Developing A Bias for Action: What is it and Why is it Important?

If you have to say “yes” your default is “no,”

A lot of former athletes don’t work out.

I know one guy, a former high school and collegiate athlete, who fell into this trap. If you talk to him, he’ll still tell you about the importance of athletics and staying in shape. He’ll also tell you about the kid’s team he coaches because of the valuable life skills sports teach.

If you ask him when he works out, he’ll say “I’ll work on that once the season is over.” And never does.

He’s never exercised outside of a team, and has no idea what to do. And that feeling of needing a plan — or even needing more time to plan to work out — holds him back. Uncertainty leads to fear.

Contrast that with a former roommate of mine.

He ran cross country in college, but hadn’t trained much in the five years since graduating. He had a full time job as an engineer and was teaching himself programming at night in the hopes of a career change (which he’s since made).

And he decided to run a marathon.

He knew a little about running, of course, but he’d never run a marathon. When I met him, he had just finished his first marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon. He was training for it in the middle of a Chicago winter.

I remember getting all layered up to hit the gym and seeing him prepare for a run. I was packing like eight separate layers of clothes, just to take a train! He was wearing two and about to run 20 miles in ice, snow, wind, and subzero weather.

He had a running group that he used for support. They met a bar 10 miles away from our house, so we would layer up, run there, drink with them, and then run back. Still in subzero weather.

What’s the difference between these two people?

One guy is constantly in search of the perfect moment. He’s busy and doesn’t have time now, but once he figures everything out, he’ll totally start working out.

The other guy started running.

It didn’t matter that he was working a full time (really more than full time) job with a varying schedule, while also trying to switch careers. He decided to run and started running.

Weather for a run?

At this point, it probably sounds like I’m dangerously close to “Just Do It” territory. You might know that I’m not a fan of “Just Do It.” I’m still not, and a “bias for action” is different.

A Bias for Action: Definition and Importance

In the “jobs” section of Amazon’s website, there’s a single page outlining the company’s leadership principles.

Among self-explanatory ideas like “Think Big” and “Earn Trust,” there’s one principle that stands out to me as underrated: “Bias for Action.”

The page doesn’t give much explanation or definition, saying simply:

“Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”

At the same time, this page is far from the only one that argues in favor of a bias for action. Entrepreneur Ramit Sethi frequently mentions a bias for action in his emails, in his articles, and on his careers page.

Jay Acunzo, a marketer renowned for his somehow-controversial belief that marketing should be about creating things that are truly valuable and interesting instead of blindly checking boxes, has an entire episode of his podcast devoted to a bias for action.

On the whole, “bias for action” is a phrase that gets a lot of attention in the marketing and startup scene. But it’s valuable for fitness and personal development too.

A bias for action is this: when you have a choice, you choose action over inaction.

It means that you don’t spend much time debating whether your approach is the 100% optimal one. You don’t wait until you “finally have enough free time” (we both know that will never actually happen). You act.

As importantly, a bias for action means that taking action is your default state. When most people do things, they have to decide to do them. When you have a bias for action, you automatically do things; not doing things is what takes a decision.

I talk a lot about planning, about preparing to go to the gym, about putting a system in place that helps you work out without needing to force yourself. And I stand by those things as important.

But none of them matter if you never actually work out.

You can plan endlessly. You can tell yourself that you’ll start actually working out once it gets warmer outside, or once this big work project is finally over.

But will you really?

A lot of people make these kinds of promises to themselves and never follow through. They aren’t actually too busy to work out: they’re just scared.

Former athlete guy? That dude was scared of going to the gym. He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t want to be judged, and he was embarrassed that his formerly athletic body had become so out of shape. So he invented the idea of not having enough time.

And to note: there’s no shame in that. Many, many people do that for fitness, and all of us do it for something.

The sub zero marathon runner? That dude realized that there would never be a perfect time, so he made it work.

Why is a “Bias for Action” Different from “Just Do It?”

“Just Do It” ignores and discounts your problems. A bias for action accounts for them.

One of my readers explained the problems with “Just Do It” better than I could ever hope to:

“’Just do it’ rubs me up the wrong way because it inherently implies that I’m lazy. Every time I hear someone tell me to “Just Do It” this is what goes through my head:
I work full time, study part time, play 2 D&D games a week and manage to fit in time for my family and my partner’s family as well as at least 1 gym session a week and meal prep for 2 people. Some weeks I even have some time for myself to read for fun!
But some days I am exhausted from my life and go get something quick and easy to eat rather than cook. Or I can’t get to the gym for more than one workout a week. “Fitspo” then tells me I’m lazy or not dedicated enough. Like if I don’t go to the gym 2 hours a day every day I’m somehow not even trying.
I have people at work where their entire life is: work, gym, meal prep, repeat. And they are on my case because I plan 14 of my 21 meals a week (plus snacks) and leave the rest to chance / whatever i feel like those days. I fit in a midweek session, proudly share this and they’re questioning why I don’t get up early and do it every day. When I say “Life gets in the way” suddenly I’m a wannabe, a try hard, or subject to a lecture on motivation. Just do it, to me, is a put down.
That’s why “JDI” rubs me the wrong way. Because I’m not always lazy, but I’m doing better than I was a year, 2 years, or hell even last week. I’m making lifestyle changes in a manner that will make them stick long term and in a way that I won’t cause physical harm to myself. Yes I could probably push harder, but I like a life balance. And…life is the reason I try to be better. I want a life back. JDI undermines the effort I put in.”

A bias for action is different. Instead of saying that you need to be constantly doing everything you could possibly do, a bias for action is the idea that you just need to do something.

If you want to work out, you may not have time for a super intense “Just Do It” workout. But I bet you can do one pushup.

A bias for action accounts for the fact that you have a life. You don’t always have to take action: sometimes you really are too busy and there really are other things to worry about.

But it also acknowledges that it’s possible to do too much planning. That, as Jay Acunzo says in his podcast, “it will never be the perfect time to [do] something, but it’s always the right time.”

Even if you can only do one pushup, that’s one pushup more than you did yesterday. It shows can workout, even if only a little, and it’s something you can build from.

And a lot of the time doing one pushup turns into a bigger workout anyway.

How Can You Develop a Bias for Action?

Developing a bias for action actually does take a little bit of planning. But it’s key that it takes only a little bit.

This what Amazon means when they say that business moves quickly. Too many businesses spend hours in meetings and boardrooms, debating layouts and formats and messaging and color schemes before anything has been created.

Amazon is saying “Stop. Let’s start by making something, and work from there.”

There’s still planning that goes into the process, but that planning is much simpler. The plan doesn’t need to be perfect up front.

I used to be a little intense about chess, and there’s a lesson from former World Champion Gary Kasparov that applies here: “It is better to have a bad plan than no plan.”

With a bad plan, you can start doing stuff. You’ll learn to make better plans over time.

With no plan you’re just spinning your wheels (if that).

Ok, so what should your plan look like when you first start working out? How complicated does it need to be?

Not complicated. You need to know two things:

  • What workout to do
  • When

The workout doesn’t need to be 100% perfect. It can be one pushup if it needs to be. If you need a workout to start with, I included a super simple one in my article about what to do one your first day at the gym.

But it doesn’t hugely matter what you start with. You can tweak the specifics later. What matters now is that you choose something to start with.

Do You Have a Bias for Action?

I have two questions for you to think about.

  1. What’s one way you can take action right now?
  2. What’s an excuse you’ve made for inaction that’s actually pretty weak once you think about it?

Originally published at routineexcellence.com on March 30, 2017.

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