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Motion vs. Action

motion vs. action pendulum in motion

A few years ago, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it’s a book I come back to on a regular basis. In Chapter eleven, he talks about motion vs. action. They may seem like the same thing, but they’re not, at least not in this context. When you’re in motion, there’s movement, yes, but it’s not achieving results. There’s no outcome. On the other hand, when you take action, there is an outcome. A change, a result. “Sometimes motion is useful,” says Clear, “but it will never produce an outcome by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you go talk to the personal trainer, that motion will never get you in shape. Only the action of working out will get the result you’re looking to achieve.”

After reading this, I had to face the fact that I’ve spent a lot of my time in motion. I was wanting to change, wanting for things to be different. Why was my desire for change not enough to make it happen? I spent years reading self-help book after self-help book. I knew exactly how I wanted to be; I just didn’t know how to get there. Or maybe I wanted to change and, at the same time, was afraid to change. Ultimately, I can analyze and plan something all day, but if I never act on a single part of the plan, nothing’s going to happen.

The example of motion given by Merriam-Webster is a pendulum. When a pendulum is set into motion, it swings back and forth. But it can only go so far one way or the other and will eventually come back to the exact same resting place. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines action as, “a thing done. The accomplishment of a thing, usually over a period of time, in stages, or with the possibility of repetition.”

We often try to stay in motion in order to feel like we’re accomplishing something. I’ve spent so much of my time being afraid to act because I was afraid to fail or to simply be uncomfortable. I wanted to consider everything from all angles and have a fool-proof plan. I wanted to be certain that everything would go perfectly before I even considered taking action.

What I understand now is that you can’t possibly know how things are going to go or what you’ll encounter until you start. Just take one step. Then another. Then another. And rest assured that it’s not going to go as you planned, but you’ll figure it out as you’re moving along. As Merriam Webster states, action usually takes place over a period of time and in stages. But you have to start. There will be no action if you don’t act

For years, I wanted to write. After untold amounts of time trying to figure out how best to do that or what I’d write, I simply started writing with a pen in my journal for ten minutes a day. I didn’t know what to write about, so I started by writing the words, ‘I don’t know what to write about, but I want to write.’ And the words started flowing from there. That led me to realize that I’d like to have more time to write, so I began writing for thirty minutes. Then I realized that my hand can’t write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, so I started using my laptop. I went up to an hour a day. I learned how to use the voice-to-text function on my phone. Ultimately, I developed a process that, years later, continues to evolve. But this process would still be hypothetical if I hadn’t just started writing words on a piece of paper. 

Of course, I still find myself saying that I want to see a particular change or that I need to work on a particular project. When I hear myself saying the same thing over again, I try to take that as a cue to check in and see if I’m ultimately just procrastinating. Does this seem overwhelming? Am I afraid to fail? If not, okay. But if I am, I’ll try to figure out one small step that I can take. One single action that can move me forward.

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