Action Bias

April 21st, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

In reading the biographies of very successful men and women, one theme frequently surfaces: such people have a strong bias for action. Those who achieve high levels of success in some areas of life tend to take a LOT more action than those who settle for average or below average results.

Lots of people come up with interesting ideas to pursue. You’ll probably come up with some great ideas while going about your day. But very often when you come up with an idea that could be actionable, you’ll let it fade, or you’ll talk yourself out of it, or you’ll overcomplicate it to the point where it dies on the vine.

This isn’t what the most successful people typically do, however. These people are more likely to take action — either right away or shortly after they generate the cool idea.

Bias for Inaction

When you come up with an interesting idea, it’s easy to avoid taking action. I mentioned some of these a few sentences ago, but let me elaborate a bit.

One way to avoid taking action is to lose focus. You come up with a cool idea, but instead of staying focused on it, you distract yourself from it. Instead of making the new idea a top priority, you switch your attention to something else. When you withdraw your focus from the new idea, the idea gets fuzzier. The initial enthusiasm fades. Your mental RAM gets overwritten by something else. Soon the cool idea is essentially forgotten.

Another way to avoid taking action is to talk yourself out of it. This requires shifting your focus to the anti-idea. What about this idea won’t work? Where might it lead to failure? What could go wrong? By shifting your focus to the anti-idea instead of the idea, you magnify problems instead of opportunities, so the idea becomes less attractive to you. Eventually you sense that the idea is probably more trouble than it’s worth, so you reject it.

You can also allow others to talk you out of your idea. This is essentially the same thing because you must internalize their attitudes in order to kill the idea.

Finally, you can overcomplicate the idea. Instead of focusing on the critical core, you can keep adding and expanding the idea until it’s so monstrous that there’s no way you could implement it in a reasonable period of time. Perfectionists often do this. Many implementations that are “good enough” can still provide a lot more value than doing nothing, but when you overcomplicate an idea, you make doing nothing the more attractive choice.

I don’t want to suggest that these mental processes are wrong per se, but the long-term consequence is that if you run any of these subroutines, you’ll avoid taking action most of the time when you come up with an interesting idea. These processes favor maintaining the status quo because they derail you from implementing new ideas.

If maintaining the status quo is very important to you, then it may be reasonable to apply such processes to your life. The potential upside is that you’ll avoid making errors of commission. Because you aren’t taking action, you won’t have to worry about new failures and rejections caused by your mistakes.

Bias for Action

Just as you can apply a mental process that leads to inaction, you can also do the opposite. You can run subroutines that favor action.

When you come up with an interesting idea, you can stay focused on that idea until your focus naturally flows into direct action. Instead of letting other things get in the way, you can clear your schedule and stay with the idea to see where it leads. You can elevate the status of spontaneously cool ideas in your life, so they take precedent over maintaining the status quo. When you feel you’ve been struck by an inspired idea, you drop everything else, so you can run with the new idea and see where it leads.

You can also talk yourself into taking action on an idea. You can focus your attention on the possibilities of what might work as opposed to the potential problems. You can ponder the upside more than the downside. Or you can allow others to talk you into action, which again is pretty much the same thing. When you want to be talked into action, you’ll probably seek out others who will help push you over the edge.

And finally, you can simplify the idea to make it easier to take action. You can strip the idea down to its core essence. You can scale it down until it becomes accessible and readily actionable.

If you apply these mental processes as opposed to the processes in the previous section, you’re going to take a lot more action. You’ll start more projects. You’ll ask for what you want more often. You’ll pick up the phone many more times than you would otherwise. You’ll risk failure and rejection more often.

The upside here is that you’ll avoid many errors of omission. You’re much less likely to miss golden opportunities.

Which Approach Is Better for You?

Which approach is better for you depends on how comfortable and happy you are with the status quo of your life.

Do you feel your life is about 95% where you want it to be? Would you be delighted to maintain your current situation? Do you feel your momentum is taking you down a wonderful path? If so, you may wish to favor the processes in the first group. Talk yourself out of taking action when you feel the risk of upsetting the status quo is too great. You may not experience as much personal growth on this path, but there’s no rule that says you have to. If you’re very happy and fulfilled where you are, it’s fine if you want to coast and enjoy that for a while. You can always shift gears later.

On the other hand, do you feel you have a lot more growing to do? Do you feel more drawn to new experiences? Would you rather create something new for yourself vs. maintaining your current situation?  Are you willing to upset the status quo for a shot at something better? If that’s the case, then you’re better off favoring the second set of processes that will get you into action faster and more frequently. Risking failure and rejection would be a small price to pay to ensure that you don’t let potential opportunities pass you by. You’d kick yourself more for the opportunities you missed as opposed to the mistakes you made.

