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Why is Taking Action Hard? | Scott H Young



Why is Taking Action Hard? | Scott H Young
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.


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Taking action = eventual success

Taking action = eventual success

Inaction is the biggest cause of our failures and our miseries. If we could consistently do the things we know we should do, we would be more successful, and our lives would be better. Yet we struggle to take action.



Explaining inaction

Some possible but weak reasons why action is hard:

  • Talent. But the world is full of brilliant stars that flame out and mediocre minds that build empires.
  • Preferences can explain our failure to try, but don't explain our inner struggles with inaction.
  • Capacity for effort. If your capacity for doing things is lower, it does not explain chronic bursts of activity with inevitable crashes in your goals and projects.
  • Motivation. Some people with the most reason have the hardest time taking action. 



Motivation and expectation of success create a feedback loop:
  • Your motivation to complete a task depends on the value of the reward and your expectation of success. 
  • Your expectation of success depends on your motivation.

If your projects tend to fail, your expectations are low, and motivation fades. If your projects tend to succeed, your expectations go up, and motivation stays strong.


Social-Desirability Bias

Our conscious mind may be functioning more by making reasonable-sounding explanations for its behavior rather than actually making decisions.

This means that we fail because the unconscious parts of our mind have decided not to take action. You might be convincing yourself that you want to pursue a goal when your unconscious mind is not committed to it.


Daydreams and Reality

Daydreams and Reality

We have two characteristic modes of viewing things—an abstract (or far-mode) and a concrete (or near-mode) view.

Because of the two modes, many big goals have a far-near incompatibility that can make it difficult to take action on. The person who dreams up the goal is different from the one who executes it.


Sticking Your Neck Out

Our nature may be to view the cost-benefits of taking actions and be willing to retreat to conformity instead of getting punished.

Some ventures into different kinds of actions are discouraged if they don't yield big rewards. It may explain inaction to start your own business, but a strong expectation to show up on time to work.


We're Short-Sighted

We're Short-Sighted

Procrastination may be a delaying tactic to avoid wasting energy here and now, even if you think you might work harder later on.


Get Better at Taking Action

Traditional approaches often focus on human will alone. But, our minds are complicated things, with many conscious and unconscious control mechanisms.

To take action, we need to not only have new inputs to turn us in the right direction, but also the ability to keep headed in the chosen direction.



The first views on motivation

The first views on motivation
  • At first, psychologist William James thought that only the initial act was conscious, thereafter behaviour was a spontaneous cascade of habits. He suggested we struggle with motivation when ...

Mathematics of motivation

When Ivan Pavlov and his dogs led to the discovery of learned behaviour through repeated exposure, and Edward Thorndike discovered the Law of Effect that stated that rewarded behaviours tended to increase, many psychologists were impelled to separate psychology from armchair introspection and formulated their theories as mathematical formulas.

  • The Drive x Habit Theory. Clark Hull's formula was sEr = D x sHr, which states that excitatory tendency (E) is the result of the drive (D) combined with the habit (H). The drive is nonspecific, such as hunger or thirst. The habit, however, depends on the stimulus (s) and response (r). But the theory turned out to be wrong and even opposite in many cases. 
  • Expectation x Value Theory. Drawing on ideas in economics and game theory, Edward Tolman and Kurt Lewis formulated an alternative account by evaluating motivation based on expectations. Tolman expressed the ideas as the mathematical formula: Subjective Expected Utility = Probability1 * Utility1 + P2U2 + P3U3 + … where subjective expected utility of an action equalled the motivation to act. But, if you expect a reward, why act and not simply passively wait for the expected reward? 

Motivation as change

Donald Hebb realised that existing theories were too focused on reacting to the immediate environment. Thoughts, ideas and goals could be just as strong for triggering action as sights and sounds.

Together with John Atkinson, they noted that the study of motivation had undergone a "paradigm shift", where motivation couldn't be seen as how actions get started, but how the organism decides to change its behaviour from one thing to another.

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Effort as Energy Expenditure

Effort as Energy Expenditure

Effort represents an investment of a fixed resource, like calories.

For this reason, running takes more effort than sitting. It takes more calories and strains muscles and joints. If y...

Effort as Attention

Paying attention seems to be linked to effort, since deliberate control of attention take effort.

Focus is only hard if we're trying to focus. If our attention is held automatically, focus is not an effort.

Effort as the Opposite of Habit

Effort could be seen as the opposite of something we do automatically. Effort then is what happens when we try to override an automatic pattern.

Output comes from input

If you want to have a lot of good ideas, you need to expose yourself to good ideas.

This means reading books, having conversations with interesting people, seeking out new experiences,...

Have a capture mechanism

Creative ideas often come to you when you’re not deliberately trying to solve a problem, when your mind is relaxed.

That's why your creative process must include a system to capture ideas when you have them, so you can work on them later. The simplest mechanism is simply to have a list where you keep ideas.

Incubate your ideas

Regularly review your ideas lists. Incubation helps because just as a spontaneous connection can generate an idea, an incubated idea can spontaneously mature into a plan of action if you take care of it.