in Life Optimization

The Decision-Action Gap

“If I expect to expect something at some date in the future, then I already expect that something at present.”Nicholas Taleb, ‘The Law of Iterated Expectations’ , The Black Swan

I will phrase this slightly differently: if you believe that you will believe something in the future, then you in fact already believe it now. Unless you can accurately some future earth shattering event that changes your very thought processes, this should hold true. The distance between the thought and the truth in this case is nonexistent.

Yet the same is not true of action. If you believe that you should do something in the future, that is not the same as doing it now. Obviously, this is because thinking about doing something is not the same as doing it.

But in many smaller cases, the difference between these two is not so large. I’m not talking about the absent  daydreams you think when you let your mind wander, or  the twisted fantasies that you can’t help pondering sometimes.

I mean the more mundane thoughts that pop up on a regular basis, ranging from the easily completed (I need to do my laundry) to the difficult and long (I need to write that novel). These are  thoughts that pop up with some regularity in the heads of many. The exact contents will vary from person to person, yet everyone has hypothetically actionable thoughts come through on a daily basis.

The difference is what you choose to do with that thought. At best, it gets filed away in your mental inbox, or at worst, let go to float away to oblivion. Everyone knows how it feels to come across an errant to-do item that somehow managed to slip under your radar until the last minute. And we know how easy it is to click on an email, tell yourself that you will respond to it in detail later, and then skim over that line in your inbox ten time in the next week, thinking that it was read and does not warrant attention. Then you get an irate follow up email demanding a response, and guiltily slink back to deal with it anew. Or you will periodically remember without following through; daily tormented by your personal to-do list of ‘should, could, would’s – but won’t.

The root problem here is the gap between decision and action. When you file away that email, or tell yourself you’ll do the laundry later, or otherwise push off any sort of immediate responsibility, you have already made the decision to complete the action in question. Sometimes you end up pushing it away again and again so that it never gets done, but during each time that you shirk the now, you are not consciously choosing to decline the task. You have made up your mind to do it, simply at a later date. The gap between decision and action widens.

A better method would be to shrink that decision action gap and follow through on actions as soon as possible after the decision to carry them out is made. Of course it is not always possible to complete the action in question immediately, (perhaps you notice how unkempt your room is only minutes before a pressing engagement) but rarely are you unable to complete a task within the next day. (Clean your room after you get back)

I’d say that you should immediately complete any action that is doable with the resources at hand, if the the next action step takes less time than you have available. If you goal is to write a book and you have an hour available, lock yourself away for that time and get down as many words as possible. That’s not the whole novel, but its a step in the right direction, and could lead to a success spiral that will help you continue. But if you only have ten minutes free, your writing would not be very productive for that time span, so the best option would be to file that thought away.

Simply put: complete your actionable thoughts immediately, schedule the bigger thoughts for your next free time chunk, and forget the rest of ’em. (As David Allen of Getting Things Done says, “There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.”)

Minimizing the distance between deciding to do an action and doing it is beneficial for two reasons. It leads to a higher rate of thought completion, but it also decreases your cognitive operating load. If you do something when you first think of it, you don’t have to have it lingering in your head afterwards to worry about.

It also makes you to put your money where your mouth is. You can’t lie to yourself and say you’re productive because you have all these hypothetical projects in mind. Lessening the disparity between the inside and the outside of your head is always a good thing. You can’t change reality, but you can change the way you interface with it.

My brother is a good example of someone caught in the decision action gap. He’s interested in personal productivity and writing like I am, oftentimes asking me which tools are best for doing what. He agrees that he should write daily, agrees that reading nonfiction books is good for him, agrees that television is not a constructive use of time – and yet I have not yet seen him follow those thoughts to completion. The gap between his decision to partake in the activities and their completion is so large as to prevent them ever happening. Reading about productivity is not the same as being productive. (This is a trap many get stuck in, including myself.)

What actionable thoughts have you held off completing? Are you conscious of your own decision action gap?