The Big Question: What Does It Take To Succeed?

Looking back on your life you can probably think of numerous successes you’ve achieved – but, likewise, you can probably think of other times you’ve fallen short of achieving a specific success. So what was the difference? Undoubtedly a decision was made – after all, no action is ever taken without a decision being made in the first place. And commitment tends to go hand in hand with decisions. Rarely do we decide to take action on something if we aren’t committed to following through. But sometimes, despite our decision…despite our commitment…despite our best intentions….success just doesn’t follow. Why?

We all have people in our lives who we admire…people who embody the ideal of success in some form that we are trying to attain ourselves. We might have sport role models, business role models, financial role models, personal role models who personify the type of people we want to become, and we might have health and fitness role models. These people stand as proof that what we want to achieve can be done, and they give us hope that we can do it too.

So let’s analyze these people – these role models. If you were to list the characteristics or traits of the individuals, the attributes they possess that lead them to success, what would you write down?

Would you write down that they are hard-working? Creative, perhaps? What about smart, determined, courageous, passionate, focused, and happy? Your list, of course, will depend on the role model you are looking at but each list will undoubtedly share many similarities. And while it’s easy to see these traits listed out and feel an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe for the accomplishments of these individuals, I want you to do something a little more difficult. I want you to ask yourself if you don’t possess many of those same qualities yourself.

When you look back at your past successes, was your hard-work not a factor? Haven’t you also experienced moments of creativity in overcoming obstacles…determination in persevering…and intelligence and focus in executing? Haven’t you felt passionate about reaching a goal and happiness in your efforts?

So if these traits are not exclusively bestowed on a lucky few, there has to be more to success than all that. Sure these traits can be valuable assets in helping you achieve success, but they are the only determining factor. So what else is there?

More likely than not right now, you might be thinking that you have it all figured out…it’s MOTIVATION, right? After all, everywhere you turn you see cat posters that tell you that anything is possible if you just believe…and memes that tell you that if you aren’t doing something it’s simply just because you don’t want it bad enough. So it stands to reason then that the only difference between you and your successful role model is that they just must have been more motivated than you.

Decide. Commit. Succeed

The Myth: Motivation – You Just Have to Want it Bad Enough 

I honestly have no idea who coined the mantra in this picture, but if you have been a part of the wonderful world of social media for even 5 minutes you have undoubtedly seen “motivational” memes like this. Like this, each one attempts to instill confidence in taking action. And each is affirmatively punctuated to imply simplicity and straightforwardness. This jewel, and ones like it, want us to believe that eating healthy and exercising is as simple as deciding to do it (but like we discussed above, decision and commitment alone do not always equate to success). They feed the illusion that if you are eating healthy and exercising EVERYDAY, that you are the epitome of willpower and motivation.  Which by default (and by word usage in their memes) means if you are not eating healthy and exercising everyday, that there is something wrong with you. Perhaps that you are lazy and unmotivated. Perhaps that you simply don’t want it bad enough. If you believe nothing else that I tell you, I want you to believe this:


Despite what we may want to believe, motivation and willpower are not endless fountains, overflowing with deliciously satisfying waters that the fit and the healthy drink from. Nor are they breadcrumb trails left in the open that one simply need to follow to enter a world of endless energy and perfect choices.  And they are not superpowers that only some possess. In truth, motivation and willpower are quite the opposite.  


The Truth: What Motivation Really Looks (And Feels) Like

Motivation is at most a fair weather friend…and at its worst, it’s that friend your parents begged you not to hang out with. You know, the one that gets you super pumped one minute with visions of fun & excitement but then leaves you all alone holding the spray paint can when the police pull up, and you suddenly can’t remember why you thought this was such a good idea in the first place.

Just think of the last time you told yourself that you were going to start an exercise program, or eat better, or do anything else that you probably struggled with in the past. Motivation was probably sitting there pumping you up with fist bumps and high fives, and butt slaps and hugs. It probably gave you a big ol’ squeeze or chest bump as it told you how awesome it was going to be this time, how ready you were, how badly you wanted it, and how it was going to be right there with you the whole time. Next it probably played a highlight reel for you that showed you all the amazing things that were going to happen once you achieved your goal. And then it probably whispered a lullaby of “tomorrows” in you ear as you happily drifted off to sleep. But then, in typical fashion, motivation decided to go celebrate your new decision and your new commitment and it got drunk and/or high off the idea of success, and that feeling you experienced prior, of excitement and drive, has now been extinguished by the realities of life demands, tight schedules, and a pressing to-do list – and motivation is too hung over to care. Gone is the highlight reel of success and inspiring pep talks. Instead you’re left with enabling whispers of naps and binge-watching TV, and of course, the promise of starting over “tomorrow”.

