In 1978, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the worst teams in the NFL (if not professional sports). With fourteen defeats and two victories, it was, simply put the worst stretch of football in franchise history.
There were a number of reasons for the 49ers disastrous season—injury-prone players, multiple lineup changes, low team morale—but these were actually symptoms of a bigger problem:
General Manager Joe Thomas.
Through a series of damaging moves (including the acquisition of O.J. Simpson), Thomas’s abrasive management style had not just thrown the front office into disarray…
…it had almost cost them their fans.
“The fans wanted no part of me,” said Eddie DeBartolo, then owner of the 49ers. “I had everything from full beers thrown at me to people spitting on me. It was very difficult” 
After trying to cancel a game on November 27, 1978 (for reasons so bizarre I won’t mention here), DeBartolo was left with no choice but to appease the fans and fire Thomas for his irascibility.
Three years later, after a disappointing first season and almost resigning midway through his second year, Bill Walsh, Thomas’ replacement, pulled off the biggest turnaround in NFL history and led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl victory.
Just let that sink in for a moment. The San Fransisco 49ers went from the worst team in the NFL to the best in as little as three years.
What was the tipping point? What did Bill Walsh do that his predecessors ignored?
Or rather, what didn’t he do?
For one thing, he refused to focus on winning (echoing Coach John Wooden’s philosophy of “practice over product”) and instead focused on implementing a seemingly simple set of values and beliefs that governed everything he, as a coach, stood for.
He called it…
…the “Standard of Performance.”
What Is The Standard of Performance?
“‘The Standard of Performance [is] a way of doing things,” writes Bill Walsh in The Score Takes Care of Itself. “[It’s] a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals, as with blocking, tackling and passing.” 
This disciplined approach to constant and never-ending improvement permeated every aspect of Walsh’s work at San Francisco, from enforcing a strict dress code for staff (coaches had to wear a tie and tuck in their shirts) to maintaining an abnormally high level of concentration and focus (players were not allowed to sit down on the practice field).
Walsh believed that in order to uphold these principles, everyone—whether a general manager, CEO, assembly-line foreman, or secretary—had to honor them. And anyone who didn’t agree often followed a similar fate to Thomas (Walsh famously fired one coach for challenging his vision.)
This wasn’t about control, though. Nor was it about egoic power—it was, as Ryan Holiday writes, about “instilling excellence”. 
And it worked to his advantage.
Under Walsh’s guidance, the 49ers went on to win four more Super Bowls and Walsh would go on to be regarded by many as one of the greatest American football coaches of all-time.
Success Is in the Trivial Matters
When reading inspirational stories like Walsh’s (or anyone else’s for that matter), it’s tempting to tell ourselves a story: big achievements—whether it’s winning the Super Bowl, publishing a New York Times bestselling book, running a marathon, learning a language, graduating from college—are a result of big actions.
It’s a compelling narrative, after all. All you need to do is find that one big “push-button” strategy and you’ll achieve everything you ever wanted.
If only it were that simple.
The reality, it seems, is it’s the deceptively little things, applied consistently, that make the highest possible contribution toward your goals.
In isolation, these deceptively little things are, well, little. They’re easily scoffed at, perceived as insignificant and pushed aside in favor of bigger, “shinier” objects. But when aggregated, they make a big (and often noticeable) difference in the things we achieve.
As Coach John Wooden writes in Wooden,
[The] seemingly trivial matters, taken together and added to many, many other so-called trivial matters build into something very big: namely, your success.
The trivial matters are what form any Standard of Performance—and it’s precisely why you must pay attention to them if you’re to produce better results in your life or business.
Let’s talk about how.
The Standard of Performance: In Practice
We all have goals we want to achieve. And if you’re like most people, you start out with good intentions. But one of the most common mistakes people make is failing to identify the concrete actions and attitudes needed to make that goal a reality.
This, I believe, is for 3 reasons:
1. They don’t have a compelling enough Why, a reason that moves them away from pain and toward pleasure (often referred to as a two-prong motivation).
2. They language their goal, be it consciously or unconsciously, as a “could” or a “should” (“I could go on a diet” or “I should get in shape”) rather than a “must” (“I must finish this manuscript”).
3. They don’t identify specific, step-by-step instructions to follow, namely, what they’re going to do, and when and how they’re going to do it.
In other words, they don’t quantify or implement a Standard of Performance.
And without one, they’re unlikely to make meaningful progress toward their goal.
If you’re struggling to move the needle with your goals, here’s what’s working for me.
Step 1. Choose an action and an attitude that will make the highest possible contribution toward your goal.
Think of your goal. The action, in this instance, is a daily habit that makes everything else easier or unnecessary. If you want to lose weight, for example, it might be calorie counting. If you want to publish a book, you might choose to write a certain number of words every day. The attitude is what fuels the action. This, I feel, many ignore. They commit to the action, but look for references to justify it why it’s not working so they can tell themselves a story: “I told you this wouldn’t work.” Understand, it’s not enough to take action; you have to believe what you’re doing will work.
Step 2. Give yourself instructions to follow.
When researchers asked subjects to state when and where they were going to exercise and at what time, 91% of participants followed through on their word (compared to 38% in the control group).  Don’t entertain what you could or should do; execute on what you must do. Commit it to writing and decide what you’re going to do and when and how you’re going to do it. This is known as an implementation intention…and it’s one of the most effective ways of changing a behavior. When I decided to develop a daily push-up habit, I chose to do it every day, immediately after getting out of the shower. One year later, I’m still going strong…
Step 3. Commit to your action and attitude for a minimum of 66 days.
According to a paper published in European Journal of Social Psychology, habit automaticity takes, on average, 66 days. In simpler terms, it takes around 2 months for a new action or attitude to become your ‘new normal’ (ht: Leo Babauta). Show up, do the work, and over time, you will produce results. And if you don’t, pivot to another behavior until you do.
As the old saying goes, “God is in the detail.” Look after your habits, and your goals will take care of themselves.
 Maiocco, M. (2013) San Francisco 49ers: The Complete Illustrated History, Minneapolis, MN: MVP Books.
 Holiday, R. (2016) Ego Is the Enemy, New York, New York: Portfolio.
 To learn more about implementation intentions, read James Clear’s wonderful article on the subject.
 Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, Jane Wardle (2009) ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), pp. 998–1009.
Ryan Holiday for introducing me to the “Standard of Performance” in his excellent book, Ego Is the Enemy.