The Mistake Smart People Make: Being In Motion vs. Taking Action

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motion vs actionThere is a common mistake that often happens to smart people — in many cases, without you ever realizing it.

The mistake has to do with the difference between being in motion and taking action. They sound similar, but they’re not the same.

Here’s the deal…

Motion vs Action

Motion is when you’re busy doing something, but that task will never produce an outcome by itself. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will get you a result.
Here are some examples…

  • If I outline 20 ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually write and publish an article, that’s action.
  • If I email 10 new leads for my business and start conversations with them, that’s motion. If I actually ask for the sale and they turn into a customer, that’s action.
  • If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action.
  • If I go to the gym and ask about getting a personal trainer, that’s motion. If I actually step under the bar and start squatting, that’s action.
  • If I study for a test or prepare for a research project, that’s motion. If I actually take the test or write my research paper, that’s action.

Sometimes motion is good because it allows you to prepare and strategize and learn. But motion will never — by itself — lead to the result you are looking to achieve.

It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get you the result you’re looking to achieve.

Why Smart People Find Themselves in Motion

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it?

Sometimes we do it because we actually need to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen.

And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to delay failure.

Yes, I’d like to get in shape. But, I don’t want to look stupid in the gym, so I’ll just talk to the trainer about their rates instead.

Yes, I’d like to land more clients for my business. But, if I ask for the sale, I might get turned down. So maybe I should just email 10 potential clients instead.

Yes, I’d like to lose weight. But, I don’t want to be the weird one who eats healthy at lunch. So maybe I should just plan some healthy meals when I get home instead.

It’s very easy to do these things and convince yourself that you’re still moving in the right direction.

“I’ve got conversations going with 4 potential clients right now. This is good. We’re moving in the right direction.”

“I brainstormed some ideas for that book I want to write. This is coming together.”

You feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. And when preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something.

Ideas for Taking Action

I’m sure there are many strategies for taking action, but I can think of two that have worked for me.

1. Set a schedule for your actions.

Every Monday and every Thursday, I write a new article and publish it to the world. It’s just what happens on those days. It’s my schedule. I love Mondays and Thursdays because I know that I will always produce something on those days. I’ll get a result. That’s a good feeling.

For weightlifting, I train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That’s the schedule every week. I’m not planning workout exercises. I’m not researching workout programs. I’m simply working out. Action, not motion.

For on–going goals and lifestyle changes, I think this is the best approach. Set a schedule for your actions and stick to it.

2. Pick a date to shift you from motion to action.

For some goals, setting a daily or weekly schedule doesn’t work as well.

This is the case if you’re doing something that is only going to happen once: like releasing your new book, or launching a new product, or taking a big exam, or submitting a major project.

These things require some planning up front (motion). They also require plenty of action to complete them. For example, you could set a schedule each week to write each chapter of your book. But for the book launch itself, you could spend weeks or months planning different venues, locations, and so on.

In a situation like this, I find that it’s best to simply pick a date. Put something on the calendar. Make it public. This is when X is happening.

For big projects or one–time goals, I think this is the best approach. Force yourself out of motion and into action by setting a hard deadline.

Choose Action

Never mistake activity for achievement.
—John Wooden

Motion will never produce a final result. Action will.

When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result.

Are you doing something? Or are you just preparing to do it?
Are you in motion? Or are you taking action?

motion vs action james clear

About the author:

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter. Or, download his free guide: Transform Your Habits.

Photo credit: Tomomi Sasaki

This post originally appeared on JamesClear.com

  • Lily Nomnomnom

    There is so much truth in this! Wow! Thank you! Not that I’m smart (that’s a whole thing of itself), but I just realized – as you mention this now – that that’s really it. I put a lot of things into Motion (b/c I can’t stand being stagnant); however, it is the action (however hard it may be) that actually should be the strive. The hardest part, though, and perhaps I’m still having this issue, is making the action.

  • http://travelphotodiscovery.com/ Noel Morata

    That was quite an interesting read, it is great to be in motion and then take action. Sometimes making the plans and taking baby steps to implement them works best or else we may never take action to begin with.

  • Nicolas Daudin

    Great wake up call! Thanks! Love it!

