By Randy Sabourn

“The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.” John Burroughs

A simple and obvious statement: successful people get things done. However, there are millions of great intentions that never turn into action – think back to your New Year’s resolutions or the last time you committed to getting your work/life balance back to a state of equilibrium. In the business environment, especially in sales, intentions without execution can be a problem. Missed revenue opportunities are the bane of every sales professional and manager. Keeping track of appointments, tasks from meetings, following up on future calls, and recording data for team selling are a few of the important tasks that can suffer when intentions are not put into action. Corporations are intention-generating machines and the challenge faced from CEO to salesperson is the same: to track, prioritize and execute intentions.

There are three primary stages to the process of converting intention to action: creation, storage and execution. When first the thought or idea germinates, it is an intention stored in short term memory. Next we transfer and store the intention either in long memory or an external system. Finally we retrieve the intention and execute. Some intentions are instantly converted to action while others are stored for later recall.

When a thought comes to mind and we decide to pursue the intention we have several choices to make. Holding an intention in working memory takes concentration and energy. There is a great deal of research that indicates the number of items we can store in short-term memory (the prefrontal cortex.)  The most renown is the study that George A Miller conducted in 1956 that determined the ‘Magic Number’ to be 7 plus or minus 2, as the amount of items we can hold in working memory. More recently Nelson Cowan determined in a 2001 study that the number is closer to 4 if the level of complexity surpasses single words into sentences. Brain McElree found in recent research that the number of concepts remembered with no memory degradation is only one. We can certainly hold more than one piece of information at a time in our minds, but McElree proves that as you add items, your memory decays. Whether the magic number is one or ten, through the course of a week we are expected to attend to a large number of items. At any given moment, we have hundreds of open intentions and there is a price to be paid for holding intentions in working memory. Short-term memory uses energy.  Our brains use up to 25% of our body’s resources making it the largest single organ consumer of energy. Yet, the human body has evolved several energy saving strategies for the brain. Limiting the amount and duration of holding thoughts in short-term memory is one such strategy. If we do not transfer our intentions from short-term memory to a more reliable storage space, they become distractions and can cause stress especially when we try to keep track of the mental to-do list.

Transferring intentions out of working memory also has the advantage of freeing capacity for increased awareness like picking up body language cues, increased focus and concentration, and being creative.  Transferring intentions from short-term memory to a system that can assist in execution at the right time is one of the simplest and yet most strategic advantages in business. So many great ideas and revenue opportunities are never realized because of this simple step. Taking notes in a meeting while engaging and driving the conversation can be distracting. Writing notes and action items immediately after a meeting is a great solution. To think that you will remember all of the important points, actions and critical political information is unreasonable and flirting with disaster. There is an abundance of technology to assist in transferring intentions. The tool used is not important but getting into the habit of transferring is. Use a written to-do list, create a task in Outlook or a CRM (customer relationship manager) or any system you have to organize these intentions in priority, time and association. The mind capacity required to participate in the next important conversation will either be limited by storing the last meeting’s intentions or those intentions will be lost when concentration is place elsewhere.

“Out of sight out of mind” is as relevant today as it has ever been. Retrieving the intentions stored is the next step in the process. Having an action item or date to call in two months is useless without a way of retrieving that information when you need it. Your choice of storage needs to organize the intention by priority, time and association. Cross-referencing with past information is incorporated into most CRMs.  A note stuck in a file is as effective as having never written it. Knowing whom to call, when and about what at your finger’s tip is a powerful tool. There are a vast range of solutions from FranklinCovey, David Allen or more technological solutions like CRMs and Evernote. The goal is to faithfully use a tool.

So beware of the sales person or team member that claims, “I don’t need to write it down. I’ll remember it,” or “I know I wrote it down somewhere. I just can’t find it.” Less than 5% of children are born with a photographic memory, most of whom lose the ability as they mature. A deeper look will reveal an over confident, underperforming, high need for control individual that may become successful via brash intention but rarely can work within a team or lead others.

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” The Buddha

One Response to “Intention to Execution”

  • Joe Saratcci:

    Excellent writing, Many thanks presenting this excellent material. I often catching myself wondering what to do next even though I have a million things to do. I really need to get organized and prioritize. Thank you.

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