct to archive with labels to bypass my inbox. I also us GTDInbox plugin for, well, GTD. Now with the mnultiple inboxes feature I have three separate views setup: Inbox, Next Action, and Action.

  37. Great post! I don’t know if it’s the best one out there, but I’d definitely like to read Jeff Olsen’s book. And you are so right, the things we need to do in order to be successful are really easy NOT TO DO. We just have to overcome our tendency not to do them.

  38. What an insightful post. Your words are so true, its that effort that gets you there. There are many tough decisions in life, such as deciding whether to move or not, changing jobs and so on.

    To make the most of opportunities you have to be able to see them in front of you so you can prepare. For example, moving homes calls for home staging to make the best sale, changing jobs may call for advanced training to secure the best job you can.

  39. Success is very dynamic term it varies from person to person. In order to achive it one must 1st define it as per his/her perception. Then take repeated actions with improved strategy at each attempt until one succeed. I think not taking right action at right time is single biggest barrier to success than anything else.

    Success cannot be achieved by reading “How to Success Books ?” :)

    Discipline, Planning, Motivation are other supplementary things that do contribute to success.

  40. Yes, it is very easy for all of us not to do things if we do not keep the bigger picture in our mind. One thing I notice a lot is that people have lot’s of dreams for the future, like “making money”, or “early retirement” but never get to the planning phase of it. They never define real goals for themselves and start planning for them.

    I have added The Slight Edge to my book wish list.

  41. I find it is a matter of getting 9out of your comfort zone. I have a tendency to focus on web development but need to work on relationship building – it is about doing the more difficult thing

  42. Yes I know my biggest enemy to my own success is myself, I often make some excuses to not to do something and then at the end I mess everything. For now on I have decided to be more success in my life, so I have to focus on it, I will do it step by step from small thing before doing the bigger one, thanks for your advice :)

  43. I’ve had so many times when I could have had success but subconsciously chose not to… I took me years to identify this pattern.

    There is no easy way to success, but the best way i found is through hypnosis. By priming my subconscious I don’t always have to be focused, because even when I’m on autopilot i will still be working towards my goals…

  44. Nice Chris…. Life is a choice…We decide what we must make…we choose, if there is easy to do or not…All the decision and effort that we have made earlier,will lead us to the future that we wanted before… Great :D
    Alfred :D

  45. In that situation we’d see a lot more researchers doing points like declining to carry out biased studies that were funded by special interests to market unique interests. More scientists would respect the integrity of Truth first and foremost.

  46. but why the choice of successes that I encounter there is always a price.
    whenever I try to achieve success, I’m always faced with various problems that I did not realize that the problem was really heavy in my life.

    when I tried to reach my dream that I wanted, instead I was left by my soul mate. a goal to please him, he would destroy.

    now I’m really confused about how I achieved my dream to get back up ever delayed?
    I’ve forgotten all sweet and bitter memories of my past. now I myself have to live this life. and I really do not have the strength to continue to survive. there is no encouragement in my life.

    what Should I do?

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