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

There 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 they actually buy something and 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.”

Motion makes 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?

Note: Hat tip to Steve Blank for originally writing about motion and action.

37 Comments

  1. A slam dunk article once again James. I’ve been ‘Studying’ for the MCAT for 9 months now without much progress. This article in combination with the momentum articles has really helped me refocus and get down to business. Thank you so much!!

  2. YAY! Great article James. The only suggestion, there are no mistakes in life. We are constantly learning, procrastination can be the very thing you suggest, finding the level that finally prompts you to take action, or creating a plan. And absolutely… Execution is the “for sure” next step, no matter how tiny or huge.

    I remember a friend who suggested to me, “If you are sitting in the car of life, parked at the curb, and you start the engine and move one inch, are you in a new place?” Yes. Our motivations come in all forms. Sometimes things have to get worse before we notice they can get better. Looking yourself in the eyes in the mirror is a great start.

    Joan

    • Thanks for sharing, Joan! I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles.

      And I agree — it’s all a learning process. Thanks for reading!

  3. Yes I constantly find myself unsatisfied because of continuous motion and no ultimate result. Although the process seems to be faking progress I still feel at the point where I began the idea.

  4. Great article James. I struggle with this a lot. One other reason I find when I slip into motion instead of action is because small actions don’t feel a whole lot like progress, especially in the beginning. It’s easy to think that there is no progress at all and it’s a waste of effort to act. And I am all about conservation of effort!

    • Joel — I hear you. Slow progress is still progress, but it can be tough to convince yourself of that.

      Keep grinding! And thanks for reading. I’m rooting for you.

  5. But you need motion to direct your action.

    Working out for example, is better than not working out. But how do you know if you’re getting anywhere? Don’t you you need motion to move your actions to your goal?

    • Andrei — great question. I think the key is that in the beginning, nothing will happen without action. It’s easier to choose motion because there is less likelihood for failure.

      To use your workout example: many people would rather plan their workout, tell themselves they need to learn more, and continue planning … rather than simply showing up to the gym and working out (doing anything) because they will feel stupid or uncomfortable.

      So in the beginning especially, action is key. But as time goes on and the habits of action are formed, planning becomes even more crucial. If you’re already the type of person who goes to the gym 3 times per week (action), then you want to make sure that you don’t waste your time there. So some of it has to do with the sequence of action vs. motion.

      I wrote more about this idea here: http://jamesclear.com/identity-based-habits

      Anyway, thanks for reading and sharing your ideas! It’s great to have you in our little community!

  6. Great post and I love the examples! It is too common to feel productive when you’re just in “motion.” With this awareness, we can build habits that support action.

  7. Hi!!

    I think I’m stuck between motion and getting into action.

    I read the article on identity based goals and it helped a lot!

    But I still wish there was a better way for diferentiating between motion and action.

    I read steve blank article, and I’m not quite sure I agree, focusing on end results has always led to disappointment for me.

    But then i focus on baby steps and feel like im stuck in motion. So were could The difference between these two be?

  8. This article really hit home on a personal level. Thanks.

    However, it’s not always obvious to me how to classify a specific action.

    To use your own article as an example,

    “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.”

    Each action might or might not in ultimately result in acquiring a new customer. What’s the difference?

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Gregg!

      I could have come up with better examples. A better way to phrase it would have been, “If I start a conversation with a potential customer, that’s motion. If I ask for a sale and they buy something, that’s action.”

      The basic idea is that there are all sorts of things that we do that won’t ever lead to the results we want. It doesn’t matter how many potential customers you talk to, nobody will buy if you never get around to the action of selling.

      Moral of the story: do things that can lead to the result you want rather than spinning your wheels constantly prepping for the next step.

  9. The examples you have listed are very different; studying for a test will have a much bigger impact on taking that test than what asking about a personal trainer will have on physically training by oneself.

    While I agree that it can be immediately unproductive to be in a stage of ‘motion’, I believe that there are different stages of development with projects and such and each stage will have an influence on the next stage and the final outcome. Instead of there being two discrete categories (motion and action), there are shades in-between that make up a continuous process.

