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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

Gabriel Alvarez <gaboinkl@gmail.com>

Why is taking action hard?


1 mensaje

Scott Young <newsletter@scotthyoung.com> 17 de diciembre de 2019, 11:37


Para: Gabriel <gaboinkl@gmail.com>

Hello Gabriel,

You’re supposed to write an essay, but you procrastinate. The treadmill is


collecting dust in your basement. You want to learn a language, start a
business or change careers, but those ideas go nowhere. Inaction is
something we’ve all experienced.

Inaction, more than anything else, is the cause of our failures and our
miseries. If we could consistently do the things we know we ought to, life
would be much easier. Your projects would be more successful. Your goals
would become a reality. Your life could be better.

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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

We all know action is hard. But why? Why do we struggle so much to take
action?

It’s easy to simply take this for granted, to assume laziness is just an
intrinsic feature of the human psyche. But it’s also possible to imagine an
alternative where action happened without so much inner struggle.

Indeed, you don’t even have to imagine a hypothetical universe to consider


this possibility, because there are people who exist in our world who seem
to be extraordinarily good at taking action. Arnold Schwarzenegger moving
to America, becoming a famous bodybuilder, actor, entrepreneur, then
politician. Elon Musk starting PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and more. Marie
Curie winning two Nobel prizes while raising a family as a widowed mother.

There seems to be an amazingly high correlation between the ability to


take action and eventual success. Action and success are so closely
matched, that it makes the struggles we have with inaction all the more
perplexing. If success in life is often as simple as “do things, learn from
them, repeat” why do many of us get caught in loops of laziness, self-
sabotage and procrastination?

Some Possible Explanations for the Difficulty of


Doing
There’s a lot of possible reasons why action is hard. Before I try to offer
some explanations, however, I want to look at some theories that don’t do
the job very well:

1. Talent. Talent, intelligence and serendipity are multipliers of your


ability to execute. Obviously, Marie Curie was brilliant. That brilliance,
combined with picking just-the-right research project, contributed to
her discovering radium and making history. But while talent is
obviously an ingredient in success, it doesn’t seem to be all that
correlated with taking action. The world is populated by brilliant stars
that flame out and mediocre minds that build empires.
2. Preferences. I have no desire for Elon Musk’s working life. I’m okay
with the fact that this means I probably won’t have a similar level of
impact on the world. That’s a difference in preferences, which likely
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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

explains part of the range we see in how much people are willing to
work hard. But preferences can’t explain why we struggle with
ourselves so much. Why procrastinate forever on an essay you know
you’ll do eventually? Why start learning the language for weeks if you
know you’ll never get to a level where you can use it? Preferences
can explain failing to try, but they don’t work well to explain our inner
struggles with inaction.
3. Capacity for effort. Perhaps effort is simply a different kind of talent,
different from intelligence. Have a large capacity and you can easily
do a lot of things. Have a low capacity and everything is a struggle.
While this explanation does seem partly true, it doesn’t match the
pattern of struggle we experience. If your capacity for effort is lower,
why wouldn’t this just slow you down, rather than have you
experience chronic bursts of activity with inevitable crashes in your
goals and projects?
4. Motivation. Many of the people who have the hardest time taking
action have the most reason to change. Someone leading a grossly
unhealthy lifestyle will benefit the most from a small intervention,
compared to the hyper-fit trying to lower bodyfat percentage by
another 1%. If you define motivation as objectively having a good
reason to act, then there’s still a big gap in action that needs
explaining. If, instead, you define motivation as a subjective feeling,
then we’re simply back to our original puzzle: why do some people
feel motivated to do the things they should while others don’t?

My own thinking about the exact causes of inaction aren’t fully developed
yet, but I want to try to flesh out some possibilities here, as well as give
myself some directions for digging in further.

Possibility #1: Confidence

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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

A popular class of theories related to goal-setting are those known as


expectancy theories. These are essentially theories that say your
motivation to complete a task depends both on the value of the reward you
anticipate receiving, as well as your expectation that you’ll actually get that
reward.

Your expectations of success, however, also depends on your motivation.


This creates a feedback loop where your own expectation of your ability to
sustain motivation long-term influences your expectation of success, thus
influencing your motivation long-term.

A positive feedback loop can create a system where there are two possible
dynamics: an accelerating commitment as you think success is more and
more likely, and thus get more and more motivated, as well as a spiral of
lowered expectations as you get increasingly discouraged.

Since your expectations of one pursuit often influence future pursuits, this
is also something that might stabilize into a general response of doing or
inaction in your life. If your projects tend to fail, your expectations are low
and motivation withers. If your projects tend to succeed, your expectations
go up and motivation stays strong.

