“Consider the implications of a life in which you don’t have the power, focus, or single-mindedness to do what you say you will do. Imagine the countless times your wiser self decides on a particular course of action, only to be blown off course by the merest breeze of immediate desire. There’s a helplessness, a scattered, drifting quality about such a life.”
Dan Rosenthal (quoted in The Art of Taking Action)
Did you start the new year, or the past week, or even this new day, with a clean slate? Unfortunately, I didn’t. I started it with a long list of overdue tasks.
I like the idea of ‘going with the flow’, but what if you’re floating down a river full of rocks and branches and other obstacles? What if you’ve also got your feet tangled in some river weeds and a hefty block of concrete chained to your torso? you’re not going to get anywhere fast.
It’s the same with unfinished tasks and unfulfilled dreams. They weigh us down.
The Art of Taking Action
In the book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, Gregg Krech describes taking action as:
“Doing what needs to be done – when it needs to be done – in response to the needs of the situation.”
He also equates the ability to take action with our ability to stay sane:
“Taking action is one of the most important skills you can master if you wish to maintain good mental health.”
However he does include an honest disclaimer:
“This book will give you everything you need to know to take action. What it won’t do is take the action for you.”
It’s true – reading this book once didn’t cure my procrastination, but I plan to revisit it often, as it’s one of the wisest books I’ve read on the topic – with useful essays from both Krech and a variety of other contributors. Here are a few of the ideas I liked best from Krech himself:
Getting better at procrastinating
What? Yes you read that right. Greg says:
“We can’t do everything that we would like to do or that needs to be done. So each moment we choose what to do, we’re not doing anything else. This is the art of procrastinating. Procrastinating isn’t something you need to stop doing – it’s something you need to get better at.”
This is why, he explains, knowing what’s important is so… important. He now introduces a scary word for many of us..
“Asking yourself “What is my purpose” is a good way to check on whether what you are doing is what really needs to be done. But beware. This is a dangerous question. If you ask it while watching TV, surfing the web, or reading a romance novel, you may be hard-pressed to come up with a justification for what you’re doing.”
I started to think at this point that Greg is trying to spoil our fun. However he says that we are already probably great at being spontaneous but less good at self-discipline or we wouldn’t be reading his book in the first place. Good point Greg, well made.
He also has many wise words on the following topics:
“Self-reflection allows us to pause, step back, and consider what we have done and where we’re headed.”
He describes the Naikan method of self-reflection which leads to a deeper understanding of what we receive from others and how our action affects others.
“When we stop trying to escape from things as they are, we can move forward and live in a more natural and meaningful way.”
He talks about another Japanese psychological tool, Morita Therapy – which suggests that we can’t control our thoughts even if we wanted to so rather than fighting them we should accept them.
“Morita Therapy is a wonderful approach that helps us cut through many of the excuses, explanations and stories about why we aren’t doing what we need to be doing in our lives.”
You might recognise this Japanese term that’s popular in business circles and has come to mean “continuous improvement”. It has similarities with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method. Krech explains that the basic idea of Kaizen is that:
“You actually have to do something. But what you have to do is minimal…
Start with actions that are so small, so insignificant, that there’s no resistance, no reason to procrastinate or avoid the task.”
And of course, you need to keep doing it!
“Have a clear purpose, show up, take small steps, repeat this formula daily, and be patient.”
“It takes very little effort to create momentum. One pushup, one dish washed, one photo organised, one paragraph written in your novel-to-be. Have you gone very far? No. Do you now have momentum? Yes!
And once you have momentum (you are in motion), you are more likely to continue – in motion.”
Missing a day
“You can do something every day for a month and then miss a day. Are you back at square one? Yes and No. You have to start over again and get back in motion. But you’re not the same person you were a month ago. You have different karma. You have a different history.”
So there you have it. It seems that taking action is both simple, and absurdly complicated. Understanding more about why we procrastinate is both helpful, and ultimately useless unless we act on that new knowledge.
Ultimately, like most things in life, it takes practice to get good at taking action, and starting small may well be the only sustainable way to begin a new practice.
Rather than leave you hanging, I’m going to dedicate this coming week to sharing more ideas from the essays in the book as this will helpfully serve as a reminder that there are better ways to deal with your to-do list – so stay tuned! Email subscribers will receive a summary at the end of the week.
Or, if you can’t wait for that, you can buy The Art of Taking Action now at: