4 Words that Will Change Your Life

And Stop Letting a Tendency for Inaction Push You Around

Photo by Burst on Unsplash

I spent ninety minutes in a meeting today. We talked a lot. And yet we accomplished nothing.

It was a ridiculous waste of time. Made worse by the fact that we had the same meeting last week. Made further worse by the fact that we’ll likely repeat the cycle next week as well.

I often think that if Sisyphus’s tale happened today, he wouldn’t spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill. Instead, he’d sit through hour-long strategy sessions full of hypothetical discussions. None of which result in anyone doing anything. Setting everyone up to have the same exact discussion next time.

Personally, I think he lucked out with the boulder.

It’s never a good idea to trust people who enjoy spending their time holding circular discussions. It’s a likely sign that they’re looking for an excuse to avoid doing that thing their paid to do — you know, working.

But the real crime of these pointless hours isn’t the waste of time. It’s that they normalize inaction. As every politician and bureaucrat quickly learns, spend enough time talking without doing, and that soon becomes the standard.

I promise that this won’t just be another rant on pointless meetings. And if you’re reading this and don’t see the harm in holding these drawn-out scenario planning sessions, then you work at a better place than many of us. The ability to drive action from discussion is unappreciated until you find yourself in a place where it’s lacking. Which, unfortunately, it often is.

We do this because it’s easy and it’s safe. There’s nothing difficult about holding a discussion and making hypothetical decisions. Hypothetical decisions only carry hypothetical consequences. And very few people worry about failing hypothetically.

But we also do this because our workplaces encourage it.

We now prioritize teamwork and collaboration more than ever. We’ve swung the pendulum from celebrating individual expertise to pushing consensus and playing well with others. And while not a negative, our obsessive focus on “one big team” dilutes individual ownership. If everyone’s always responsible, does anyone believe that success truly rests on his or her shoulders? And when no one’s responsible, who’s there to push things forward into action?

It’s nice to promote the mentality that “we’re all in this together,” but at the end of the day, most of our work is done through individual efforts. Collaboratively and tied to a common mission for sure, but individual efforts none-the-less.

You can see the same issue play out in emergencies. If you need someone to call an ambulance, and yell into a crowd of people for someone to do it, you’d expect that with the larger the crowd, the better the odds that someone would follow through on your request.

Yet this isn’t the case. In fact, the odds of someone deciding to help are much better when it’s only one person as opposed to a group. If a group of people is around, it reduces the personal responsibility that any one person feels. Everyone’s thinking that maybe someone else will do something, so they don’t jump in to help. Meanwhile you lay there on the ground wondering why no one here is willing to pull out their phone and hit three numbers for you.

Further endangering your chance of help is how social proof bias influences our tendency to act in a group. As Cialdini describes it, “In times of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues…What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely looking for social evidence, too. And because we all prefer to be poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore, everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.”

So if you need an ambulance, don’t just yell into a group for someone to call for help. Say, “You, in the Ace of Base t-shirt, call an ambulance.”

Calibrating, of course, for the chance that the guy wearing an Ace of Base shirt in 2020 may not be the best choice.

Back to our team discussions and me throwing away 90 minutes of my life this morning. How often do we see this same hesitancy within groups at work? How frequently does everyone agree that someone needs to do something, but no one steps up to be said someone? Especially when few people agree on just what that something is.

This isn’t limited to meetings or awkward rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. It happens every day when our teams are forced to confront complex problems. Let me know if this sounds familiar:

You think that something could be a big problem. Yet you’re not sure what to do about it. Meanwhile you look around and see a bunch of other people who don’t seem too worried. You don’t look worried yourself — after all, you don’t want everyone to see you sweat over something that might not be that serious. So instead of pushing it, you sit back and take another shot of whiskey.

Or you think that you have some ideas to help out. But you didn’t create this problem, so why should you be the one to take responsibility for it? This wasn’t your fault. How dare anyone imply that! And you’re certainly not going to validate it by taking lead to solve things! Where is that whiskey anyway!

As we push the “any problem is everyone’s problem,” mindset, we condition people to avoid the accountability that comes with taking individual responsibility. Fortunately, this isn’t a hard problem to overcome. It only takes four words — what’s the next action?

Naval Ravikant once told me (and many others) that in every situation you have three options — change it, accept it, or leave it. And he credits the dissonance between our actions and our wishes in these choices as the source of our unhappiness. As he described it,

“What is not a good option is to sit around wishing you would change it but not changing it, wishing you would leave it but not leaving it, and not accepting it. It’s that struggle, that aversion, that is responsible for most of our misery.”

Most of the time, peoples’ actions align with the accept it option. They talk, they complain, they debate. All the while wishing they were in the change it option. And yet, nothing ever changes…

Which is why asking what’s the next action? is such a valuable tool. It pulls everyone out of their hypothetical castle and brings them back into the real world. It forces people to reconcile with this choice — accept it, change it, or leave it. And it fights the behaviors that drive inaction by providing clarity, commitment, decisiveness, ownership, inspiration, and resilience.