But if you can’t count on motivation either, what’s left? Is there anything else that helps bridge the gap between where you are now and the success you want to achieve?


The Reality: We Are Creatures of Habit – The Lesson of the Popcorn Experiment

Imagine you are at the movie theater, about to watch a movie you have been dying to see. You are working toward a health goal so you have decided to cut down on snacks like popcorn, candy, and soda so you head to the concession stand to buy a bottle of water instead. As you stand there waiting to order, you defiantly stare down every single item as you rehearse your order. Oh yeah, temptation isn’t going to win today. You even feel an immense sense of pride as you strut away, impressed by your immovable willpower. You & Motivation/Willpower -1. Temptation – 0.

Ticket in hand, you reach the attendant who informs you that the theater is running a promotion for your movie and you get a free bucket of popcorn!  Not that tiny, so little it can barely feed a small child, size bucket of popcorn either; they are giving you the biggest bucket of popcorn they offer! Not being someone to look a gift horse in the mouth, you accept your mountain of popcorn. After all, who turns down a free bucket of popcorn? And besides, you’ve already won one battle against temptation, you can handle this! You’ll just enjoy your prize in moderation.

You enter the theater, find your seat and, as the lights dim and the trailers begin, you start digging in to your free popcorn. To be honest, the first couple of bites don’t taste all that great; it’s a little chewy and leathery, so you set it off to the side, thankful that it will make it that much easier to resist eating the entire bucket. All around you though, are the sounds of others enjoying their popcorn. You can hear the munching of each rubbery kernel and the scratching of the bucket as people reach in to grab handfuls. And you can smell the butter. You are completely engrossed in the movie and the next thing you know, that bucket you set off to the side has found its way back onto your lap and you have actually finished half of the bucket. Feeling slightly disgusted, possibly a little confused, and more than a little bit ashamed you put the bucket on the floor this time – maybe even push it a little further away. But by the end of the movie your bucket is back on your lap and it’s empty; and so is everyone else’s. At this point, you might not even care when I tell you that you and everyone else in the theater just polished off week old popcorn; all you can do is wonder how this happened.  And because of your goal to eat more healthy, your feeling of confusion is probably compounded by feelings of frustration at your perceived inability to stick with anything – leaving you feeling like there is something wrong with you or that you are a failure. But you really shouldn’t feel too badly. Not only did EVERYONE eat all their popcorn, if you were to ask them they would admit that the popcorn tasted just as horrible to them AND that they honestly had no idea why they ate it either (healthy eating goals or not). So why would an entire theater, full of intelligent people, all fall into the same behavior?

It might surprise you to know that the movie and popcorn example I gave you above is a portrayal of a real experiment ( conducted to study eating habits of normal people just like you and me, and even your average health nut. In the original study, unknowing participants were given either a medium or large size bucket of popcorn that contained either week old or fresh popcorn. Even though the researchers were only testing to see how container size impacted the amount of food we consume, regardless of its taste, the results were indicative of so much more. It indicated that people will eat something just because it’s there. It indicated that environment and situations have the potential to impact our eating habits more than our thoughts do. And it indicated that all of this happens subconsciously. What this means is, even if you are like me and are not a fan of popcorn, you can replace the theater and popcorn with almost anything else and still get the same results. And it is all thanks to our brain.

Our brain LOVES routines. Even if you are the type of person who doesn’t make plans and hates the monotony of routine, our brain will take whatever it can get. I call it switching to auto-pilot, and we have all experienced it at some point or another in our lives. For instance, when traveling with friends or family and, because you are following the same route you take to get to work, you find yourself on autopilot and end up at work instead of your intended destination. Or on your drive home (regardless of where you are coming from) as you pull into your driveway you realize suddenly that you couldn’t recall much (if anything) that happened on the way. It’s because our brain responds to cues, and when our brain receives multiple cues that it ties to a specific routine (driving along a specific road, seeing specific buildings), it essentially initiates a pre-programmed script that performs the task without taking up too much brainpower.  It stays involved enough to make sure we don’t run any red lights and to watch for crazy drivers, but otherwise, it has turned to other “more vital” projects. To simplify, we just carried out a habit.

The same thing happens with food. We think Movies and our brain thinks Popcorn, even if we never created a habit around it (the sounds and smells in the theater do the creating for us). We think Friends and our brain thinks Drinks. We think Family and our brain thinks Feasts. We think Stress and our brain thinks Comfort. Each of these situations and circumstances trigger cues that then put us on autopilot and completely remove any thought of earlier formed good intentions. So are we doomed to live the lives we spent years creating through habit? Or do we have another option?


The Answer: Harnessing the Power of Habits – Change your Habits. Change the Outcome.

Have you ever noticed that some of the most annoying commercials are the ones that stick with you? Like the zen futurist guy and his annoying catch phrase: “Change your apartment. Change the world.” What if we used his annoyingness though, and channeled it to accomplish our own goals? What if, instead of hearing the slogan, you heard your own: “Change your habits. Change the outcome.”

This probably sounds cliche. And it probably sounds like something easier said than done, but I promise you it can be done. If fact, we do it all the time subconsciously. If the road we take to work each morning is under construction and results in long delays or closures, we don’t continue to take that road every morning and curse ourselves as failures when we consistently get stuck and arrive late to work. But we don’t just give up and tell ourselves that it’s not worth even trying to go to work either. In much the same way, we cannot change things through avoidance or restriction – telling ourselves that there is only one way to reach our destination. There is usually more than one way to achieve our goals, we just have to be willing and able to bounce back and try something new (a.k.a. create a new habit) when we encounter an obstacle or an outcome we want to change.

3 pillars of change

The Method: Structures, Systems, and Scheduling – The 3 Pillars of Successful Change

Seeing people who appear to have it all together can trigger a myriad of thoughts and emotions within us.

That celebrity with the “perfect” body? They probably have a live-in nutritionist, chef, and personal trainer; and don’t get me started on plastic surgery, am I right? Plus, don’t they get paid for their appearance? Obviously they have the time, energy, and money to achieve that look – but live in a different reality

That person at school or work who is so “fit”? They probably have amazing genes and chew on ice as a treat. Plus I bet they don’t have the same struggles I do. Obviously they can look that way, but I’ve got kids…or a high stress job…or I’m always on the road.

Feelings of jealousy and bitterness and self-doubt creep in and suddenly we aren’t “enough”. We can never be lucky enough, or “motivated” enough, to be like them. Our lives will never be that simple, or that free. Our roads, we tell ourselves, are littered with obstacles. So it’s not worth even trying.

These people who we think have it all together don’t.

They probably see a piece of chocolate cake and want to dive in face first too. They likely fight feelings of tiredness and complacency daily. They undoubtedly encounter roadblocks and experience setbacks regularly. Their motivation friend presumably sucks just as bad as yours.

It’s true, obstacles and temptations are everywhere. You can’t stop your co-workers from bringing in donuts for breakfast every Friday, or from bringing in a cake every time someone has a birthday. You can’t blame your friends for begging you to go to dinner with them or have a couple of drinks. And you can stop the holidays from rolling in and the feasts that go with them.

But obstacles are meant to be overcome; temptations meant to be tackled. We are only limited in our potential when we tell ourselves we are.

So the next time you feel trapped by old habits that leave you feeling like a failure, focus on building stronger, more empowering habits using these 3 pillars of successful change.


Just like the popcorn experiment above taught us, structures or our environment is huge. Everything from who we surround ourselves with to what we surround ourselves with impacts our choices. Ask yourself, “What do I need around me that will help me achieve my goals?” and then they build those structures.

White boards, journals, post-it notes…visual or written reminders of your goals and your whys can go a long way in triggering new thought patterns when you start to fall into an old habit.


Systems are the routines or practices we follow that result in action. Chances are you don’t have to leave your toothbrush out at night to remind yourself to brush before bed. More likely you have a routine that entails washing your face…brushing your hair…or some other action that is “naturally” followed by brushing your teeth. Ask yourself, “What routines can I establish to help make this easier?” and then create those systems.

Think of this as creative problem solving – an opportunity to engineer solutions to help you effectively overcome obstacles. Formulate routines that utilize and build on your current strengths.


This final S might seem like a bit of a no brainer, but scheduling is more than writing down a date and time in your calendar – it’s also about showing up. Because what we do repeatedly becomes habit, if you want to achieve your goals you have build the habit of keeping the appointments you schedule for yourself and your goals.

Before you start saying, “But I’ve tried this a million times in a million different ways! It doesn’t work!”, I’ve got an idea for you to try. For the first week make your focus less about consistency and more about experimentation. Still strive to keep your appointments with yourself, but then ask yourself why it didn’t happen if you fall short.

Did work or family obligations take precedence? Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at your identity, values, and priorities.

Couldn’t muster up the energy? Maybe it’s time to start noticing your body’s natural energy rhythms and find a better time.

You don’t have to try to take all 3 S’s on at once. Look for ways you are already doing well with one and build on it, or identify which is holding you back the most and make it your primary focus. And just remember, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” (Winston Churchill)Courage

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