From Theorizing to Taking Action: Make Your Next Breakthrough

  • November 27, 2012 by Corbett Barr
  • 32 Comments

It would be great if learning was all we had to do to accomplish big things, but we all know that action is the key to making progress.

So why do so many of us get stuck in the “theorizing” phase, never moving on to actually doing anything?

Dozens of potential reasons come to mind. Here are some of the biggest:

  • Uncertainty about what to do
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Fear of failure
  • Feeling like there’s always more to learn
  • Worrying you won’t be good enough to succeed
  • Good ol’ procrastination

Whatever the reasons, it’s OK to admit if you’re feeling stuck. We all spend too much time theorizing from time to time, and not enough doing. The key is to recognize when it’s happening so you can push forward to make a breakthrough.

How to Get from Theorizing to Taking Action

Whatever your goal, you’re going to have to start taking action to make any real progress. Thinking alone won’t do it.

Here’s a step-by-step process you can use to get your butt in gear:

Admit you’ll never know everything

No matter how much time you spend learning and theorizing, you’ll never know everything. The question is: how much do you need to know before starting to take action?

This is a perfect time to break out the Pareto principle (80/20 rule). 80% of what you need to know probably comes during the first 20% of study. Further time spent learning yields less and less actionable knowledge.

Instead of trying to be 100% prepared before you start, admit that you’ll never know everything. Once you have direction, you can learn the rest along the way. Some important details can’t even be truly learned without trying for yourself.

Time limit your theorizing

Let’s talk about another “law” that might be working against you. Parkinson’s law states: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

If your learning/planning/theorizing phase doesn’t have a defined deadline, it might just continue forever.

Set a deadline for when you’ll start taking action. Put a time limit on the preparation phase. Force yourself to move beyond thinking and on to doing.

Talk it out

If all of your thinking and theorizing have been done alone so far, it’s time to get an outside opinion.

Have a conversation with someone about your ideas. You might be talking yourself in circles, or you may be missing some obvious glaring issues with your plans.

By talking with someone else (even someone who has no experience on the topic), you’ll think of new things and you’ll be forced to explain yourself. Your friend or confidant might just give you the push you need to start taking action, if only by listening.

Write everything down

Remember above when I mentioned that uncertainty is one of the biggest hurdles that keep us from taking action? Well, the quickest way to erase some of that uncertainty is to start writing down an action plan.

Jot down your goals and then start working backwards from there.

What do you need to accomplish? Who needs to be involved? What resources are you missing?

Break things down into smaller and smaller tasks. When you come across something you don’t know the answer to, write the question down. Then, systematically find answers to your questions, whether via Uncle Google or by getting in touch with someone who might have the answer.

Find a mentor

Whatever you’re working towards, chances are there are plenty of people out there who have already accomplished something similar. These people can help you bust through roadblocks by helping you see things you can’t right now.

Mentors can practically see into your future, because they’ve been there, done that. They’re incredibly powerful and one of the few true shortcuts that exist in life.

If you don’t have any mentors right now, start looking for one. Be honest and reach out to people. Contact potential mentors and ask if they would mind answering a few questions. Don’t start by asking for someone to be your “mentor,” just start by asking the questions you have. If you and this person seem to “click,” you can suggest the next step.

More mentoring ideas: 44 Ways to Find a Mentor.

Get a support group

Action taking is infectious. When you’re surrounded by other people who are getting stuff done, it’s hard not to be motivated yourself.

You can use this to your advantage by organizing or joining an accountability/mastermind group. A mastermind group is a small (2-5) person group that meets regularly (weekly or every two weeks is best) to share ideas and hold each other accountable.

I’d be much further behind in my entrepreneurial life if it weren’t for mastermind groups. They’re rocket fuel for entrepreneurs or anyone else who wants to start taking massive action toward an important goal.

Take the pressure off

Another reason people never start taking action is perfectionism. It’s human nature to feel like your project has to be perfect before you release it to the world. This leads to overwhelm and keeps us from ever getting started in the first place.

To use software development and startups as analogies, this is like agile vs. waterfall methodology or classic stealth R&D vs the Lean Startup.

Instead of aiming for a perfect finished product or project, commit to evolving over time. Aim for taking enough action to have something meaningful to share with the world, then share it and evolve your plan from there.

Get outside feedback early and often and you’ll not only make it easier to take action, you’ll also end up with a better result.

Set a date

Finally, one of the best ways to get motivated to start taking action is to set a deadline for sharing some small progress with the world.

Say you’re trying to learn guitar. Your deadline could be simply that you’ll play a song in front of your spouse or significant other. The deadline isn’t to be the best guitarist in the world, it’s just a small goal in the near future that you can control the outcome of.

Planning to launch a blog? Set a date for having your design/configuration done and writing your first post.

