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Reading the article in The Wall Street Journal Don’t Just Dive Into Action: Stop to Think First was like looking into a mirror: that’s me, I’ve got a bias for action. My wife might say I’m impulsive, but it’s not quite the same thing. It’s not that I act without forethought, it’s that I feel a need to take action. The most obvious example – and you may recognize yourself in this one – is traffic. I would rather take the long way round to get where I’m going, even if it takes as long or longer than sitting in traffic on the most direct route. I’d just rather be driving than sitting. And I’d rather drive myself than take an Uber.
There’s a very interesting study of soccer goalies’ strategies for defending against penalty kicks. The conclusion of the study seems obvious to me: goalies have the best chance of stopping the kick if they just stay put – they don’t move left or right. However, what is surprising in this study of professional goalies is that they jump to the left 49.3% of the time, to the right 44.4% of the time and stay put in the center only 6% of the time!
The author, Bradley R. Staatss, calls this action bias, rather than my term, bias for action, but they are the same thing: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? However, I totally disagree with his opinion on the motivation for action bias: This idea is so deeply ingrained that we are afraid to give the appearance of doing nothing, even when it is the best strategy. I doubt anyone is watching me when I take a detour to avoid sitting in traffic, even if it takes me longer and burns more gas.
He cites additional studies in favor of action bias as being driven by the opinion of others and appearances. I’d love to see a study of entrepreneurs. I believe that we all have a bias for action, we want to make things happen. And this may, on the whole, help us move our ventures forward. However, I read once that the three most important words in the English language are, Wait a minute. And Mr. Staats does make the case than when the going gets tough, the tough take the time to stop and think.
And he tells a great story about how during a meeting with his Harvard Business School professor when he was rushing through his to-do list and talking a mile a minute, the late professor David Upton held up his hand to get him to pause and said, “Brad, don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”
This advice is more in line with my blog post Results vs. Activities. If you are like me and have a bias for action, not only might it be wise to take a few moments to stop and think, you should also analyze the action you are about to take. Will it deliver a result, a measurable outcome? Making six business development phone calls a day is an activity, getting a meeting with a potential business partner is a result. So don’t fight your bias for action, just take a minute to distinguish an activity that may make you feel good because you are doing something rather than nothing, from a goal-driven task that benefits your venture.
—The Journal article was adapted from Mr. Staats’s new book, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive, published by Harvard Business Review Press. He is a professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.