Imagine watching a video about the mind-altering benefits of meditation and then sitting down to meditate, only to realize you can’t stop thinking about the stupid thing your co-worker said, and how you would handle it next time. And then get all wound up about how unlucky you are to be stuck in the job you are in with that co-worker, and the unfairness of life, in general, while your frenemy is out posting pixel-perfect Insta pictures from her tropical beach vacation with her nauseatingly perfect family. And then feeling guilty and berating yourself for thinking these less-than-model thoughts as you hear the meditation timer go off. This, in a nutshell, is the inspiration-action gap.
We are easily inspired. But working on that inspiration? Anything but easy.
Alan Watts (1915—1973), a prolific author, speaker, and self-styled ‘philosophical entertainer’ was one of the pioneers in bringing Eastern traditions and wisdom to the West. The LA Times referred to him as “perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West.” Influenced by Buddhist traditions, Watts wrote and spoke widely on subjects of religion and philosophy and was adopted as a spiritual spokesperson of the counterculture movement that gained ground in the 1960s.
Hang up the phone when you get the message
Besides his conventional studies of Eastern spiritual literature, Watts was also known for his “experimentation” i.e., research on the use of psychedelic drugs to generate mystical and spiritual insight. In a journal published in the California Law Review, Watts detailed his experiences with psychedelics and the potential for “cosmic consciousness” but warned readers that his experiments were merely a pointer that could demonstrate what a mystical experience felt like, and not the end in itself. And that one would need to “do the work” necessary to attain spiritual awakening.
When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eyes permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.
Just to be clear—and I’m sure some of you will be disappointed—this is not an essay on the glory or pitfalls of psychedelic substances. Bummer! Rather, it is an attempt to reiterate the philosophy Watts espoused: hang up the phone once you get the message. In other words, bridge the inspiration-action gap.
The Inspiration-Action Gap
As of this writing, close to 14 million people worldwide have viewed Andy Puddicombe’s nine-minute TED talk on Mindfulness titled All it takes is 10 mindful minutes. Here is a bold claim I’m willing to stake even though I don’t have the data to back it up: Only a miniscule percentage of the 14 million people who viewed the talk actually have incorporated a regular mindfulness practice in their lives. How, you wonder, did I arrive at this completely unscientific, shocking-at-first-but-really-not-so conclusion?
Experience. And observation.
Far too many of us, myself included, are victims of the inspiration-action gap. We are too busy validating and re-validating information we already know, but rarely follow that through with corresponding action.
What the inspiration-action gap looks like
We love to read book after book about mindfulness, but don’t ever sit down to meditate. We watch videos and listen to lectures on improving our health, but keep reaching out for ice-cream after dinner and never lace up our walking shoes.
The truth is more often than not, once you’ve read one book about the power of meditation, or watch one informational video on the benefits of exercise, you’ve read and seen them all, especially if the information you first get is from a reputable source.
So, why do we constantly seek to validate and re-validate messages we already have the answer to but are unwilling to follow-through on? What exactly are we waiting for?
The answer is comically simple.
Why does the inspiration-action gap exist?
It is easy to consume than create. It’s easier to watch and listen to stories with inspiring results than it is to put in the effort hoping to achieve such results.
How pleasant it is to recline on our couches and read or watch someone else’s anecdotes, especially when all we see are their achievements as they cross the equivalent of a finish line in their endeavors. Rarely, if at all, do we get glimpses into the inevitable drudgery and grind behind the scenes.
More glory, less guts
Seeing an Olympic sprinter cross the finish line and stretch out victoriously on the track makes for great TV. But no network would waste their time filming the same athlete running practice hill repeats by themselves, day after day, because, in truth, that sort of thing wouldn’t garner any eyeballs.
That said, let’s not blame the TV networks, or TED creators, or self-help authors. Inspiration only sells when you package it cleverly by highlighting the rosy parts and downplaying the less glamorous details.
We love the glory; the guts aren’t fun to watch, let alone, do. This, essentially, is why we struggle to hang up after we get the message. The message, in many ways, is the fun part. The action, in contrast, can be tedious.
If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all. Michelangelo.
So, is there a way to bridge the inspiration-action gap?
Bridging the Inspiration-Action Gap
Yes, there is. It requires us to broadly follow these steps.
Ask what you really want
First, be honest with yourself. Do you really want the thing you are trying to get to and, more importantly, what are you willing to give up for it?
I am always inspired by minimalism. But there’s no way I’m willing to trade in my wardrobe to live in the same five pairs of white shirts and jeans. Nor am I willing to let go of my many, often single-function-kitchen appliances, in favor of a simpler, less-cluttered space.
It’s taken a while, but now, I’ve finally made peace with the fact that the objective of my minimalism video-watching is for pure entertainment rather than aspiration.
Are you “working” or working?
Motivation is the art of convincing yourself that binge-watching an entire season of your favorite TV show counts as ‘research.’
Seeking inspiration repeatedly can merely be procrastination in disguise. Instead of doing the work, it can be tempting to use inspiration as an excuse.
An example of this can be the “research” writers do. One of my favorite authors, Steven Pressfield, says this about research:
Because my books are so research-heavy, one of the questions I get asked a lot is: “How much research do you do before you begin actually writing?” The answer is, “As little as possible...” It’s not because I don’t value research. I do. I love it. It’s often the most fun part of a project. But research can be pernicious because it’s so easy to tell yourself, when you’re doing it, that you’re actually working. You’re not. You’re preparing to work.
Doing the work requires a mindset shift towards action.
Chunk it down
Most people get started on their inspirational goals, but give up shortly after, because the enormity of the task leaves them overwhelmed. Breaking complex projects into small manageable steps and creating a clear roadmap can help you build momentum and set you up nicely to see steady progress.
Dr. John Ferrari, an international researcher on the study of procrastination, gave this advice:
Forget the forest and instead look at each tree. When you see a whole big project, you think, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not due for 15 weeks, so I’ll think about that tomorrow.’ Instead, no, everything can be broken down. Let’s just cut down one tree at a time.
In an ideal world, we’d all be responsible adults and keep our promises, including the ones we make to ourselves. Right. But we are not in an ideal world, are we?
Believe it or not, we like to shaft ourselves the most, because, honestly, no one else but us would care if we don’t write that book or start that business. And when we don’t do what we said we’d, we also know how to let ourselves down gently—so we convince ourselves that our idea wasn’t a great one to begin with.
There is a simple solution to this sticky problem: recruit one or more accountability partners. By sharing your action plans with your friends, family, co-workers, maybe even strangers on the internet, you are effectively setting yourself up to be accountable to someone other than yourself. And this works, because it’s so much more difficult to BS a friend than yourself.
The only time I have an abundance of motivation is when I need to do something completely unrelated to what I should actually be doing.
It can be fun and exhilarating to be inspired by another person’s achievement, or to be seized by a new idea. But chasing after inspiring experiences without taking action is meaningless.
Genius, they say, is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. No wonder there are so few real geniuses around.