Thought vs. Action

February 22nd, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Balancing thought and action is a challenge for many people, especially those who are self-employed. How much time should you spend thinking vs. doing? We hear things like, “failing to plan is planning to fail,” implying that careful thought must govern all action. But then there are also the cries of, “Do it now! Do it now! Do it now!” pressing for immediate action.

How do you know when to think vs. when to act? Where’s the point of balance between analysis paralysis on the thinking side and excessive impulsivity on the action side?

It seems clear you need a good balance between the two, especially when running your own business. Both are important.

I used to have this problem of wondering whether I was overacting and under-thinking or over-planning and under-acting, but the problem ceased to exist when I shifted my perspective on a different level. Now it feels to me that thought and action are more similar than they are different. One is a mental action; the other is a physical one.

I think the feeling of imbalance between thought and action is itself a symptom of a greater internal incongruence. You think you need to balance the two when they’re both taking you in different directions. You think in one direction but act in another.

It’s easy to fall into this state of imbalance when you experience a moderate perspective shift in your thinking, but your past momentum still rules your actions. So you keep working under your previous paradigm but thinking under your new paradigm. That’s when you’ll begin feeling a division between thought and action. You get results from both, but each is taking you in a slightly different direction. So you end up constantly questioning which is the right way to go. It seems like a conflict between thought and action, but if you look deep enough, you’ll see it’s really a conflict between two paradigms — the old and the new.

I think the most common case would be when your thoughts take you in a new direction, while your actions are rooted in old habits. But it could also be the other way around, where your behavior shifts to something new, and your thoughts have yet to catch up. That can happen when your external environment forces a behavior change — you move to a new city, switch jobs, enter a new relationship, etc. Your mental model of who you are hasn’t yet integrated the full extent of your new environment.

So while you can view a conflict between thought and action as causing a lack of clarity in your life, I think it’s more likely that the opposite is true — a lack of clarity creates a perceived conflict between thought and action.

Thought and action can be perceived as two different dimensions of who you are: the mental you and the physical you. But there are other dimensions as well: the emotional you and the spiritual you. So one way to break through a perceived impasse between thought and action is to consult your other dimensions of emotions and spirit to see the situation from other perspectives. What do your feelings say about the conflict? What does your conscience tell you?

When you put all four of these dimensions together and collect input from all of them: the physical you, the mental you, the emotional you, and the spiritual you, you now have a lot more information about the problem, seeing all four sides instead of just two. Ultimately this allows you to envision a higher-level solution where all four of these “yous” can become congruent, all pointing in the same direction. And this will allow you to transcend the original problem entirely.

Albert Einstein said that the greatest problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them. The problem of a perceived conflict between thought and action cannot be solved at the level of thoughts and actions. You need to take a step back and see the perspectives of all four parts: body, mind, heart, and soul. Only then will a total solution begin to come into focus.

Let’s shove this abstract stuff down into a more concrete real-world example.

Suppose you run your own business. You think and plan about how to grow the business. This seems like a good idea as you enjoy running the business (at least at its current level), and it would be nice to increase your income. Growing the business seems like a pretty good idea. You feel that you have the necessary skills to do it too. But then when it comes to action, you feel stuck. You can’t seem to get moving. You keep working on urgent things, and the important growth projects stall. So you figure maybe your plans were wrong, and you go back to the comfort of doing more thinking and planning. And the same thing happens. And then you start thinking about planning and maybe that you’re over-planning, and you enter the stuck state of analysis paralysis, where your thinking becomes circular. You start to wonder why you aren’t taking action to grow the business, when your plans all look so good on paper. What’s holding you back?

At the level of thinking and action, you can’t solve the problem. You’ll just stay perpetually stuck. You may have what feels like a productive day now and then, but you won’t have that feeling of perpetual productivity that takes you through each and every day with a feeling of fulfillment and flow.

So what’s the solution? It’s time to consult the other parts of you who’ve been trying to speak up but who haven’t been heard. Start with your emotions. How do you honestly feel about growing the business? Maybe you’re getting mixed signals there. Perhaps you feel it would be great to have a bigger business, but you’re also a bit uneasy about how much more work it would mean. Your feelings further verify that you’re internally incongruent. You aren’t totally 100% committed to the idea of growing your business. It partly seems like the right thing to do, but it also partly feels wrong, and you can’t quite put your finger on it. Consulting your feelings gives you more evidence that something is wrong, but it doesn’t point you in the direction of a solution. Time to visit another advisor.