Possibility #2: Social-Desirability Bias

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One view of the conscious mind is that it functions more as the brain’s
public relations manager than as it’s CEO, confabulating reasonable-
sounding explanations for its behavior rather than actually calling the shots.

If so, this suggests that many of our failures of action are intentional. We
fail to take action because the unconscious parts of our mind that drive our
behavior have decided not to take action.

Where this gets interesting as a possible explanation, however, is that


sometimes inaction isn’t socially acceptable. Thus, we need to feign taking
action in order to suggest to others that we do care, even when we don’t.
This pretending may even be completely unconscious. The easiest way to
lie is to believe you’re telling the truth, so you may even convince yourself
you want to pursue a goal when really your unconscious mind is not
committed to it.

This might manifest itself in the student who procrastinates on his


homework (but doesn’t know why) because he doesn’t really want to study,
but has to get the approval and financial support of his parents. Inner
friction and anguish may be the price he pays for needing to appear like
he’s trying to take action.

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Possibility #3: Daydreams Feel Different From


Reality

Construal level theory is the idea that we have two characteristic modes of
viewing things—an abstract (or far-mode) and a concrete (or near-mode)
view.

Many big goals have a far-near incompatibility which can make them hard
to take action on. You might think about your fitness goal in terms of losing
weight, being healthy and looking great (all abstract, idealized goals). Yet,
when you go to the gym you mostly think about how hard you’re breathing,
the sweat dripping down your face and how uncomfortable it makes you.

Chronic issues of starting and stopping difficult projects likely depend on


this incompatibility of mental states. The person who dreams up the goal is
different from the person who executes on it, and coordinating those two
versions of yourself may be hard.

Possibility #4: Don’t Stick Your Neck Out

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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

It may be that our hardwiring for ambition itself is based on our


environment. Many of our ancestors lived in times when standing out,
taking actions that go beyond cultural expectations could get you killed or
exiled. Our natures, then, may be trying to sniff out the cost-benefits of
taking actions, willing to retreat to placid conformity in case those early
ventures get punished.

This might make for a theory of motivation that says, “do whatever your
culture requires you to do,” with ventures into different kinds of actions
being strongly discouraged if they don’t yield big rewards.

This may also explain why inaction seems to happen with some areas of
life (starting your own business), but not others (showing up to work on
time). In the second case, there’s a strong cultural expectation that
everybody needs to show up on time to work, whereas nobody will blame
you for not starting a company.

Our inner struggles may be our unconscious minds trying to find the
frontier of action-taking that we’re best suited for, adjusting our ambitions
and overall tendency to act based on feedback from the environment.

Possibility #5: We’re Too Short-Sighted

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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

It may also be simply that our modern environment, which is peaceful,


stable and allows for long-term accumulation of skills and resources, is
quite different from the one we’ve evolved to survive in.

In particular, human beings exhibit inconsistent time preferences for


satisfaction here and now, versus long-term rewards in the future.
Procrastination may be a delaying tactic to avoid wasting energy here and
now, even if you think you might work harder in the not-so-far future.

The ability to accumulate resources likely only started after the Neolithic
revolution, where grain agriculture allowed some to save (and steal) and
where long-term planning could actually result in evolutionary success.

This may be too short a time-scale to effectively modify our innate


psychology, but it may have allowed us to create cultural institutions that
counteract our typical short-sightedness. Since, once again, inaction is
most prevalent when we’re facing activities without strong cultural
pressures, this may suggest that our gap of inaction is due to defaulting to
our ancestral, myopic approach to life.

How Can We Get Better at Taking Action?


This subject, why we struggle to take action and how we can improve it, is
one that fascinates me. Both because it seems so simple on the surface
(“Just do it.”) but so complicated underneath (what do you do when “Just
do it” doesn’t work?).
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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

Traditional approaches to this problem have often focused on human will


as single thing. But the reality is that our minds are fabulously complicated
things, with many different integrating control mechanisms, both conscious
and unconscious. To take action, then, you need to not only have new
inputs to your conscious mind to nudge you in the right direction, but those
nudges need to translate into all the other control systems you possess to
keep you headed in that direction.

I have a lot of remaining questions:

Are there different types of inaction, or do they all have a similar core
explanation?
What separates everyday inaction from the clinical difficulties people
who suffer depression or anxiety face?
Are these simply extreme versions of the slumps and avoidance
we all face, or are they separate mechanisms?

What points in the system are most flexible for adjusting long-term
action for the least amount of effort?

As I learn more, I’ll do my best to share it with you.

___

Did you find my article “Why is Taking Action Hard?” helpful or know
somebody who would? I’d really love if you could share it:

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26/12/2019 Gmail - Why is taking action hard?

Best,
-Scott

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