How to develop a bias for action

Action and Reaction, by Yunior Hurtado Torres

Note: I never intended to publish this. I wrote it for myself when researching a bias for action. It consolidates many different sources and my own experience. I wrote it to give structure and to condense all the findings. It sat in my notes for months. Today, I decided to publish it because, in 2021, I'm doing twelve monthly challenges. February is a month when I publish something every day: an article, a book review, a tweet, or a Facebook post. Anything. Today's item is this article.


Studies find that an ability to make decisions quickly and then act upon them is one of the key factors differentiating successful people and companies from the unsuccessful.

The bias toward action doesn't guarantee success, but you're guaranteed to fail if you don't act. "If you can't play, you can't lose" principle doesn't apply here. If you don't act, you lose.

Because success is rarely achieved on the first try, and luck is always a factor, you need many attempts before luck turns in your favor.

What needs to happen, each time, to take action?

  • You need to evaluate the situation
  • You need to make a decision
  • You need necessary action based on the decision

Fail at any of these steps, and the whole process fails.

Where can you go wrong and how to fix it?

Failing to evaluate the situation properly

  • Analysis paralysis is all too common, at least for me. If I could, I would always act on 100% of the data. That's not just unrealistic, but physically impossible. I would have to know how the whole universe works, only to be able to choose what I want for breakfast. Maybe that's why I usually avoid breakfast altogether.
  • When you feel you have 70% of the information you wish you had, it's usually enough. Getting more information will take a lot of time and will not make the decision much better. And even if the additional 30% of the information makes the decision more informed, it takes so much time to collect it that before you get to the level you're satisfied with, you can have already acted on the 70%, failed, came back and acted again.
  • Stop being a perfectionist (if you are one). It's hard and uncomfortable. But stop.

Failing to make a decision

  • Most decisions are easily reversible. If the decision is a two-way door, meaning that you can walk through it both ways, don't overthink it. If you have two options you consider similar and cannot or don't want to decide, choose either one. Try it, and if it doesn't work out, go back through the door and go through the other door. Most of the decisions in life are "two-way door" types of decisions.

Failing to take action

  • You've analyzed the situation. You've made a decision based on a level of information that feels not sufficient, but that is good enough. Now it's time to act on it.
  • While it seems that most of the mistakes and failures happen at the previous two steps, it's the last step that often stops the whole process.
  • At this point, it's easy to feel accomplishment. After all, you've overcome your analysis paralysis, evaluated the situation, squashed the urge to research more and made a decision. The hardest part is done. The rest is mere implementation.
  • This is where the progress can stop, and the whole effort can get wasted. With the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, you can start planning all the steps, making mind maps, writing all the todos, creating projects in your favorite tool of the day. It all feels like progress. Yet, you're spinning your wheels in place. You're not going forward. You're not acting.
  • In this case, make a plan for just the first few steps, and take the first one. You can always add more steps later if you feel like it. Or, based on results, you can realize that it's the wrong direction and make a new mini-plan, and start again.
  • It's essential to start doing. Something that produces results and can be judged based on the outcome. Planning is not doing. A plan is not a result.

It's not natural

It's not easy or natural to develop a bias toward action. Years of schooling, then years or decades of working, with highly structured and unvarying schedules, have ingrained deep paths in our minds. Bias for action is trying to go off those paths. It's not easy, and the brain is actively resisting it. At least until it doesn't create a new path. You won't have to fight your own mind forever.

"I'm not that kind of person; I wish I were" or "It's just not me" are perfect examples of the brain sabotaging the efforts. It feels plausible, too. And easy. It's easier not to do something than to repeatedly do something that requires effort.

But a bias for action doesn't have to be a trait you're born with. It's not like you either have it or not. You can turn it into a habit. Like with all habits, it's hard while you're working to change them, but then it's easy once you've replaced the old with the new one.

Atychiphobia - Fear of Failure

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

Fear of failure is one of the most common fears (along with a social anxiety disorder) and also one of the most common reasons why we don't have a bias for action by default.

We're all afraid to fail. But when this fear becomes debilitating, when it prevents us from making decisions and then acting on them, when we're unable to progress in life because of it, that's when it becomes a real problem.

What can help with the fear of failure?

First, realize what people care about the most in their lives: themselves. Everyone cares about themselves the most, all the time. You are no more than a comet passing through their days and lives. And if that comet failed in some aspect of cometing? Who cares? The moment they see it or realize it, they have already started to forget it and to go back to thinking about themselves.

Your fear of failure paints a dark picture that people will see your failure, remember it, keep thinking about it and forever associate you with it. The reality is that the most that will happen is a short "hm, weird," and they'll never think about it again. People don't care. So why should you?

How to develop a bias for action for daily tasks

On a daily basis, developing a bias for action is all about taking small steps.

For mundane, day-to-day tasks, it's rarely about debilitating fear of failure. It's more about being overwhelmed with the multitude of options to choose from, being endlessly stuck in analyzing, weighing options, deciding, rarely moving on to the next step - doing.

Start a habit of doing something that makes you uncomfortable. Not paralyzed by fear and discomfort, but slightly out of your comfort zone.

For example, if you tend to get stuck in the overanalyzing loop, start something new. Something that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Don't like phone conversations? Make a habit of calling one person daily. Just one person. No matter who and no matter for how long. You can start with friends and family and slowly broaden the circle.

With enough practice, you'll start getting used to discomfort, and it will not be strong enough to stop you from progressing from analyzing to doing.

The other useful technique is timeboxing. Give yourself a time limit when you need to make a final decision, then act on that decision. It could be a 60-second limit to decide where to go to eat or a 2-hour limit to do all the research and decide on a project's direction. When time is up, go with what feels best at the moment. You'll feel like you haven't had enough time but ignore it and go with the decision at the end of the time limit. Then go do it. After a few times, you'll notice that even though you felt that you didn't have enough time to decide, everything turned out well. Next time, you'll be more comfortable with taking action.

How to develop a bias for action for big changes

  • Fear setting
  • Define your fear. What the worst that could happen?
  • If the worst happens, what could you do to get back under control? Would that be impossible? Hard? Time-consuming? Or maybe even easy?
  • Try to be realistic now, even if it's hard: how likely is it that the worst will happen? How likely are all the other, more realistic scenarios with better outcomes?
  • By not doing what you're considering doing, what do you give up? Financially, mentally, physically, emotionally, timewise?
  • Why are you not doing it yet? Is it only fear? Or is there anything else? Fear is normal. It shouldn't be your only reason. If it is, the chances are that you're avoiding action for no good reason.
  • Realize what it costs you if you don't take action. Assess the likelihood of the worst happening. Realize that in almost all of the cases, once you go through that door, you can always go back through almost the same door.
  • Then act.

Summary

  • To take action: evaluate the situation, make the decision, then take action based on the decision.
  • Act more quickly, with less information, make better decisions and quickly fix them if they don't work out.
  • Do it, try it, fix it. Don't obsess with the plan or details.
  • Stop being a perfectionist.
  • The faster you fail, the quicker you learn.

More good stuff