So now you consult with your spirit, your conscience, your deepest and most sacred beliefs. This is the quietest part of you, so you have to be alone and undisturbed to hear it clearly. One of the best questions to ask here is, “What should I be doing?” You can also try, “What’s true for me?” And then listen internally for the truth, not for what you want to hear. If you’re internally conflicted between thoughts, actions, and feelings, then your spiritual answer will explain why. And it won’t pull its punches. It can take some courage to listen to this inner voice and not tune it out, but this is a voice that must be heeded if you ever want to restore congruence and experience balance again.

This inner voice may say to you, “You’re not living in accordance with what you believe” or “This isn’t what you’re here to do.” It will look at your business and ask all the big questions. How will growing your business affect your character? How will it impact all the people it touches? How does it mesh with your deepest sense of right and wrong? Is it contributing? Does it truly help people in the way they most need to be helped? Are you passionate about it? Is this the best you can do?

This is a very individual process. I can’t say where it will lead in the short term, but in in the long term, listening to all four of these parts of yourself — body, mind, heart, soul — will help you envision a way of living where all parts of your life can become congruent. You don’t have to take a flying leap into living spiritually and go broke doing it. All four parts can be in balance. But you have to listen to all four and get their input in order to understand the direction where that balance lies.

I believe all four dimensions have their own valid perspective. One perspective is no better or worse than another. Some problems are simple enough that they only need a single perspective to solve them. Your body can tackle the challenge of eating a meal without much conscious thought. Your mind can solve a math problem without needing to consult your feelings. Your emotions can signal danger without consulting your spirit. But sometimes these parts don’t listen to each other. Your body tries to gobble up the junk food while your mind says, “Put that donut down!” Your mind focuses on negative outcomes while your emotions say, “You’re stressing me out here!” And you start plotting revenge out of anger while your spirit says, “You believe in forgiveness.”

Each part of you has its own unique perspective, and each is wise in its own way. By listening to all four parts and iterating through them again and again, you eventually reach a state of congruence. It’s an internal negotiation process. Body wants that donut. Mind says no. Spirit says, “Blech. The donut maker treats her employees harshly.” Heart says “Mmmmm, donut!” Body says, “I’m hungry.” Mind says, “OK, you can have a muffin instead.” Spirit says, “Make sure it’s organic.” Body says, “OK, I’ll have an organic banana nut muffin.” Heart says, “Banana nut… now that’s good muffin!”

The same goes for career. Body wants big salary. Mind wants interesting work that fits our talents. Heart wants fun. Spirit wants meaningful contribution. Body says, “Contribution? You trying to starve us?” Heart says, “Contribution would make us feel good, but I don’t want to do dull and boring work all day.” Spirit says, “Mind, figure out how contribution can be fun.” Mind says, “It has to be a form of service that fits our talents so we’re good at it, and our passion so we enjoy it.” Heart says, “Mmmmmm, passion.” Body says, “Excuse me, but how the heck are we gonna make a living at this?” Mind says, “If we do what we’re best at, and there’s a demand for it, people will be happy to pay us for it.” Body says, “You’ll have to do better than that to convince me. I know we can make $X right now doing Y, and that’s good enough for me.” Mind says, “Here, eat this muffin while I think about it.” Heart says, “I wouldn’t feel good working only for money.” Spirit says, “Everybody make a list of the types of careers that could satisfy you.” Everybody makes their own list. They all negotiate back and forth until they find one that pleases all of them. Heart rejects accountant. Spirit rejects the adult web site idea. Mind rejects professional athlete. Body rejects psychologist. They eventually reject everything on every list and have to go back to make new lists, but they do a better job the second time because now they understand what the others want. So they each start listing ideas that have a better chance of acceptance by all. And after a while they find a few that actually work, and they pick the best of those. Through this internal negotiation process, they discover the best option, so they can finally commit. Congruence is achieved, and moving forward, the new career will satisfy all four parts as fully as possible. All perceived conflict between thought vs. action vanishes. Thoughts, actions, feelings, and beliefs are all headed in the same direction.


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