February 24

Why We Spend Way More Time “Thinking” versus “Doing”

I woke up this morning, ran twelve miles, made myself a green smoothie, and meditated for half an hour…in my dream. My reality isn't so rosy. I presume you have similar experiences too. While imagination is a valuable tool, most of us spend way too much time thinking versus doing.  

Brain not storming  

I've spent a couple of hours now brainstorming topics to write about. All ideas seem meh. I could carry on my research for the perfect subject for hours, heck, days even.  

Then reality strikes. Or should I say, a deadline-induced panic starts to take hold? I stop dreaming. I can hear the whispers in my brain now. They are not so faint anymore. "Hurry up! C'mon. Start writing. Something. Anything" hustles my brain. Sadly, this only revs up my anxiety further.  

I'm grappling at straws. And, in that grim moment, I see a silver lining. A way out.

I have an idea. It is cloaked in irony. The subject I settle on is "thinking versus doing." Specifically, what causes us to spend way more time thinking about what we'd like to do instead of actually doing it? And, are there any tips and tricks to hit reset so we can move from inaction into action?

The answers are surprising, comforting, but more importantly, encouraging.

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. Dale Carnegie.

Thinking versus doing

We've all been there. We've talked a mile about how we will write a book, start a business, or climb a mountain. We've done all the research, interviewed experts and non-experts, enrolled in courses, bought books, watched videos, attended webinars. In short, we've left no stone unturned on the research. Now we just need to get started on the "doing." But, for some reason, we keep putting that off…

Why do we prefer thinking versus doing?

When you're in a tricky situation, sometimes the best words you can hear someone say to you are, "It’s. Not. Your. Fault.” So, that’s what I’m going to tell you now. Inaction is not really your fault. I’ve managed to find the perfect scapegoat we can blame—those who came before us.

Our proclivity to think instead of act can be sourced right back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Yes, just like our other ails—obesity, large feet, and our tendency to gossip, evolution has wired us to prioritize thought before action.

There are two key reasons why we’d rather think about acting than act.

1. Risk aversion

It’s all about mitigating risks.

We are wired to dodge danger. Instead of jumping into action, thinking is how we assess and avoid excessive risks. Don’t get me wrong. That risk-aversion is healthy. It is the reason we are alive today.

If our ancestors had noticed an object at a distance that resembled a sleeping lion, they would have assumed it was a lion and scurried way. It would have taken someone exceptionally daring—and stupid—to venture near and prod the object to see if it indeed was a lion. Luckily for us, that person wasn’t your, or mine, or for that matter, anyone’s ancestor. How am I so sure? Because, with that kind of couldn’t-care-less attitude, this person wouldn’t have survived long enough to further the species.

Of course, evolution had no idea that we would be all thought and no action one day. We’ve allowed our evolutionary need for safety to keep us entrenched in la-la land. We’ve become such experts at staying put that we can quickly develop legitimate reasons to do nothing. We tell ourselves tall yet believable tales.

  • Avoid exercise. You could injure yourself and make matters worse.
  • Don’t work too hard. It can cause a lot of stress.
  • Why bother starting a business? You could lose it all.

And so on.

2. Fear of failure

Another key reason it’s easier to think about climbing a mountain, or dream of starting a new business, instead of doing it is to protect ourselves from our inherent fear of failure. Most dreams are non-starters for this very reason.

If we were to fail, we may need to contend with a potential loss of face, wasted resources and effort, and blows to our confidence—factors that can deter the bravest. On the contrary, the status quo can seem not so bad. So, we stay put.

We seem to live by this philosophy: You cannot lose a game if you don’t play. 

I once worked with someone with excellent coding skills and ideas to create a unique software product. Years later, he was still part of the organization I’d met him in. He’d been promoted but was pretty much doing the same job as before. When I asked him why he hadn’t founded the next Google, he laughed it off as an overly ambitious project. Upon probing further, I found out he was terrified of losing what he had and didn’t want to take the risk.

It is the sour grapes saga all over again. When we stay in the mode of thinking versus doing, we can develop many creative reasons for why the time is not right.  

The downsides of too much planning

Let’s say you decide to pick up racquetball. You could spend hours, weeks, days, or even months doing the following.

  • Researching the best racquets
  • Finding out where to play
  • Figuring out who to play with
  • Deciding how many days and at what times you should play
  • Watching racquetball videos
  • Researching racquetball injuries

All before you set foot on the racquetball court.

