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Barriers are your enemy

Ramit Sethi

It’s surprising to me when I hear someone come up with something they want to do, but–in the same conversation–they go through every conceivable thing that could go wrong, and conclude that it will never work.

It’s like they have all the physical manifestations of running a marathon, but they never left their chair.

At these times I want to throw something at them and scream!!! But I don’t. Instead, I come home and write an article on a blog. If only all criminals were like this.

I’ve been thinking about why some people are so successful so quickly, while others seem to get stuck. I think I’ve got one big reason: The smartest people relentlessly remove barriers around them. And the others let barriers control them.

Last weekend, I went home to visit my family. While I was there, I asked my mom if she would make me some food, so like any Indian mom would, she cooked me 2 weeks’ worth. I came back home skipping like a little girl.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. When I got back to my place, I took the food out of the brown grocery bag and put the clear plastic bags on the counter. I was about to put the bags in the fridge but I realized something astonishing:



I’m hella lazy. And if I got hungry, I’d probably go to the fridge, see the plastic bags, and realize that I’d have to (1) open them up and then I’d have to (2) open the Tupperware to (3) finally get to the food. And the truth was, I just wouldn’t do it. The clear plastic bags were enough of a barrier to ignore the fresh-cooked Indian food for some crackers!!

Obviously, once I realized this, I tore the bags apart like a voracious wolf and have provided myself delicious sustenance for the past week.

But the larger point of removing barriers is what I want to talk about for a few minutes.

I think the source of 95%+ of barriers to success is…ourselves. It’s not our lack of resources (money, education, etc). It’s not our competition. It’s usually just what’s in our own heads. Barriers are more than just excuses–they’re the things that make us not get anything done. And not only do we allow them to exist around us, we encourage them. There are active barriers and passive barriers, but the result is still the same: We don’t achieve what we want to.

This happened to me a few years back, when I tried to start an education company with a couple of friends. We solicited feedback on the prototype (from our friends–you’ll see why this was a mistake). And what was the #1 question we got? Not “What’s the market size?” or “how do your financials look?” or “what do your users say–would they use it?” Nope, we never got those questions. The most common question:

“Don’t you need a business license to run a company?”


* * *

I hate theory, so I’ll keep it short: These are the the 2 types of barriers I’ve thought of, and they’ve helped me frame my thinking: Active barriers, the kind that stop you from doing something, and passive barriers, whose absence actually stops you from getting things done.

  • Active barriers are physical things like the plastic wrap on my food, or someone telling me that it’ll never work, etc. These are hard to identify, but easy to fix. I usually just make them go away.
  • Passive barriers are things that don’t exist, so they make your job harder. A trivial example is not having a stapler at your desk; imagine how many times a day that gets frustrating. For me, these are harder to identify and also harder to fix. I might rearrange my room to be more productive, or get myself a better pen to write with, etc. In another example, a design student named Maja Kecman realized a barrier–of doing laundry.As a fix, she created WashingSacks:

    The WashingSacks, designed by industrial design engineer graduate Maja Kecman, are nifty dissolving laundry bags impregnated with washing liquid. Once filled up with laundry the bags can be placed straight into the washing machine.

    Very cool. If I had that, I wouldn’t dread doing laundry. Imagine how that could apply to things you dread.

You can use barriers to your advantage
The good news is that you can use barriers to your advantage. Want to watch less TV? Throw the remote control away. Want to drink less Coke? Don’t buy it at the grocery store. It’s not rocket science, but it works.

You don’t know what you don’t know
I have a friend who I’ve been helping with jobs over the last few weeks. She’s doing fine but has one very peculiar view: She thinks she’ll never succeed in the corporate world. Why? I calmly asked, knowing I wouldn’t remain so for very much longer. She told me that she thinks she’s “not confrontational enough and not aggressive enough.”

Oh my god. Ok, here’s the thing: First of all, you don’t necessarily need those characteristics to succeed in business. Second, what does “succeed” mean to her?

Third, and most important of all, does she have any idea what she’s talking about? I’ll answer that myself: no. Any guesses why?

Because she’s never worked in the corporate world.

Most of us don’t know what we don’t know. I’m included, you’re included, everyone’s included. (This is why, when it came to our friends’ feedback on our company idea, we took it with a grain of salt, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know.)