    And I guess that i am sometimes indeed in motion, not actually taking real action! Great reminder!!

    • Chris

      You make a great point, Nicolas. Maybe a post-it note on your desk or monitor or wherever it is you work to remind you to take action? I might trying this, myself!

      • Nicolas Daudin

        I should do this, yes! Did it work for you?

  • carolinebakker

    Hooray well done! Finally a short, simple effective blog post. This is one of the only that I’ve read from this mornings email newsletters. Great post, so true. Personally I love taking action as you never know if there’s tomorrow. Naysayers are a tough one… Hope they read this too. Have a good one. Caroline from Australia

  • http://craighunkele.com/ Craig Hunkele

    On the money. I’m “In Motion” with my next blog entry “Maintaining Motivation & Productivity as a Creative Based Young Entrepreneur. I would love to reiterate some of my thoughts and shine some light on your wisdom by referencing this in my article…If I were given the go ahead.

  • http://SwolePT.com/ Mike Kabbani

    Awesome post, James.

    I also found that not all motion is created equal, think loitering vs moving forward. A good question I ask myself is am I spending time fantasizing or actually planning.

    The difference often is in the detail.

    Are you figuring out the nitty gritty details or are you just floating with vague concepts?

    Are you staying in your comfort zone or are you growing?

    Are you procrastinating or are you preparing?

    A great way to convert loitering into forward movement is by writing things down.

    Bringing pen to paper forces you to deal with reality, and is the first step toward action.

  • http://creonomy.com/ Nicolo’ Borghi

    James, did you follow me in the last few weeks? This article is so about me!

  • Ellie Stevenson

    Excellent post – so true. I especially liked the point about why we avoid action and the statement ‘when preparation becomes a form of procrastination you need to change something’

  • @blueoprintsms

    yikes. I confess. I am a big thinker. Have too many great ideas better to have a few wins and failures than none at all.

  • Chris

    Thanks James, this sounds frighteningly familiar!

    In fact I’ve been ‘preparing’ for a short video I wanted to produce for my site for over a week and reading your artificial makes me think my preparation has a lot of the hallmarks of motion.

    You talk also about fear of failure and I agree. I was writing this evening, whilst ‘preparing my for my video, that for me, yes I am afraid of failing. But maybe it’s not just of failing. Maybe I’m afraid of actually taking action to succeed?

  • KrisSn

    Great post, that’s good for identifying what type of motion leads to not an impression of action, but in capable instance that leads to another. Defining these are the landmark achievements for me, not the doing them per se.. The cake at the end justifies the refinement of process, but the initial alchemy is crucial when purposive.

  • http://10-spaces.com/ Matt DeYoung

    Great post James. So much of being productive comes down to being aware. After reading this post I’m more aware of being in “motion” vs. being in “action”

  • JM

    Brilliant distinction.

  • Javier Pacheco

    Man, I am “stuck” in motion :P

  • Yan

    I’m struggling a bit with this. Maybe I’m getting caught up on terminology (which I’m prone to do) but it seems that James has used ‘motion’ for planning/preparation and ‘action’ for execution. Have I interpreted that correctly?

    Strikes me something can be an action irrespective of the outcome or type of activity. Talking to the trainer is an action – I’m doing something that precipitates a later step of using the gym.

    If I’m interpreting correctly tho I do see the point that procrastination is more likely for some at the planning/prep stage when there is less risk. Rubber hitting the road is much more scary!

    Thanks for the article.

  • Chris

    Never confuse movement with action – Hemingway

    A common mistake I’ve made in the past – http://followgallo.com/millennial-mistakes/cover-letters-that-get-jobs

  • Fabiola Berriozabal Johnson

    Guilty… I don’t think that’s very smart though.

  • http://www.michaelofei.com/ Michael Ofei

    Great article James.

  • Albert Freeman

    I have read this twice today. I can totally relate to it. I am definitely guilty of planning, and thinking this is doing, and then stressing about having actually not done anything!

  • http://www.theneotericgroup.com/ Nicki Morris

    This is a great post James – I am often in motion and need to re-focus to be in ‘action’. This is similar to organizations that are always planning, setting goals, vision, strategy but never really taking action to accomplish the goals. Whether personal or for business action is vital to accomplishment and success!

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