When Action isn’t Enough: The Missing Ingredient for Ultimate Success

We are inundated with messages to act – from Nike’s “Just Do It” to bestsellers telling you to seize the day. I know because my profession promotes action – I’m a professional life and leadership coach who is in the business of supporting people to take action. Indeed action is important AND essential to achieve any goal BUT action without a very important ingredient is a waste of your time and energy.

Have you ever worked with a personified version of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland – someone who runs from meeting to meeting, hopping from task to task, usually telling you how busy they are, but they never quite get to their desired goal?  Perhaps this is even you. You or someone you know might have even been commended for their ability to stay busy or do so much.

Many of my new clients struggle with “so much to do”. They are left feeling less fulfilled at work and home and identify with the I Love Lucy clip of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Their focus has shifted from doing a good job to just getting the job done. Eventually satisfaction and motivation diminish as exhaustion and burnout sets in.

Sound familiar?

So what is that key ingredient that balances out all that action?  Reflection.  Taking time to reflect, question, learn, be curious, consider, and plan prior to AND after taking action is essential to satisfaction and effectiveness.  Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert in happiness studies discusses in his course that there is an important cycle between action and reflection that leads to growth and overall satisfaction in any aspect of your life.   He further states that the lack of reflection or action can hinder growth and effectiveness.

Be Curious

One of the best ways to reflect on a situation is to be curious.  Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Curiosity is a drive to seek information (Loewenstein, 1994) that helps us to understand and adapt to our environment.  It is a drive that is seen across all living creatures,  the desire to learn more. Curiosity interspersed with taking action allows us to question why we do what we do.  It allows us to re-evaluate if our actions are aligned with our goals and values.

Here is a curiosity exercise: think of a task you did or plan to do today and ask yourself at least a couple of following questions.  Seriously think about your answer – even better write it out.  Dive deep.

  • How well does this action support my desired goal?  
  • What is it I’m really wanting from this experience, action, task?  
  • What might be a more efficient, gratifying, helpful way for me to reach my goal? 
  • How can I bring joy, learning, levity, or fun to this next action?
  • How does this action serve me, my company, my family, or society?
  • How much does my to-do list align with my values?
  • What did I learn from that task?  
  • How much or little did it really aid in my ultimate goal?  
  • How might I approach this task differently next time?

Curiosity brings purpose, awareness, and comprehension to our actions and to our life. It gives what we do sustenance we would not get from blindly completing tasks.

Plan and Allow for Adjustments

One of my favorite quotes is by Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there”. The same goes for action with no reflection. Spending some time thinking about what is it you really want to achieve before you act can save you time and energy. Sometimes the tough question is – what do you really want? Action without reflection can take you on an unintentional tangent that uses up valuable resources.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Like too much doing, Tal Ben-Shahar explains, too much reflection without action hinders growth as well. Although reflection and thought-experiments are very helpful and even encouraged (especially in some industries), without the desire to act we stay in our heads and lose out on the benefits of experiential learning – the most effective way to learn.

The reflection and action cycle is truly more than the sum of its parts.  In a nutshell,  if you don’t act, you don’t get the experience from which to learn. If you don’t reflect, you can’t identify the valueof your experience. Thus, by thoughtfully cycling between reflection and action, you are able to fully grow from life’s experience for ultimate success.

Want to learn about how to bring awareness to not only your actions, but your life?  Not sure how you would answer the question, “what do you really want”? Want to integrate the action/reflection cycle into your workplace culture?  I can help you with that.  Set up a free discovery session with me here.

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