And in ambiguous situations like these, we look to cues around us to guide our attitudes and behaviors, cues that are reassuring. Isn’t it more comforting to say “Aw that’ll never work” than to actually dive deep, talk to people who know what they’re talking about, and figure it out for ourselves?

Of course it’s easier to say no. Creating barriers is easy–especially the kind that let you do nothing. If someone approached you about starting a business, would your first questions be about who gets how much equity? Or who’s going to steal your idea? If so, you’ve successfully created a barrier.

Fortunately, most other people do exactly this–so if you’re the rare person who doesn’t, you win.

Some examples of barriers
Once I started removing barriers, I got wayyy more done. Here are some more examples. I hope that they give a sense of how the Removing Barriers mindset can be applied to your own situation:

  • “It’s got to be perfect.” Here’s a chat with a friend. Background: She had an idea that I was going to take to a company I’m consulting for, and I’d been after her for a week to send it to me. For some reason, she’d been dragging her feet.Ramit: hey can you also send me your mobile phone ideaRamit: i need that today if you want to send it

    Friend: today what time?

    Ramit: asap

    Friend: does it have to be fancy

    Ramit: no

    Ramit: no!!!!!!!!

    Friend: oh

    Friend: i started on a ppt

    Ramit: dude

    Ramit: it needs to be like a paragraph

    Friend: oh

    Friend: i’ll do that now

    Do you make things more complicated than they have to be?

  • “I’m not going to apply to Stanford/Harvard/etc because even if I got in, I couldn’t afford it. Plus, it’s expensive to apply.”Apart from being completely wrong, that sentiment takes the approach of someone throwing their arms up and saying “There’s not much I can do! Might as well give up!” Give me a break. I’d rather have someone say “How we can we make this work?” and then find clever ways to solve the problem.When it came to my college applications, it was about $50/application. In a middle-class family, that adds up quick. You know what I did? I didn’t enclose the application fee. Instead, I put a note in my application explaining my situation and asking if they could help. And I told them that if they couldn’t help, would they please let me know and I’d find a way to send the fee in.What’s the worst they could say–no?

    And of course, you can guess how many colleges asked to send the fee in: 0.

  • “I can’t start a Web site. It’s too hard.” Listen, I hate coding and dealing with the logistics of Web design. That’s no excuse not to start a site. Why do you think this site is an easy-to-update blog?

The bottom line of this whole essay is to remove the barriers that prevent you from getting things done. Some of these barriers are assumptions, things like “I can’t get that award” or “You need to have X, Y, and Z” before you can start a company.

No, you don’t. Talk to some people who’ve actually done it before you shoot yourself in the foot. PLEASE!!!

Other barriers are very real: The plastic bags on my food, no matter how trivial, would have actually discouraged me from eating my food. The outcome in both cases, however, is the same: They get in your way and you don’t get what you want.

The above examples were just that–personal examples. If you can connect my basic point with the barriers you have on a daily basis, I’ll be thrilled. Let me know how it goes.

Update 3/30/09: I’ve written many more articles on barriers:

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  1. avatar

    This is great advice! I particularly like the suggesting with college applications. I will be passing that idea on.

  2. avatar
    Mike W.

    WashingSacks. Freakin’ genius. Why didn’t I think of that?!! haha

  3. avatar
    a man with barriers

    Thank you for your fantastic post on barriers. As I read your post I realized that one of my biggest productivity barriers used to be the desire to sit around in my pajamas and read several newspapers in the morning. Though I simply identified it as ol’ fashioned procrastination at the time, now I realize that I was trapped by the mental barrier of feeling like I had to be showered and dressed, despite my lack of will to do so in the morning, to actually do something productive.

    I lived uncomfortably with this tendency to let my morning slip away until mid July when I took an LSAT practice test and I didn’t score as well as I had hoped. This was particularly devastating at the time because I had been taking a prep class and working pretty hard on the homework (after I finished my morning newspapers and showered, of course.) In my desperation to do better on the LSAT, I was willing to try anything. So when my girlfriend suggested that I start exercising in the morning, I tried it. It worked.

    Instead of starting the morning off with the paper, I started it with a run. While it took me a couple of hours every morning to run out of reading material and then feel satisfied enough to hop into the shower and start my day, it only took me 20 minutes to stretch and run a mile to achieve the same effect (most likely because I was sweaty, tired, and desired to hop in the shower to be clean again.)