Simple goals with close deadlines can have push you to take action you’ve been avoiding. To really make these little goals work, be sure to announce it publicly, to your mastermind group, or to someone who will hold you accountable.

Now go do it!

These steps have worked for me over and over again when I need to move beyond theorizing and start taking action.

Challenge yourself to become an action taker by accomplishing this list.

What other tips do you know for starting to take action?

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Tim Ferraris November 27, 2012 at 6:15 am

Great list.

I would add that setting a goal and making it public, i.e., available for the world to see, is a very powerful motivator.

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:11 am

Great addition, thanks Tim.

Jonathan wesley November 27, 2012 at 6:34 am

And, I’d personally add “read The War of Art”by Steven Pressfield. Few books are as convicting and motivating.

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:12 am

That’s a fantastic book. Perfect recommendation for this list Jonathan, thanks.

doi November 27, 2012 at 6:34 am

Mentoring and finding a support group really work wonders as they help you keep track of your progress ;-) Excellent tips! I know someone who desperately needs to be reminded of these steps as those mentioned above guarantees a successful outcome. Thanks for sharing them Corbett.

Alexandre B November 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

Hi Corbett,

I believe that join a mastermind is really the one thing to do. By joining one, you have to work your ass off in order to get things done on date.
That’s strange, but fear of judgement is really powerful !

Another point to add is : don’t open Corbett’s newsletter while you’re working, but when you’re done :)
All right, I’ve to get back to work !

See ya
Alexandre

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:13 am

Sorry for the interruption ;)

Marianney November 27, 2012 at 7:31 am

After trying out a couple of masterminds with different people, I’ve found one that works for me now. I’ve gotten lots of great feedback and advice and I’m this close to launching FINALLY. People are always down to be in masterminds, but sometimes the dynamics work and sometimes they don’t. Keep trying til you find one that works for you.
The rest of this advice is on point. I hadn’t thought about trying to find a mentor, but I’m going to be on the look out now.

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:14 am

Congrats Marianney, good luck with the upcoming launch. Thanks for sharing your experience with masterminds. It’s great to point out that they don’t always “fit” perfectly at first.

paul November 27, 2012 at 7:36 am

Admitting you don’t know everything is such a big step for most people. And so necessary too. There’s no way to know everything, but you can at least be as prepared as you can be.

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:17 am

Thanks Paul :)

Brandon November 27, 2012 at 7:46 am

Hey Corbett! This is exactly the kind of post I wanted to write about real estate investing! I guess people get stuck in “analysis paralysis” in more than just my niche! Thanks for the great article. I’ll be sharing this!

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:16 am

Totally, I think it exists everywhere. I tried to write this agnostic of industry because it really does apply broadly.

Holger November 27, 2012 at 7:55 am

Great post, Corbett !

Perfectionism seems to be one of the greatest mental blocks I’ve been prone to my entire life. There were so many projects I sadly dropped close to the finish line.

I know I need to get over it and most of your (epic) posts do really help me a lot on my way…

Thank you.

Darlene Cary November 27, 2012 at 9:04 am

LinkedIn can be a great resource for the mentors and support groups Corbett mentions.

Just be yourself and remember the new world order is Collaboration, not Competition.

Corbett Barr November 27, 2012 at 9:15 am

Oh, so that’s the new world order? I always wondered what it really was ;)

J. Delancy November 27, 2012 at 9:16 am

Hello Mr. Barr:

I created a blog post on a similar topic, “Motivation” which I need to take action on and find somewhere to post it. Here is what I, as a RABID procrastinator, have found. The points are taken from the unpublished post.

1. Recognize then reduce mental barriers to doing the work. That might mean creating a quiet space and killing your Twitter addiction.

2. Motivation comes in spurts but systems last. Build a system that keeps you focused and moving forward.

3. Plan small action steps not mission impossible. Presently you are building a small online business not a major corporation, act accordingly.

4.Fooling yourself for the good is better than just being foolish. If you take no steps today, its easy to convince yourself that you’ll have a marathon session tomorrow. It won’t happen. Tell yourself you will work for 15-20 minutes and you are more likely to work for 3+ hours.

I hope that this helps someone.

All The Best.

Sean Mysel November 27, 2012 at 9:37 am

Whenever you try to make a change in life whether it’s starting a business or losing weight, it’s to find your bright spots (what has worked) and shrink the change so it’s manageable. Perfect example is from the book Switch. West Virginia University wanted to do an experiment on weight loss.

What they found is much of the advice was too ambiguous, for instance “eat healthier” or “more excercise” so what two of their researchers did is focused on milk consumption. Specifically they focused on the fact that people will drink whatever is in their fridge and by switching people from whole milk to skim milk, the pounds fell off and stayed off.