Clarity. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” Too often, we find ourselves paralyzed by indecision and a lack of clarity. We don’t know where to start. So we just don’t start. Which isn’t entirely irrational, all things considered.

Except that time doesn’t really care about you or your problems. It’s not there to sort things out while you wait. If anything, it’s going to make that issue even more urgent and critical in the face of inaction. Pushing a next action — even a non-ideal one — may not immediately provide the final solution. But it clarifies the picture and, at the very least, begins narrowing down viable options.

Commitment. Before I agree to support a task team or council, I do a quick check to see whether it has a chance of being successful. Namely, I check the ratio of opinion-givers to workers. Opinion-givers are those that excel in offering their advice, but refuse to commit any of their resources to implementing a solution. Too many opinion-givers and you get a lot of fancy thoughts without anyone willing to do the work to make them a reality. There also tends to be an inverse relationship between the complexity of a suggestion and the responsibility someone has in implementing it.

The enemy of every hypothetical discussion is the moment that resources are applied to an action. Resources mean that it’s no longer conceptual, that we’re serious enough to allocate some of our time and money to bringing it into reality. Pushing a next action drives this commitment, and tests how serious we are about taking on this problem.

Decisiveness. I once had a manager who couldn’t make any decisions. He was so afraid of offending anyone or making a wrong move, every decision was determined by popular vote — or delayed to the point that it was obsolete. Not only did we not get anything done, it was deeply corrosive to morale.

Everyone wants to make good decisions, but often a good decision today is better than a better one tomorrow. To balance the need for reasoned action, Colin Powell operates on a 40–70 rule for decision-making. He says that when you face a tough decision, you should have between 40% and 70% of the relevant information. Less than 40% and you’re rolling the dice too much. Waiting for more than 70% and you’ll fail to quickly adapt into new situations.

I know what you’re thinking — how am I supposed to know whether I have 40 or 70% of the information? To which I’d suggest that they’re more like loose guidelines than strict tolerances. Moving on.

Ownership. If you go on social media, it’s possible to find examples of how every single demographic group is being simultaneously marginalized at this very moment. And while there are many people who are victimized each day, there’s a growing population that are happy to promote self-righteous outrage over even the most inadvertent slight. This tendency to blame the world around us for our situation affects how we behave each day. Didn’t get the promotion you wanted? Clearly your boss is an idiot and can’t see your true genius. Your team didn’t come through on the project? Obviously you’re surrounded by a group of incompetent people.

Pushing for next action is a constant guard against this victim mindset. Like it or not, we are always responsible for our response to a situation. Even choosing to blame everyone else and play the victim card is still choosing a response. Pushing ourselves to choose a next action reminds us of this fact — and makes us conscious of the choice we make.

Inspiration. When Tim Ferriss described his writing process, he said that his quota is two crappy pages per day. He keeps his threshold low so that he doesn’t become intimidated to start. The idea being that if he forces himself to write two crappy pages, the act of writing often inspires him to keep going well beyond that minimum.

It’s easy to sit back and wait for inspiration to strike. Except that often leads to a whole lot of sitting around and not a lot of working. Legendary painter Chuck Close, in describing how he “never had painter’s block” in his whole life, wrote, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would have never dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’”

Action isn’t just the result of our inspiration, it’s often the cause of it. The simple act of taking the next action creates momentum that inspires the next one. Action leads to inspiration. Inspiration leads to motivation. Motivation leads to further action. And the flywheel keeps turning.

Resilience. But what if it doesn’t work out? What if that next action is a complete failure? To which we should all think, oh well. Taking the next action among an array of uncertain options is rarely a life-or-death situation. And very few of our decisions are 100% irreversible. Instead, they’re experiments where we test one idea, learn something, then figure out the next step from there.

Consider a scientist who’s afraid to run an experiment because she doesn’t know whether her hypothesis will be correct. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? The entire point of an experiment is to gain results and continue learning. Focusing on the next action takes the sting out of failure. You’re taking action and any result is progress. You didn’t fail — you just clarified reality and set yourself up to take a better action next time.

It’s become a cliché to say that life’s about the journey, not the destination. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a call for continued action. It’s recognizing that as we go through life, we’ll struggle. And it asks, when this happens, how will we respond?

Every worthwhile journey will contain its share of setbacks. It will have failures and struggles and most importantly, indecision as to whether we should continue down this path.

How we respond to that indecision is what determines whether we stop that journey. The moment we choose to let inaction take over, we’ve chosen our new destination.

And, if we’ve chosen it based on hesitation to move forward, rarely will it a good one.

Relentlessly focusing on the next action keeps the journey moving. It reminds us that whatever struggles or problems we’re facing today, they too will be temporary as we continue moving forward with purpose. As Goethe put it, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”

What’s your next action? And hopefully it’s not to call another meeting.

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.