    When I study for an exam, I am not immediately achieving my grade or making progress on my academic record, however, studying will help me to achieve the final result.
    If I’m going to build a robot, I’ll be spending 90% of my time developing a design, then buying parts and actually building.
    If I’m going to go out somewhere with friends, I’ll first plan it, then talk to them about it, then meet them.

    What about after completing a piece of work? Isn’t there another stage of checking to make sure it’s all correct and perfect? Would this be considered movement if it may help improve the quality of the final product, even if you end up not changing anything about it?

    ‘Motion’ is not a bad thing; there are no unproductive stages, but it can be unproductive to be stuck on a single stage that is in itself only repeating itself. As long as the initial motion is a seed and not an inert rock of stillness, it will be worthwhile spending some time planting it and not rushing through it just to get to the final result.

    The transition from ‘motion’ to ‘action’ is a journey through which we learn and become more efficient.

  10. The lesson is taught and understood. Action is efficiency, efficiency is when, when is time, and time is life. I would rather acheive than waste on motion. “The value of an idea is in using it.”- Thomas Edision

  11. Thank you James – you’ve put into words exactly what’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been preparing to get healthy for months now, but I never seem to have enough information to get started so I research more. I’m using planning as procrastination.

  12. Thanks James. But I think motion is necessary for a correct action. Only an action can’t get you the place you wanna go, neither a motion. I think we must find the perfect balance between them. As every area of our life, balance is the keyword again. An action that seasoned in a motion is the right taste for a good life. But we must always remember that if we don’t become an actor, we’ll never be a factor.
    Have an A1 life.

  13. It seems there’s nothing wrong with motion itself, but just doing it and never getting to the point where you will take action. Maybe one of the first step in “planning” phase should be establishing the “taking action” moment, them you do some of the “motion” but when that moment arises, you must take some action, and so on.

    Action alone doesn’t seem to be that good either…

  14. Great food for thought James. Just one point I disagree with:

    “If I email 10 new leads for my business and start conversations with them, that’s motion. If they actually buy something and turn into a customer, that’s action.”

    Reaching out to a customer is indeed an action. Closing the deal is a result.

  15. This post goes directly to the point. Leave the important “motion” plan and turn it into “action”. Excelent :)

    Thanks

  16. Hey James!

    Your title hits the bull’s eye. The “smarter” you are, or the “smarter” you consider yourself to be actually, the more time you will spend on research, analysis, preparation, organization, … you get the idea.

    Although a necessary step, I definitely agree that too much time is wasted on “motion”.

    Great article.

  17. Hey James!

    Thanks for the article. I am planning to open a business (motion), but the plan was start the process after April this year! But after reading your article, I plan to start the procedure from this day onwards.

    Thanks for your great advice, James! It makes me feel like I can be the Best!!

    Thanks,
    Mervyn

  18. Hi James,

    I enjoy your writing and perspectives.

    I think you explain this better than I ever could.

    Hope you don’t mind me linking to this article from my blog post that I was planning to write about this?

    Thanks.

  19. Hey James,

    Thanks for waking me up from a continuous motion without ever realizing it. I should find myself now on from the action aisle hopefully. Thanks for the great article. Keep them coming.

    Ahmed

  20. Thank you for the helpful article, it made me think – I am often feel in motion, but rarely arrive as avoid taking action, and I like the emphasis on setting a schedule and deadlines. Thank you.

  21. Thank you! I have only read a few of your columns, but they have really made an impact on me! Motion to action, and keeping the chain going… Those thoughts have helped me to literally get off my butt and get something done, even if it is a little thing.

    This article made me think of that line in the Matrix, “Stop trying to hit me, just hit me!”

    I’d done shadow-boxing in exercise classes a thousand times, but the first time I took a kickboxing class and actually hit a heavy bag — wow! It felt great even though it hurt (left a little of my knuckle on the canvas). It made me want to hit the bag more, and it also improved the way I shadow-boxed, which in turn made me hit the bag better.

    Of course, more examples are popping into my head, but I’m going to take the action of hitting the Post button. Then I’m going to take another action and exercise for the ten minutes I would have spent wordsmithing another example. Thank you!

  22. I come back to this article all the time. It’s pure gold! It’s changed so many aspects of my life that I can’t fully articulate it.

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