I found for my business, I do great with videos, so I get my videos distributed by outlets that need quality content. It works, like Corbett says you set deadlines and work your butt off to meet them.

Well done!

Yassin Madwin November 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

Great tips Corbett , it takes willpower to start DOING things . i suggest for you to read the book ” think and grow rich” it has very inspiring tips concerning this topic.

Ryan Hanley November 27, 2012 at 10:50 am

Corbett,

Talking with trusted advisors about what I want to do is easily #1 for me. I think everyone is different, some people can simply write something down, look at it and the idea starts to take shape.

For me it’s the conversation. I think that’s why I get so much out of Podcasts as well. The audio conversation helps my brain wrap around an idea and see the path.

Great stuff dude.

hanley

Sapna November 27, 2012 at 11:49 am

I have made a great choice of finding a mentor in you. I feel I am on right track. Mentioned you on my post as well(Four GURU bloggers who can change your life).

Thanks for that.
~Sapna

Peteni Kuzwayo November 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Great post & list Corbett!

I would add: “embrace failure” and I guess it would go hand in hand with avoiding perfectionism.

So many people fear failing and yet embracing it is probably the one ingredient that fast tracks action.

Richard November 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm

It is so validating to see a post along these lines since this is a philosophy (and I didn’t even realize it was a philosophy until I saw other people share it) I totally embrace. It’s something Mark Duplas talks about a lot regarding filmmaking and the kind of never ending quest for perfection, and getting a project to a place where you are comfortable with it.

Chris Jacob November 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Hi Corbett,

Perfect timing. I’m listening to chapter 41 of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change” (p.s. excellent book http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B007AK5BW0&qid=1354052640&sr=1-1 … for a quick overview listen to this Mixergy interview http://mixergy.com/charles-duhigg-power-of-habit-interview/).

It discusses the significance of “Small Wins”.

“A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, and influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves”.

With each small win you build up momentum and habits that make you believe larger accomplishments are within reach.

I love this philosophy.

Pick 1 small win per day and achieve it.

Try and pick something small, but of the highest significance.

If you’re starting a blog, forget about everything else that is required to start a blog. Turn off your computer. Sit down with a notepad and write your first post on paper.

Writing is the most significant task you need to accomplish today.

Do it.

Like right now.

darren November 27, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Hey mate, Great post, and so true. I guess to some it up, Just do it…

Harish November 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Hey Corbett,
Great post! I have been asking similar questions on why some people launch consistently while a lot of others do not? One of the factors seems to be the ability to be ok with uncertainty. A small percent of people handle uncertainty a lot better that others and that might explain why so few people attempt to break out on their own (a small business etc). And even if people who do not handle uncertainty well do launch, they quickly become short circuited by their lack of ability to stay and be ok with the uncertainty. Luckily it seems that taking action and staying way out of the comfort zone seems to be a muscle that needs to be flexed more and more in order to develop that habit.
Unfortunately for a lot of people, life does not get messed up enough for them to be ok with high levels of uncertainty. But we often hear of stories of people hitting rock bottom and losing all fear and launching big time, perhaps because they have nothing to lose.
My two cents…thanks again for a great post!

RaHul Tilloo November 28, 2012 at 12:36 am

Hi Corbett,

Thanks for these amazing post. This post is really for me. I am in the ‘stuck’ situation right now. The main reason for that is I am a student & every time I plan and theoretize for something I get interrupted by my studies and exams. I think I really need to do is to get a mentor with whom I can discuss my strategies & how should I plan to implement them.

Ram (Gyantastic!) November 28, 2012 at 1:41 am

I learnt this in a hard way. I always had great plans for my blog but was not taking much action for them. But now after wasting 1.5 years of just thinking I’ve started taking massive actions and I can see the results through my blog.

Great post.

Stephen November 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Corbett, these are some great tips for taking action. I especially like the bit about setting a deadline on the learning period. Not only does this help spur you into action, but it also forces you to research and learn only what is necessary to get started because you know the date you’ve set is looming. Thanks for the article.

NIck November 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Corbett, great article. I really enjoy the advice on getting over uncertainty. Writing things down and talking with friends and even strangers has really help my personal/professional development.

Thanks for the article.

Rodrigo Flamenco November 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Damn good list, I learned most of this through the hardships, one that I cannot express how valuable it is is to write things down. Now I keep a journal to write my goals, and even when I’m doing just analysis of ideas, I also use a combination of Evernote to write important things down and Wunderlist to write actions I have to do to make a goal happen :)

Alex B. @DreamJobGuy December 1, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Great post, Corbett!

This fits me perfectly.. I’m the “analysis paralysis” type. Less talk, and more action!

Thanks again!

All the best,
-Alex

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