Do you often catch yourself saying, “I really wish I hadn’t…” or “How could I have done something so stupid?” or “I should have thought that through more carefully”? If so, then you may be acting too haphazardly, and you need to pause and think things through a bit more. It’s okay to slow down and be more deliberate.

Or do you catch yourself saying, “Why didn’t I jump on that opportunity when I had the chance?” or “I wish I’d signed up for that years ago” or “I’m feeling behind relative where I think I should be at this time in my life”? If so, you may wish to shift yourself towards a greater action bias. Start talking yourself into action instead of talking yourself out of it. It’s okay to speed up and be more spontaneous.

Throughout your life you’ll probably shift back and forth between these sets of processes many times. Sometimes you’ll dislike the status quo, or you’ll feel a strong desire for something new. At those times, you’ll want to cultivate an action bias. At other times you may need a break from so much action and rapid change, and you may want to coast for a while.

You can also mix and match based on what you want in different areas of your life. One year you may want to maintain your health status while improving your social life, and the next year you may want to upgrade your fitness levels while maintaining the status quo in other parts of your life.

Sometimes I’ll say aloud, as if I’m speaking to the Universe, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and need a breather. Let’s slow things down.” Other times I’ll say, “This pace is too slow for me. I’m ready to move faster. Speed up!” I can’t say if this is just a trigger for my own subconscious or a genuine message to the Universe, but I do notice that within a few days, the pace will begin to shift. Maybe I’m somehow directing the pacing of new opportunities, or maybe I’m just shifting my perspective. Either way, it works for me. I suggest you try it to see if it works for you. Ask for a shift in pacing when you feel your current pacing is too fast or slow.

Long-Term Consequences

Short-term fluctuations in your action bias tend to average out over time. Some weeks you’ll take a lot of action, and other weeks will see a slower pacing. But what does your long-term pattern look like? Do you usually run mental processes that favor inaction or action? When you come up with new ideas, do you normally decline to act? Or do you normally find a way to get moving ASAP? How many ideas do you talk yourself into vs. talk yourself out of? Are you normally busy with direct action on your ideas, or do you spend more time pondering them without any observable progress?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to see why very successful men and women tend to have a strong bias in favor of action. They lean in the direction of focusing on their new ideas, looking at the positive possibilities, and talking themselves into action.

Is it reasonable to favor action though? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more time deliberating and thinking things through carefully?

I think this depends on what you’re working on. If you’re launching a NASA mission, you want to triple-check everything to make sure it’s safe. The consequences of failure can be very high. But in cases where the consequences of failure aren’t fatal, like if you’re risking some embarrassment or a break-up or a bankruptcy, well… that may sting a little, but you’ll recover.

Ask yourself, “What are the realistic worst-case consequences if my idea fails to work?” In many cases you’ll have to admit that in the grand scheme of things, the negative consequences just aren’t a big deal. You may make them a big deal in your mind, but are people going to lose their lives if you make an honest mistake? Taking action is rarely fatal these days. You can screw up a lot, recover, and keep right on going.

If you favor an action bias in the long run, you’re more likely to experience greater long-term success.

By taking lots of action, you’ll invite a tremendous amount of experiential learning. While we can learn a great deal from books and teachers and coaches, we must still learn certain things from experience. This includes learning to walk, talk, dance, drive a car, raise kids, run a business, and so on.

If you want to learn to drive a car, an action bias will help you develop that skill quickly. Focus on learning to drive. Focus on the positive aspects of driving, like more freedom to come and go as you please. Talk yourself into it. Let peer pressure talk you into it. Keep it simple, such as by driving an automatic instead of a stick shift. Run the mental processes that encourage action, and you’ll soon be driving.

If you use the opposite approach, you won’t learn how to drive. You may think about it and then distract yourself by thinking of something else. You may focus on the negatives such as the learning curve, cost, risk, inconvenience, or your nervousness. You may overcomplicate it. Run the mental processes that discourage action, and you’ll maintain the status quo of being a non-driver.

Extend these kinds of results across many years and multiple areas of life, and it isn’t too difficult to predict what will happen. If you avoid taking action, you’ll suffer fewer mistakes and failures (errors of commission), but you’ll also deny yourself many valuable skills and opportunities. You won’t have as much flexibility to earn money, to attract positive relationships, to do work you love, etc.

If you cultivate an action bias, you’ll suffer fewer errors of omission. You won’t miss as many opportunities in life.

In the long run, missing opportunities will probably hurt your results a lot more than making mistakes. The biggest failure is the failure to act.

If you want to experience lots of positive change throughout your life, then you must be willing to embrace more change in general. You can’t always guarantee that each change will be positive. Sometimes things won’t work out the way you’d have liked. If you wish to avoid making mistakes and suffering setbacks, you’ll have to avoid virtually all change, and that means you’ll miss many golden opportunities. This is because virtually all good opportunities entail some degree of risk. To avoid risk, you must avoid positive results too. Only the low-hanging fruit remains accessible, and that usually won’t fuel much change.

Improving Through Action

Ideally we want to take actions that we predict will lead to success, and we want to avoid taking actions that we predict will lead to failure.

Unfortunately, the best opportunities tend to be unpredictable. Even when we do everything we can to reduce risk and guarantee success, there are no guarantees. We can never eliminate all uncertainty. There’s still a randomness factor. You could get injured without trying to. You could lose your money through no fault of your own. You could be blindsided by a completely unexpected setback or loss. It happens.

When you take action, there’s always some doubt as to how well it will turn out. You can’t even accurately measure this doubt. Even when people try to do this with the best processes available, they still suffer failures and setbacks. Insurance companies still go bust, even when they make the best bets they can.

It isn’t wise to be reckless. It’s still a good idea to put the odds on your side as much as possible. But it’s just as important to accept that there’s inherent risk in taking action. You might succeed. You might fail. Or you might experience something in the middle.

An action bias gives you a long-term advantage here because the more you take action, the more you learn about risk. You develop a better feel for how to tell when the odds are on your side. You become better at placing high-payoff bets, and you learn to avoid the sucker bets. In some limited domains, you can learn this from a book or a teacher. In other areas, especially new areas that are rich with untapped opportunities, you mainly have to learn by trial and error.

Trial and error may sound like a slow and tedious process, but often it’s the fastest way to learn. Humans are capable of single-trial learning. We don’t necessarily have to repeat mistakes to learn to avoid them. One bad experience can teach us to avoid specific problems for the rest of our lives. Sometimes you’ll make a mistake and say to yourself, “I’m never doing that again,” and you never will. You may have learned this lesson in a matter of seconds.

Without an action bias, you don’t gain the benefit of feedback. If you fail to take action, you’ll never know what might have been. This isn’t like sports betting, where you place a bet on a team and then watch the game from a distance. In many cases you’re like the quarterback on the field who can strongly influence the outcome of the game. The feedback you receive from the sidelines isn’t the same as what you receive on the field. So if you avoid the field, you avoid the best feedback. This greatly limits your ability to grow and improve.

When you favor action, you gain the long-term benefits of action-based feedback. In the long run, these benefits can be massive.

If you read a lot of biographies of highly successful men and women, you’ll see just how critical action-based feedback is. I can’t recall any stories where people set a clear goal and achieved massive success right away. Success came as a result of refinement over many years and decades.

You take action. You see what happens. You make some adjustments. And you take more action.

Most of the time, your first stab will fail. So will the second and the third. But eventually you’ll figure it out. Sometimes you won’t figure it out though. And that’s okay too because there are always new ideas to try, and quite often your failure experiences will help you take better stabs at future ideas.

Persistence

One thing I’ve been seeing in a lot of 20-somethings today is that they often want massive positive results without going through that long-term process of trial and error learning. Many of them have a low tolerance for failure. They give up easily. They see persistence as a 6-month commitment instead of a 5- or 10-year commitment (or longer). A 6-month commitment is an oxymoron — that’s merely dabbling.

For example, someone will read an article like 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job, and they’ll get inspired by the idea that they can start their own business and work for themselves. If they take action, then 6-12 months later they’re often stuck in setback land. Their new business is struggling. They aren’t making enough money. They’re working for less than minimum wage. So they give up and go back to job land, concluding they aren’t cut out for this sort of thing. But again, even a yearlong commitment isn’t a true commitment — that’s dabbling. The serious contenders are looking ahead for several years minimum.

When I started my first business in my early 20s, it took 5 years of full-time work just to achieve my first profitable year. I thought I was a pretty smart guy, but there was so much I didn’t know about business. I made countless mistakes. I sank into debt. I went bankrupt. I got kicked out of my apartment because I couldn’t pay the rent. I made some bad decisions, and I suffered the consequences. Sometimes I worked with the wrong people, and I suffered the consequences. Sometimes I got blindsided by problems outside my direct control, and I suffered the consequences. But I just kept going. I didn’t let these setbacks stop me. I kept taking more action. I simply refused to stop or to be stopped.

Seriously… is getting kicked out of your home fatal? Is bankruptcy fatal? Are these reasons to quit? Hardly. These are minor bumps in the road.

Money is just a number in a bank account. If it hits zero or negative, so what? Does a number in a computer database have power over you? Can it stop you from taking action? Hardly. Short of being physically restrained, what can stop you from taking action? If you can physically move your body, you can still take action. If you use these events (or the fear of these events) to talk yourself out of taking action, this is no different than anyone else who runs the mental subroutines for inaction. If you aren’t physically tied up or otherwise immobilized, you can always act.

One reason I kept going was that even by that time in my life, I was already reading the biographies of very successful people. I kept seeing the same patterns. It takes time to get good at anything new. The early years of a new venture are more about figuring things out than they are about making things work well. I think this gave me an advantage because I was willing to stick it out through the tough times. I had more reasonable expectations about how long it might take. Of course I wanted to succeed faster, but I was willing to let it take as long as it took. I saw a lot of other people dabble in the field and then leave, but I hung around and kept going, despite experiencing a lot of setbacks.

When I started my blog in 2004, I was able to grow my web traffic to 100,000 visitors per month within the first 6 months… and to 400,000 visitors per month by the end of the first year. No money was spent on marketing or promotion. Even by today’s standards, that’s pretty solid growth, even though the Internet was significantly smaller back then. And it really wasn’t that difficult to achieve this. I largely expected it.

Unfortunately when people ask me how I did it, they’re mainly looking for techniques and tactics and tricks. What method can they apply to achieve similar results? I’ve shared some of those before, but the truth is that most of the time I probably wasn’t even aware of what I was doing. The actions I took were largely subconscious and habitual. If someone watched me working in late 2004 or 2005, they might have labeled some of my actions as random and impulsive. But there was a reason for them. My subconscious mind was good at spotting opportunities and instantly acting on them, and it was good at spotting dead ends and avoiding them. I did what I’d spent the previous 10 years learning how to do, much like a surgeon can go in and make a few precise snips, and they’re done. I was able to succeed much faster with this business because I’d spent the previous 10 years figuring out how to run an Internet business. Doing it again was about as difficult as making dinner — it just took longer. But people don’t want to hear my honest answer — that fast results are the result of many years spent building and refining your skills.

Many people, especially 20-somethings, seem to think that an action bias is a tool for short-term success. It isn’t. It’s a long-term process that plays out over many years and decades. It takes time to sculpt your mind to adopt the right focus, attitudes, and behaviors that will lead to success. But once you learn what you need to learn, then you can enjoy the benefits of running on autopilot in many areas of your life. You simply do what feels natural to you, and it tends to work well. What you can do in the short term though is to develop the habit of favoring action more often than not. When new opportunities and ideas present themselves, lean further in the direction of action.

If you’re thinking that a commitment is something you’ll try for 6-12 months, I doubt you’ll get very far. Surely you’ll make some interesting distinctions during that time, but you’ll have many more lessons to learn after that. You could get lucky of course, but too much luck is a dangerous thing. Lucky people are the ones who get blindsided by market downturns. It’s easy to succeed when all the dice are rolling with you, but what happens when they inevitably turn? When the rules change, can you successfully manage the new risks and maintain momentum?

Commitment

If you think it’s difficult to commit to something for so many years, you’re right. It is difficult. That’s why average and below average results are more common than exceptional results. Most people aren’t going to commit. But therein lies your greatest advantage. If you simply stick it out longer than most people, your odds of success increase.

Your field may look crowded, but that’s most likely because it’s flooded with dabblers. They’ll be gone within a year or less, replaced by new dabblers. These people don’t represent any serious competition. In fact, they’re most likely helping you. They’ll introduce new people to your field before they give up. Think of these dabblers as your volunteer marketing team. They help to expand the market for the products and services that you’ll eventually deliver.

If you read the bios of those who seem to have achieved tremendous success early in life, you’ll often see that their path to success began in childhood. Steve Wozniak, for instance, started learning about electronics when he was about 4 years old (his Dad was an engineer who worked on missile programs), and he was winning science fairs and building computers while in grammar school. Building the first Apple computer was the result of a progression that began many years earlier.

Commitment doesn’t mean trapping or limiting yourself. It’s not about putting yourself in a box or a cage. It’s about choosing a certain line of development and running with it, which isn’t that difficult to do when you discover something you really love. Then your commitment is a commitment to enjoy your life and to express what feels good to you. It’s still going to involve a lot of work, but that work is mostly a labor of love. The question is whether or not you’re willing to put in the time.

Commitment and action bias are teammates. If you have a strong action bias but your actions are random and haphazard, you’ll pile up a lot of feedback, but it will be tough to make sense of it. On the other hand if you make a commitment to pursue a certain direction, and you cultivate a strong action bias too, then you’re going to acquire feedback that you can use to go further and further down that path. This is a terrific way to experience a fulfilling life that makes you happy and contributes to others.


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