How to stop making excuses and start taking action
This article is about getting stuff done so I’m going to get straight to the point. It’s easy to come up with excuses not to do stuff but there are only a couple of legitimate reasons not to.
So we’re going to break down a few excuses I’ve used — and that I’ve seen others use — to accept defeat before even starting and how to turn that around to live the life of your dreams.
Apathy: Who cares? Life is meaningless and then we die.
You’re right. Life is meaningless! Invent what you want. I originally wanted to be a rockstar so I could get paid to travel the world while making my own creations. A 1/1,000,000 success rate and seriously injuring my back in my early 20s quickly changed my plans. I couldn’t even walk more than a block for three months.
I worked out two hours per day for a year to pick myself up again. While I wouldn’t be able to win the game I originally imagined, my inability to succeed at that time pushed me toward a career in tech. It took several years to learn the rules of the new game and play it well, but I still somehow found my way toward the same outcomes — getting paid to travel the world while making my own creations.
So I guess there are a few lessons here. Life is meaningless and that’s EXACTLY why you can make it out to be what you want. Just because one path doesn’t get you where you want to go, doesn’t mean that another won’t emerge and somehow get you there anyway. Always keep going, never accept defeat. Keep pushing knowing that you can reach your goals, even though it might not always be easy to see the light.
Lack of control: How can I win when the world is against me?
There are tons of things that are out of your control. But there are also a lot of things that are in your control. Here are some:
- How hard you work
- How open you are to feedback
- How quickly you learn
- How you treat people
- How determined you are
- How willing you are to do what it takes
In sales, we had a saying, “window or mirror”, as in, are you looking out the window, at things you cannot control, or in the mirror, at things that you can? If the answer is “window,” the action item is to immediately look inward, at the mirror, to understand the highest impact behaviors and beliefs you can adjust to get on track.
My first territories in my first sales job were terrible — one was a dangerous neighborhood and the other had no cell reception in a role where I was selling mobile ads. The six sales reps prior who started with my territories quit or were fired within three months. When I went to visit family in Chicago, I stopped by East Rogers Park to visit one of my restaurant prospects and there were bullet holes in the window. Changing territories as a rookie was forbidden — the options were to persist or quit. I worked double time, I learned from everyone, I read sales books.
My life became consumed with doing everything in my control to hit the goal that would unlock my next territories. I was forced to work so hard and learn the fundamentals so thoroughly that, when I finally unlocked my new territories, I exploded out of the gates. Within one day, I got to 60% of my monthly quota. In the next three months, I would go on to sell out of impressions in six different ad categories in my new territories — there were literally no more ads I could sell in those categories. This was unheard of.
If you don’t like the game you’re playing, then you can change it. It’s your game. Alter something about yourself to create an unfair advantage or change the game — like I did by switching careers from music to tech.
Fear of failure: What if I don’t succeed and my efforts are wasted? What if I embarrass myself?
I used to be just like you. Paralyzed by fear, unable to see the big picture, procrastinating until due dates. I wasn’t born action-biased or brave. I used to shake when reading in public, couldn’t ask girls out, hesitated before making important business calls.
I believe there have been a couple points in my life where I was just forced into action — even against my fear. The desire to get a date and the need to make sales so I could afford rent. Watching other guys strike up conversations over and over again with women I wanted to speak with was fairly inspiring. I think at that point I decided it was better for me to literally say anything as soon as I was inspired than say nothing at all. For sales, I just had to make calls or I would have been fired and not been able to afford rent. A strong forcing function.
Being brave and taking action are both muscles, and the only way to strengthen them is to put in the reps — one brave act at a time. The only true failure is the failure to act.
Lack of clarity: Where do I even begin?
Any great accomplishment would have looked impossible from the start, if the only step were the end. Every great leader has to take their big, hairy audacious goals and break them down into smaller steps to help them seem achievable for themselves and their teams.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. North America was discovered because of a failure to find a new route to the Indies. Sony started out making heated pads. Instagram started out as Burbn — going up against Foursquare, which was too big to overcome at the time — and then pivoted to photo sharing. Yelp started out as a direct referral app that flopped. And Slack started out as an internal tool for a popular game that made no money.
The common thread is that all of these great human achievements started somewhere, even if it wasn’t in the right place. There are two lessons here: take your goals and break them down to add clarity, and even if you can’t do that, start somewhere — anywhere.
- Break your goals down into smaller steps to add clarity.
If you are having trouble doing so, there are some frameworks that might help. ICE (Impact Confidence Effort) is one that I have practiced so much, it now feels natural whenever I aim for my most ambitious achievements.
- Make a list of all your action items (preferably in Excel or Google Sheets)
- Create three columns next to each task: Impact, Confidence, Effort
- Score each item from 1–10
- Impact: 10 = most impactful
- Confidence: 10 = 100% confidence it will work toward your end goal
- Effort: 1 = least amount of (engineering) effort to run the test
- Sort your list to show 10-impact, 10-confidence, 1-effort items first
This framework will allow you to do the easiest things that matter the most and are most likely to work.
2. If you can’t do that, then just start anywhere.
Do something — anything. Pick the easiest, most mundane task, or the most fun item from your list, and start getting things done. Buy a pad of paper so you can take better notes, get your morning workout in, or meditate for five minutes. Write it down and cross it off once done. It’s amazing how satisfying it is to cross things off the list and how the rhythm of completing tasks — even getting small wins — creates momentum to make you an unstoppable force.
Yes, you might fail, but at least you will go through the paces, and reach one of the following outcomes. You will either find another adventure that is rewarding in ways you may not have imagined, or you will be forced to learn. If the latter, the next time around you will come up with a better path and new efficiencies that were impossible to see before starting.
The only reasons to not do something
I have a theory that only about 1% of the actions we take in the pursuit of our goals — for me, building companies — are the things that we are supposed to do. I spend a large percentage of my time thinking about what not to do and making sure the things I choose to do fall within that 1%.
If you are stalling on an action because it’s not in that 1%, or you feel like you can figure out a better way of accomplishing the outcome with a more thoughtful process, then those are acceptable reasons for inaction.
Time is the only scarce resource. We must spend it wisely. It’s important to effectively prioritize high impact items, while also discovering the most efficient ways to do them. Inaction, in this case, is a deliberate choice — and an action in and of itself.
Most of the time, there isn’t a reason for inaction. If you’re hesitating, just get up and do something. You’re going to stumble along the way so get comfortable with it. Everyone does. Our success rate is not determined by how many times we stumble, but how many times we get up. That is what separates winners and losers.
You’re guaranteed to lose all of the games you don’t play.