Action Without Thought is Impulsiveness, Thought Without Action is Procrastination

Action with thought is impulsiveness thought without action is procrastination - Greg Githens

Impulsiveness is “the trait of acting suddenly on impulse without reflection.” Impulses are often described as “whims, sudden involuntary inclinations, unpremeditated, and instinctual urges.” Impulsiveness is good in some situations: an almost child-like quality marked by spontaneity, playfulness, and humor.

On the other hand, impulsiveness may be nothing more than bad habit and selfishness. When impulsiveness is unwanted, the message seems to be this:

think – that is, reflect at a deeper level – before acting.

The opposite of strategic thinking might be mindlessness. The characteristics of mindless thinking are little concern with outcomes, present focused, focus on concrete elements of the task, little imagination, little courage, lost in details, and unconcerned with opportunities.  When scientists want to study people with high degrees of impulsivity, they research inmates in prisons!

Procrastination is a habit of delaying action on something that is important. It is often habitual and arises from analysis paralysis, lazy thinking, fear, or unclear values. Procrastinators should take action, but don’t.

Procrastination is not an intentional delay to minimize the probability of loss.  As psychologist Piers Steel (author of the The Procrastination Equation) points out, procrastination is an irrational delay. Thus, procrastination is not strategic in the sense of avoiding threats or capturing opportunities.

Both Impulsiveness and Procrastination Are Disengaged Thinking

The extraordinary availability of gadgetry – smartphones and the like – seems rule people’s life: stories emerge of people checking for updates in the most inappropriate of places or times: church, job interviews, seminars, driving, and even sex!

Gadgetry and impulsiveness seem to go together. People need to think through the consequences.  Impulsive use of gadgetry is also procrastination, in that it defers action something important that you know you should be doing (developing a spiritual life, showing a basic courtesy to an interviewer, paying attention to new learnings, being a safe driver, being intimate).

People who thinking strategically focus on that which is important to their success. They know that there are more and less important things in life, and they need to make choices about when to be bold and when to be cautious.

To Think Strategically is to Balance Thought and Action

Both impulsiveness and procrastination seem to be in tension with each other. That means that each is a polarity to manage, and the key in any polarity is to manage a balance. How?  First, I try to monitor and manage my attention so that I don’t spend too much time in thought, and to catch myself when I am impulsively plunging into action.  Even better, I trying to both “think and do” simultaneously; with practice, it is not too hard.  Also, I find perspective in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Second, I keep in mind the idea that mistakes can easily be made (by me and by others). I constantly try to be alert for mistakes, and I have internalized that into a technique that I call The Compact Approach to Strategy.

The third thing I do is related to mistake avoidance: I maintain the vision or working definition of success for myself or the endeavor at hand. Strategic thinking is not the same as creative thinking; creative thinking is concerned with cleverness and strategic thinking is concerned with strategy and success.

Fourth, I recall experiences in agile product development organizations, where they divide work into discrete chunks, and use experimentation and prototyping.  This iterative approach gives us useful information that allows them to rapidly move towards workable ideas.  They are not concerned with the perfection; they are concerned with workable ideas that serve as small wins for betterment.

Are You “Lost in the Weeds?”

I frequently am asked a question by people who know they should be strategic, but are trapped by habit into a comfort zone of technical activities. They ask, “How do I keep myself from being lost in the weeds?”

My reply is that they first should congratulate themselves, because they are recognizing they have a problem that is limiting their effectiveness. This is not unlike addiction recovery programs; the first step is to “admit that you have a problem” and understand how this problem is affecting yourself and others.  (Admittedly, the problem of “being tactical” rather than strategic may not equate to the misery of drug addiction, but it still affects your life in that you may be missing opportunities that could lead to your success.)

“Being tactical rather than strategic” is a form of procrastination.

Regardless, being “lost in the weeds” is both a habit of spending too much time in your comfort  zone (rather than your learning zone). As basic as it may be, the advice is simple: raise up your head (pay attention) and look around (at the strategic context).

Competent strategic thinkers manage their attention, and are aware of the balance between contemplation and action. As you get more comfortable with this balance, you will find that thought and action are more similar than they are different.

How does the idea that “action without thought is impulsiveness and thought without action is procrastination” apply to your goal to be a better strategic thinker?

2 responses

  1. […] Pragmatism is the balance of action with reflection.  As I explained in this article, action without thought is impulsiveness and thought without action is procrastination. Pragmatism is concerned with innovation and it is concerned with what […]

  2. […] Most of the people who attend my seminars are project and program managers. Their work (and probably their personal life too) is oriented by the urgency of due dates. For them, time is a resource, a precious and scarce resource.  Due dates create a useful urgency, but also create stress.  The result is the frequent complaint of being “lost in the weeds,” a topic that I addressed in this article. […]

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