    I didn’t really think about my morning motivational problems as a barrier until I read your post this morning. Thank you for helping me clarify why my new routine works. I look forward to identifying the other barriers in my life and figuring out how to remove them.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. avatar

    Your post is perfect! You do not have to think of barriers when doing something big, but in each and every little thing you (Ramit’s food example is good) – I just start making a list of what all I need to overcome – and I have repeatedly found (I get surprised even after repeatedly finding it) that every barrier was small enough to overcome once I became aware of it – so take a simple step of becoming aware that a barrier is blocing you!

  5. avatar

    Perfect advise on startups and presenting ideas. I believe in demo-or-die and the demo needs to do just what it actually does and nothing else ! Lots of people I confront with when presenting an idea, ask silly questions about the fancy stuff and forget about the actual usage of the idea itself.

  6. avatar

    Dear God I love this site…

  7. avatar

    This is the best site on the internet. This guy is a genius and I have now doubt he will soon be rich.

  8. avatar
    murli mohinani

    I think it was a great article..Indian moms are greatest in taking care of their kids but at the same time very very protective which I think is a time capsule barrier…many time ppl who leave away from Mom’s protection graduate faster then others.. So in every bizness I think its looking over the barriers and beyond..takins self advice then having too much protective advisers is the greatest advice

  9. avatar

    Thanks Ramit. I’ve read this post twice now, and it is still a really great post.

  10. avatar

    thanks mate. this is quite interesting to read. i have never really thought of obsticles in my life as barriers that i could simply overcome. i am working in school right now and i think that this advise is going to help me in the near future.

  11. avatar
    Eric Nakagawa

    I wanted a place to blog and write private journal entries, every blog didn’t have the exact tools i wanted. I started my own site, and now I control what people see, who can read my posts, and have a single place to send friends/family/and clients.

    It’s still not finished… but it’s a start.

  12. avatar

    This is the best site ever. I’m really learning a lot from your posts.

  13. avatar
    ted mills

    You are absolutely right. I’ve come to this realization about barriers too. I call it “rolling the stone.” It’s like a large stone blocking water from flowing freely. But because it’s part of the landscape, we don’t see it, or we assume it’s *part of the stream*. The most important thing is *identifying the stone*. And once you’ve done that and moved the stone, everything flows freely.

    Example–I was working on editing this music video and getting very frustrated–I felt there wasn’t enough footage and the repetition was just that, repetitive. I was getting further and further behind on the project. Suddenly, I realized what was wrong, and what was staring me in the face: The song was too long! The song worked as a dance track, but most videos have video edits, like 3 1/2 mins. So I made myself a video edit mix and…suddenly there was loads of footage!

    Rolling the stone, man!!!

  14. avatar
    Joseph Kincade

    I think you are great thats always been my attitude.i’ll will bet a rat can out run a race horse if iu am in control of the rat

  15. avatar

    this is some of the most sensible stuff i’ve read in a long time. thank you.

  16. avatar

    This is a great post, but as well as that I just wanted to say that leaving food in a plastic bag in the fridge at my house was always the best way to make sure no one else ate your yummy food – no one ever bothered to look what was in them.

  17. avatar

    I happened to read this at exactly the right time. Thank you for writing it and posting it.

  18. avatar

    Really a wonderful post! I have had a lot of barriers in the past, and I mean BIG ONES. Your post has made me rethink about what I should have done instead of accepting the barriers which I created

  19. avatar

    This one post probably summarizes a large fraction of the self-help book market. Really good.

  20. avatar

    This is awesome, I mean really. This has come at the right time.

    To echo the guy above about morning routines, here’s what I do now:

    Wake up at 7:20 and let our cats out of the garage (where they sleep so they won’t disturb us at night). Feed them. This takes about 5 minutes.

    Then I go upstairs and sit in front of my computer and read blogs/news until about 8:20!

    So there is approximately 45 minutes each morning where I could be doing something else, but instead I sit there passively.

    That’s 11 24-hour days out of each year that I just read the web IN THE MORNING.

    I keep meaning to start exercising, but I always think I should do it after I get home from work, but as you can imagine I am somewhat tired and lazy.

    If I spend even 50% of my morning time being ACTIVE, instead of sitting on my ass, it will certainly be better.

    I’m going to do this starting tomorrow morning, and every morning after that.

  21. avatar

    Hey, that was an interesting read. Cogent & well articulated as well!

