The Standard of Performance: How to Excel in Work and Life

"Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize."
– Bill Walsh

We all have things in life that we want to do well in, to excel in. Maybe you want to start your own successful company. Or to publish a best-selling book. Or something closer to home like building a loving family.

Whatever category your goal is in, achieving a great thing always requires you to operate with excellence. By excellence we don't mean perfection – that's not practically feasible in the real world. Instead, to operate with excellence means a few things:

  • Taking deliberate action towards your goals
  • Being consistent with your execution
  • Continuously improving your performance
  • Demonstrating care and commitment to your work

You may read these and think that they seem straightforward, and perhaps they are on paper. But in reality, they are much more difficult. It's hard to remain deliberate, consistent and committed for a very long time. Only the very best are able to do it.

But hard doesn't mean impossible – nothing is truly impossible in this world.

Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and 3-time NFL champion had a solution for achieving and maintaining excellence. He called his method: The Standard of Performance.

The Standard of Performance

"The culture precedes positive results. It doesn't get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they're champions: they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners."
– Bill Walsh


When Bill Walsh first started as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, they were the worst team in the NFL. In fact, some regarded the 49ers as one of the worst sports franchises, period. Two years later they won a Super Bowl and remained dominant for the next 15 years. This was all thanks to Walsh's Standard of Performance.

A Standard of Performance is a set of principles that describe what it means to operate with excellence when you are working towards your goal. You can think of it as a guide that you design yourself to always know when you're doing the right thing. This way, you have a clear notion of what it means to be doing well and making progress, even if the results haven't shown up just yet

Without such a guide you're flying blind, trying to make the best decisions about what to do right in the present moment. But such momentary decisions are rarely accurate and will often lead you astray. It's better to have a guide to refer to so you always know what to do.

Importantly, the principles in your Standard of Performance must be practiced consistently. Consistency ensures two things:

  1. That the principles become habitual, so you won't need much willpower to apply them at any time
  2. That the principles gain from compound interest, benefiting you more and more as time goes on

The beauty of the Standard of Performance concept is that it can be applied to any category of life that you have a goal for. Career, finances, fitness, family, relationships, or even a fun bucket list. All of them can benefit from guiding principles.

Example #1

Let's say that your goal is to get incredibly fit, ripped as people say. Some principles you can establish are:

  • Do not eat any junk food
  • Get some form of physical activity each day
  • On each workout session, attempt to set a new personal best in at least one exercise

Notice how these principles are pretty easy to understand. That's the point because you want your guiding principles to be very clear and straightforward to apply. "Do not eat any junk food" – most of us know what is and isn't junk food.

At the same time, the principles are practical. "Get some form of physical activity each day" – it's not critical what the activity is, as long as it's something. "Attempt to set a new personal best in at least one exercise" – you won't always hit a new personal best, but you can always attempt to do so. The effort is what's important.

Example #2

Let's say that you want to start a financially successful business. Some principles you can establish are:

  • Do not use any social media other than for business purposes
  • Each day, do at least 3 things that increase your chances of making your business successful
  • Always work towards perfection in your product

Once again, the principles are clear and simple. "No social media except for business" is easy to understand and doesn't leave any room for you to cheat which is good.

And again, the principles are also practical: "3 things that increase your chances of making your business successful" – all about putting in consistent effort, not necessarily that it'll always work out. "Always work towards perfection in your product" – still target perfection; even if it's not achievable you'll still make great progress just by going for it.

The Standard of Performance goes far beyond the surface level goals. These are working principles that guide every single one of your actions and efforts, down to the low-level details. Because when you get the little things right, the big wins eventually follow.

Details about the Standard of Performance

The Standard of Performance works because of specific properties about its structure. Here we will look at the properties and how they give us an advantage.

Principles as Rules

Each of the principles in a Standard of Performance should be a rule rather than a goal.

  • Use "never eat refined sugar" rather than "lose 30 pounds in 6 months"
  • Use "each day, do at least 3 things that increase your chances of making your business successful" rather than "make $1,000,000 in 2 years"

With goals, the result can only ever be success or failure. It doesn't take into account the fact that things may take more time than anticipated, you may adjust your strategy, or your goals might change entirely!

Rules are a lot more practical and flexible. They give you room to adjust and improve over time. There's no negative sense of failure since the focus is on the effort itself, which eventually leads to the goal anyways.

Keep it simple

The principles should be simple so that they're easy to follow.

If you have a really complicated or vague principle, then you'll be less inclined to apply it. The complication creates resistance to application, which isn't what we want.

Ideally, your principles are incredibly clear. Each principle should be easy to interpret and to tell when you're doing well versuses deviating off course. Remember that this is your guide, so be sure to define it in the way that best suits you.

To know if your principle is simple enough, you can ask yourself: "Is there any room to cheat here? Is it abundantly clear when I am following this principle or not?"

Aimed at the Long-Term

Big goals are only achieved after consistent, long-term efforts. Your principles should guide you to that kind of work too.

If you have a principle, avoid making it too strict where it feels incredibly difficult to follow. It's far better to have a moderate principle executed consistently for many years than it is to have a perfect principle that works for a couple of weeks and then fails.

For example, instead of trying to cut refined sugar out of your diet entirely, start with no sweets bought from stores or restaurants. At least you can control the sugar content with home-baked goods. Later, if you feel like you can take it, you can make your principle stricter if it helps with your goals.

It's all about making sure you can execute with consistency long-term.

How to build your own Standard of Performance step-by-step

Building your own Standard of Performance is fairly simple. For any of your goals, you come up with a set of principles that will guide you to it. To break it down into steps:

  1. Define your goal – be as specific as possible here. You want to have a clear target to aim at
  2. Write down your principles for achieving your goal – remember, these principles should be your guide to your destination. Do you best to keep in mind the properties stated above: use rules, keep it simple, and focus on the long-term
  3. Execute your principles – do so consistently and track your progress. Consistency is the most important thing for big results, and it's motivating to track your progress

An important thing to remember is that these principles are not a simple pass / fail. If you don't follow one of your principles on one or two days it's not the end of the world.

Consistent effort over time is what matters the most. As long as you're following your principles, you'll eventually get to where you want to be. Your trajectory is always more important than your current position.

My Standard of Performance

The concept of the Standard of Performance has had a very positive impact on my life and I hope it can do the same for you. To help you get started, here's my personal Standard of Performance. It may not exactly match yours since our goals might be different. But I hope it can serve as a general example of some of the principles you can have with your own Standard of Performance.

  • Always eat real, unprocessed food
  • Get at least one hour of physical activity every day
  • On each workout session, attempt to set a new personal best in at least one exercise
  • Do not use social media for entertainment or procrastination – keep it for learning, career, or business
  • Do at least one thing each day to learn something new – read books, talk to new people, etc
  • Prioritize your relationships – family first
  • When there is opportunity to show love, show it fully and without reservation
  • Demonstrate care and passion in your work
  • Work harder – always push through the mental barries
  • Don't forget your mental health – take regular breaks from work

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