The problem with over-planning

The longer the planning process takes, the more arduous and overwhelming the task in front of you becomes. If you look hard enough, you can always find good reasons not to pursue any task.

But, most disconcerting of all, you could run into information bias. It is the cognitive bias that results when we seek information for information’s sake, and we start to collect data that is superfluous to the task at hand.

Here’s an example of information bias.

Information bias

Let’s say you want to bake a cake and find a recipe in metric units that calls for 200 grams of all-purpose flour and 400 grams of sugar. The only conversions you need to know to bake the cake are from grams to cups; the recipe calls for 2 cups of flour and sugar each. That’s it. Any further information is extraneous.

But if you keep engaging in additional “research,” you may learn other facts: 1 cup is approximately 7 ounces, 1 gram is equivalent to 1000 milligrams, or that the word gram comes from Latin “gramma,” meaning a small weight but really is a derivative of the French “gramme.” Impressive. And relevant if you’re planning to take the SAT or participate in Jeopardy. To bake a fine cake, though, it’s perfectly fine not to know any of that.

Finding the balance

I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan. I’m simply saying all you need to start playing racquetball is a racquet, one person to play with, and a court to play on. That’s it. The rest of the items—the techniques, your playing schedule, injury-prevention practices, etc. are not essential for you to get started. They may become relevant later, but now is not the time to worry about them.

In short: The best way to learn to play racquetball is to play racquetball. Not think about it.

So, how do we go from the comfortable cocoon of inaction to the unstable territory of action?

How to stop thinking and start doing

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. Maya Angelou.

1. Stop researching

Steven Pressfield, in his book, “Do the work,” recommends that we go on a research diet in the initial stages of any project. That’s because research is an excellent excuse, an avoidance strategy not to do the work.

Stop researching, at least at the beginning. Start doing.

A person who has researched everything about writing and publishing platforms without getting a single word out on paper cannot, in good conscience, be called a writer.

2. Set deadlines

As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, deadlines are the ultimate inspiration. They are the reason I’m writing this very sentence. If it weren’t for deadlines, I doubt anything would get done in the world.

Proponents of perfection argue that deadlines intervene with the creative process and that outstanding creativity can only come in the absence of needing to turn in something by a due date. I concede that we need to set time aside for idea generation, but without the reality check of a date, we can totally think ourselves to death. Literally.

3. Beware of procrastination

We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead, we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.” Steven Pressfield.

In the battle of thinking versus doing, procrastination plays a crucial role in thinking’s army. Putting off till later is a great way to avoid action.

Notice when you start to push items off your to-do list to another day. It’s a sign that trouble’s brewing in paradise.

4. ABE – Always be experimenting

James Altucher, in his book, Skip the line, says you can easily test ideas through small experiments. I’d recommend reading his book—it’s chockfull of ideas on how to run tests on a tiny scale.

The key, though, is to move away from thought experiments to actual ones. Let’s say you’re trying to paint a room and would like to find the right mix of colors. You can view online pictures all day long or order dozens of color swatches and play with them.

However, unless you paint a test patch on your wall, you can’t guarantee whether you’re going to love it or regret it. That’s because many factors such as the lighting in the room, the size of the space you’re painting, the furniture in the room, the texture and transparency of the paint, etc., can significantly alter the aesthetic experience.

No amount of theorizing can replace action.

5. Add accountability

Accountability works wonders. Keeping someone informed of your progress and giving them the leeway to chastise you when you don’t follow through on your commitment is a sure way to make progress.

Make yourself accountable to someone (or to the whole world through social media.) Promise to send $25 to a friend, preferably one you’re already envious of, for every day you miss a workout. Like a slap in the face that will goad you right into action.

If you worry about giving another human being that much control, do what most people do these days anyway. Allow apps to control you. Here are some examples I found:

  • A writing app designed to cure writer’s block has an evil timer built into it. The app starts to delete words you already typed if it’s been longer than a minute since you typed new words.
  • In an online course my teen’s taking, trees (fake ones, I hope) get felled if assignments are not turned in on time.

Knowing there are consequences to inaction can be enough to whip you into action.


Intention does not equal action. You cannot think your way to success or greatness. At some point, you need to stop researching and start doing.

The best time to start was yesterday. The next best time was this morning. You’re already late. What are you waiting for?

Imperfect action beats perfect inaction – Harry Truman



Start Before You’re Ready

Start Before You’re Ready
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Get a FREE detailed step by step guide to build a practical to-do list to achieve all your life goals. 
You'll also get weekly actionable tips based on science for a healthy, productive and happy life!