  22. avatar

    It’s late since you posted this.. I know.. but I feel Like I was led here.. to face the issue of barriers. Excellent read. And I didn’t know Bush beans were part of a Indian meal 😉

  23. avatar

    Hey Ramit,

    I’m facing the same barrier about having a business with no licence, etc. Could you please give me more light on that issue? That has been holding me down for years.


  24. avatar

    Great post. Just the kick in the butt that I needed. I’ve been stalling about setting up an e-business. I’m having trouble finding a good webmaster. Any suggestions?

  25. avatar

    wish blogs like this one had existed when I was at the University, but hey, the computer didn’t even exist then!

    I would encourage you to visit, download the free e-book, puruse the site and take the Practical Genius course!

  26. avatar

    I wrote a follow-up post to this one on my blog where I talk about a few of my own experiences with barriers, and list some of the common ones I’ve come across.


  27. avatar

    Yes I am commenting on this very old post – because it is that damn good. But it’s tough to get yourself to follow this advice. Damn laziness!

  28. avatar
    Stingy Student

    Yeah, this is coming in a good while after you wrote this post, but it’s funny that I happened to read this tonight. I just read Rich Dad Poor Dad, and the author echoed a similar philosophy about barriers. Getting to that next level really is about removing those barriers.

  29. avatar

    this is a clear way to describe a lot of things i’ve been thinking about. thank you.

  30. avatar
    Inventive Genius

    You have a great blog. I included it in my IASL website as an inventive resource. It is required reading. 05/04/2007

  31. avatar

    This was an excellent essay on barriers! I could not agree more. I can honestly say that my life i sbasically built on barriers, it’s horrible. I am the what if man, or this won’t work, or better yet what will people think. After reading this essay I know I need a change. I’m not sure where to start but accepting the fact that I have a barrier problem is a good place to make a change. Thanks!!

  32. avatar
    Kevin @ Change Your Tree

    I really enjoyed this. You’re exactly right concerning successful people and unsuccessful people with regards to barriers.

    It happens a lot with victims also–in their case it’s about making as many excuses as possible so you can excuse yourself from trying.

    Great article.

  33. avatar

    Thank you Ramit! Very practical advice. I think the best example of breaking down barriers you mentioned was getting accepted to Stanford with that note. Nice!

  34. avatar

    Really an excellent post……very much applicable to everyone’s life…..can you suggest how we go about in removing these barriers… know….we dont know what we dont know…..

  35. avatar

    wow!!!!!i always thot of this ,but u made it crystal clear by writin it in words

    thanx a lot,

    let me tell u after 2 weeks wat difference it made 2 me

  36. avatar
    Marco Almeida

    “Want to watch less TV? Throw the remote control away”… nice!

    I did something of the sort: after realizing I was procrastinating a lot at work by reading news web sites, I blocked them on my computer (tweaked my “hosts” file). It is still easy to revert that blockage, but it works fine! 😀

  37. avatar
    Adam Steer - Better Is Better

    “Want to watch less TV? Throw the remote control away”.

    We went one step further. We had the cable cut!


  38. avatar

    Great article, made me realize how often I cop out of things by creating barriers.

    I’ve noticed that it’s way too easy to associate with other people’s barriers/failures and make them your own. Whereas, we rarely try to turn that around and associate with others’ enablers/successes.

  39. avatar
    Andy Pels

    I think you said something about barriers, but I’m still stuck homemade Indian food. 🙂

  40. avatar
    Myclear backpack

    Plastic bag sometimes use full.

  41. avatar

    “The smartest people relentlessly remove barriers around them. And the others let barriers control them.”

    ^This is precisely the crux of the entire issue for me. As a coach and mentor myself, I’ve observed first-hand that the most common difference between successful and average folk, is the ability of the former to align their attitude with that of progress, growth, and abundance – REGARDLESS of the state of external circumstances!

    They’ll always find a way to do what needs to get done, even in the least-optimal of conditions. This, in all honesty, is the one “secret skill” that will enable pretty much anyone to advance rapidly in any arena in life.

    The later group will rationalize throwing a whole day’s work out because their coffee is colder than they’d like, and the cat is being loud in the next room. Such folks will never run out of excuses to avoid doing what’s necessary, because the excuses will always be there when they’re looking for them (because they are the root-source of their own excuses!).

    Fantastic site and content here! I write my own blog/eBooks on money psychology, check out my article “How Improving Your Attitude Improves Your Income” for more stuff like this if you’re interested!: