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Don't Confuse Motion with Action

Top view of Antoni Gaudí's spiral staircase at the Sagrada Família
Personal photo of Antoni Gaudí's spiral staircase at the Sagrada Família

“It isn't enough to think outside the box. Thinking is passive. Get used to acting outside the box.” Tim Ferriss

Whenever life gets busy and I feel pulled in many different directions, I know it's time to stop and reflect. Why am I so busy? What's the purpose of all this? What am I creating? Is it action or just motion without any tangible result? Understanding this distinction is important to me as I have been working a lot with myself over the years, to tame my built-in automatism of getting into doing mode and forgetting to take a break and just breath. I was raised in an environment of constant busyness where phrases like “don’t just sit there, come and help me with [insert random meaningless activity here]" were shouted multiple times a day. But as I learned how to give myself permission to relax, play and not to be productive every single minute of my waking life, I also started to look differently at those moments I was doing productive work. I wanted to make sure that during those hours, I was doing work that made sense for me and added up to some meaningful result on the long run.

There are not so many things I dislike, but one of them is working hard, without making any progress. (The other one is selfish people who treat others disrespectfully). I know that sometimes I need to accept that the journey to progress is not linear and going one step back is inevitable. But feeling tired and drained of energy at the end of a long day and realizing all I did was moving pieces from left to right and from right to left, that’s not even going one step back. It’s as useless as a cat flap on a submarine. Not building or creating anything, just being busy responding to someone else’s demands? No, thank you.

Over the years, and with a lot of help from different mentors, coaches and self-help books, I managed to build a personal system that helps me avoid getting into that mode too often. What I usually tell myself is “Busyness is a choice. Why do you choose to be busy right now? Whose benefit is this for?” Having clarity on what is important to spend our time on, before we enter action mode, is essential. Without clarity, we might fall into the trap of thinking we are in action mode, but all that happens is motion. Having back-to-back calls and conversations about a project, is not making progress on the project, but it gives us a false impression that we did something. That is just motion and being busy with something that will never produce any outcome. Like James Clear puts it: "Motion feels like progress. Action is progress."

If you are a perfectionist and thinker like me, you might find yourself blocked in research mode at times. You must deliver a presentation and you keep on finding new ideas, new data, new analysis that you want to read, before starting to layout the action plan and next steps. There’s always one more idea out there that you absolutely need to know before you can start writing your storyline. If you are a designer and you keep on expanding your mood board with new clippings and inspiration from others, that’s motion. The moment you sit down and start drawing the first draft of your design, you’re in action. When I write my newsletters, I have dozens of book quotes and articles saved in Pocket and Evernote and it’s always tempting to read one more chapter of that book on the subject. But I know that is usually motion. When I sit down and write one page, that’s action and doing the actual work. We need to learn how to recognize and let go of motion when it doesn’t help us anymore.

When is this state of motion taking over our lives?

Let’s imagine a simplified version of the main areas that require your focus and energy: yourself, your relationships and your work

Think about yourself for a minute and pick one area you want to improve. You might want to get fitter or learn how to cook Asian food or control your nerves in a stressful situation. To get there, you need to clarify why that goal is important to you (intrinsic motivation) and build a plan around what you need to practice, how and when you’re going to do it. Building the plan and searching for the best cookbook or online teaching platform, is motion. By just doing that, you will not become better at cooking Asian food. Spending one hour a day cooking and applying what you learn is action. The result might not be the best at first, but with time it gets better and better.

If you think about your relationships with friends and family, motion is following your best friend on Instagram and liking their last story. It gives you the illusion that you know how they’re doing and that you checked-in with them. It’s just motion. Action would be sending a comment to that Instagram story, asking them to get together for a coffee and actually meeting for a coffee. Action is making time and putting energy into nurturing that relationship and creating a real and deeper connection. If someone is important to you, make time for a call, or a video chat, or best, a face-to-face conversation.

At work, we are in motion when we are in back-to-back video calls and jump from one project to another, without actually doing the work required to move the project forward. At the end of the day, we feel drained of energy, without having done much. We didn’t create a lot of value by just being present in all those meetings, we didn’t do the actual work, we didn’t have a lot of impact. If you work in a large organization, you might get caught sometimes in endless bureaucracy and procedures that keep you busy without getting you anywhere. Beware of that trap and always remember what your values, aspirations and goals are. What is your craft? What is your unique contribution that nobody else can bring, but you?

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

The list below is not exhaustive but includes some of the reasons why we’re getting stuck into motion mode, that I observed in myself and others, throughout my life and career.

1. Lacking clarity and purpose

When we have no clear purpose and direction, we have difficulties to find the motivation to do the right things. It’s difficult to choose where to focus our attention. We spend our days in a state of languishing, like Adam Grant calls it. We go with the flow, in a reactive mode. Things happen to us, and we don’t feel in the driver’s seat. When we lack clarity, we also find it more difficult to set our goals and deadlines, because it’s not very clear why we do those things.  

 2. Fear

Whether we fear failure or being judged by others, we find ourselves stuck in motion because we don’t want others to see our weaknesses. Action comes with risks and what was once an idea, now becomes reality. And reality is imperfect. If we are not willing to take the risks and embrace the imperfections that come with taking action, sooner or later we will get stuck.

3. Perfectionism

Perfectionism comes from a sense that we’re not enough the way we are and that we must prove to the outside world, that we are competent and worthy of appreciation and acceptance. That negative thought blocks us from acting and creates a lot of anxiety. Like Anne Lamott writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.” You can find here some tips on overcoming your perfectionistic tendencies.

 4. Tendency to procrastinate

Some people’s wiring makes them more vulnerable to the moods of the fun-seeking monkey. In the absence of clear deadlines that keep them focused to deliver results, they live their days in a constant state of procrastination and doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. 

5. Being a thinker

There are certain personality traits that can have a big influence on how we approach things and how fast we act. If you are the experimenter type, you will learn by doing and you tend to dive straight into action. But if you’re more of a thinker, like me, you will want to analyze the situation from all angles and make sure you didn’t miss anything. In the knowledge-based world we live today, this tendency can get you stuck in an endless analysis paralysis mode.


6. Lacking the self-confidence to set healthy boundaries

Saying no to someone is hard. Especially if you have a default tendency to be nice to other people, or you were raised in an environment where being polite was the supreme value. But by not learning how to say no, we end up doing a lot of meaningless tasks that serve someone else’s purpose, not ours. And then one day, we find ourselves caught in motion, confused and disengaged, because we cannot find any meaning in driving other people’s projects. I like the idea of having a “to don’t list", an inventory of behaviors and practices that drain your energy, distract you, and that you must avoid at any cost.

There is hope

As with most things in life (unless it’s a gravity problem that we don’t have any control on), there is light at the end of the tunnel. We might not find the solution in one week, but if we are patient and stay long enough with the problem, our subconscious has wonderful ways of doing its magic and working the problem in the background. What we need to do is observe our behavior, reflect, and write down our observations.

If I think back, the period when I felt most overwhelmed and constantly in a motion state without moving forward, was when my son was 4. After the first few years of motherhood when my attention had to be equally split between making sure my child stays alive (50% of my time) and that I don’t get fired (the other 50%), I started to feel that I was gaining some time back. My son was old enough to spend some time on his own, so I suddenly had some time for myself. My enthusiasm to do one thousand things, pushed me into this state of constant doing and jumping on whatever was in front of me, like there was no tomorrow. I wanted to bake, do photography, read 100 books at once, write. But I was spending 0 minutes thinking why that was important for me. And I was also spending 0 minutes taking care of my own health. Unfortunately, it took an undiagnosed burnout to realize I had to stop that madness. That wake-up call combined with the realization that it was perfectly normal to ask for help, led me to discover several strategies on how to spend my time in a more meaningful way, and with the results I wanted.

1. Understand yourself: your personality, traits, and drivers. What makes you, you? There are hundreds of personality tests out there to measure the big five basic traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. My article on What is your superpower? might give you some guidance in this sense.


2. Take a step back and look at your life as whole. You can do the Wheel of Life exercise that I mentioned in other posts, and decide which area you want to focus on improving. Where do you need to act now?


3. Discover your core values. They will be your North Star, guiding you to make the best decisions that will help you long term. To me, this has been one of the most important realizations, that helped me have more peace of mind, and feel ok with myself whenever I had to say no to someone. If this is what you need, you might want to check out this detailed post on discovering your core values.


4. Increase your personal effectiveness by reviewing your long-term goals and priorities weekly. There are a few frameworks that helped me over the years: the Important vs Urgent Matrix from Stephen Covey, the Weekly Review from David Allen’s Getting Things Done method and Timeboxing that I learned after reading Nir Eyal’s Indistractable and working with Change Strategist, Andrei Rosca. If you need to review how to set better goals, read this post.

Stephen Covey's 4 Quadrants of Importance vs Urgency
Stephen Covey's 4 Quadrants

5. Focus Tactics. What works for me is playing focus music whenever I need to get something done and I don’t want to be distracted. This is a tip I learned from Dr. Sahar Yousef from UC Berkeley, and I have been using the same Pure Focus playlist for the last 4 years. There’s this short and insightful video about the science behind focus music.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that spending our time on the right activities while also enjoying what we do, is a process. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. We all need to spend time reflecting and trying different methods, until we find the right mix that works for us. But if we want to live our days with more meaning, joy and fulfillment, we need to avoid staying in a motion state for too long. We need to act with intention and learn how to be fully present and engaged in whatever we are doing. That’s where clarity, calm and confidence come together to give us an incredible feeling of well being and fulfillment.

Energy arrows illustration from Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Illustration from Essentialism by Greg McKeown

If you feel like you need more clarity in your life, but you're not sure where to start, schedule a Free Change Strategy discovery session, by writing me at or in the Contact form. We will assess together your objective and discuss different possible strategies to achieve your goals.

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