This article is an excerpt from Atomic Habits.
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
When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. 1
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 useful, but it will never produce an outcome by itself. 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 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 easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you're still making progress. You think, “I’ve got conversations going with four potential clients right now. This is good. We’re moving in the right direction.” Or, “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. When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing.
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.
Never mistake activity for achievement.
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?
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of my book Atomic Habits. Read more here.
Hat tip to Steve Blank for originally writing about motion and action.