In this post, we’ll have a discussion on the meaning of bias for action, and how to develop it.
We tend to think of robots as emotionless machines that will do whatever they are programmed to do regardless of the consequences, and often we compare them to those humans who seem to display similar type of behavior. Of the kind that follows rules first and thinks second, but the truth is that if that’s the criteria we use to judge the level of “robotness” of a person, then we’re all robots in our own way. What I mean to say is that to some degree we all once in a while give the wheel to the evolution written programs within our brains and cells. We can certainly try to suppress that kind of behavior with the goal of looking more rational, but the truth is that as much as we might be against some of evolution’s decisions, not all of them are bad. In fact, if we leverage what mother nature gave us over the millions of years we’ve been around, we can advance on our lives and careers. It’s the equivalent of using the factory engine as opposed to building a new one and trying to make it fit, and work well with the car. One example of these gifts is what is known as the bias for action.
What is bias for action?
To put it simply, bias for action is the tendency for one to convert the mental, such as ideas and plans into action. We spend most of our time with ourselves, and most of that time is spent thinking, planning, and dreaming about distant and not yet realized futures. When science tells us that 20% of our body’s energy is directed to our brains, it soon makes sense why that would be so.
Just like with any kind of preference you can think of, some people are more inclined towards taking action, while some others more about keeping their thoughts as just thoughts, like a factory that does nothing but stockpiling raw materials with no intent of turning it into something useful. Below you’ll find a few examples when this bias is at play, when it’s good, and when it’s bad.
Bias for action examples
Examples of the bias for action are everywhere, from the driven businessman/woman movies and books make us aspire to be, who as children were known for their tendency to get their hands dirty, to the workaholics of today we all use as an excuse not to work hard who completely destroy their lives because of their almost obsessive need to get things done. On the first, we see an example to follow, while on the second, just like a “don’t drink and drive” ad, a warning about what happens when you let your drive and action take the wheel for too long. Whether there really is such a thing as workaholism or not is a matter for another day, but the point I’m trying to make is that although not necessarily a tool, this tendency should be harnessed as such. Like medicine, taking it only in medicinal doses to attain the desired effect, and to stop just shy of too much.
When is it good?
Being biased towards action is good when it’s the right time. Meaning that letting ideas and plans sit on the mind for long enough for them to become bulletproof is good, but it’s when you take it too far that trains of opportunity are lost, like when you eventually hear that the idea you’ve been working on for years has made someone else millions, or when you find out that the person you’ve been thinking about calling out for a date from the past few months is now engaged. As much as we might like to think we live in a civilized world, the world we live in still holds some of the traits of the long distant past, in which a mere extra and unnecessary blink of an eye could literally mean that you’d lose your meal for some other faster and opportunist primate.
The Minimum Viable Product
In business it’s commonly known that one can’t hold on to a product idea/prototype for too long since chances are that either the product will lose its usability for the public, maybe because a better technology came along, or someone somewhere who thinks just like you will think about, and act on it quicker than you.
One somewhat example of this I was made aware of what that from the book Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang, where the author claimed to have thought about the idea of Rollerbladers before they were introduced to the market but who, due to negative feedback from relatives decided to give up on the idea. This is one of the many examples of idea postponing ending up in deep regrets for the original inventors.
To solve this problem of trying over perfect your idea the author of the book The Lean Startup proposes the idea of the minimum viable product, in which instead of waiting for people to give you positive feedback on the idea, or for the product to be so perfect the public only gives you positive reviews, you build a version of your product with the least number of features that do the job, and to release it to some segment of your target customer base. This one way to artificially create the bias for action in ourselves especially if we are of the perfectionist kind. By artificially I mean using some logic/principle to instigate you to some kind of action to which you’re not naturally inclined to take.
The 3-second rule
Another situation common to all of as is that of taking too long to take action in all or nothing kind of cases. Like for example when deciding to ask a person you’re interested in a date, or when it’s imperative that you approach the one person who has the money/connections to make your dream come true.
For this problem, there is one solution I learned from the book The Game by Neil Strauss, in which you give yourself no more than 3 seconds to take action, with the goal of doing what you have to do before you’re flooded by the array of emotions and hormones that will eventually make you paralyzed enough and over thoughtful enough to chose to do nothing. This is what I would call positive recklessness, where you chose to do something you know might end up great quickly to prevent you from giving in to the increasing negative thoughts that come when we get out of our comfort zone.
The Pomodoro Technique
Another way to look at the lack of the bias for action is procrastination. At the end of the day, procrastination is, in essence, some sort of bias towards inaction, in which regardless of how pressing the matter one can’t help itself but to start working only when the deadline is a few inches away. It’s thought in science that for some reason chronic procrastinators need that adrenaline rush that comes from being about to lose something important to be compelled to act. One way around it is the famous Pomodoro technique, in which instead of working for hours on end, you chose to work on intervals of 25-30 min followed by 5-10 min breaks. It’s believed that this works because it’s a way to trick the brain each time into believing that we won’t be spending lots of time on the task at hand, and that right after that will be fun time 🙂
We spend most of our time making decisions, and the impact of each can be so much to change our whole lives. This is the reason why when presented with a decision to make, many freeze and find themselves secluded to inaction. The person wants to make a decision, but the data is not enough to give it 100% of certainty that it is the right one, so they do nothing. There is one now somewhat popular strategy to urge people to an action that although it doesn’t appease the emotions of the person worrying, at least allows them to make the decision and it goes as follows:
When you have 40% of the evidence supporting one out of many possibilities just make the decision. The thing about the world we live in is that often it will be difficult if not impossible to be 100% certain of anything, and sometimes all we can have is small percentage points of certainty between disparate points/positions.
When is it bad?
At the extreme always lies some form of recklessness. We’re in a time in which plunging into our dreams is thought of as brave and something for the ones who do so to be proud of. Like anything in life, when you find yourself siding with the extreme, chances are that you’re wrong.
The person of today is all for the sensational and goes for it without a thought. When you think about it being biased towards action can be as detrimental as it can be good below are a few negative examples:
Leaving your day job
The first example I can think of is that of the newborn entrepreneur who reads a book or watches a speech and in a feat of inspiration chooses to leave its job to start a business forgetting that on average most businesses fail and that from the ones that do succeed, few do so overnight.
They forget that stories of success depict astronomical and quick sounding victories because the time to tell them is short. The book can only have so many pages, and the motivational speech can only have so many minutes. Leaving your job prematurely might make you look and sound like an action person, but that doesn’t make the action right/effective.
Making life-changing commitments
On the other side of decision paralysis is the need to prove how uncommon one is by making spur of the moment life-changing decisions. Leaving your job for a not yet proven and customerless business is certainly one example, but what I’m talking about here is more towards the subject of relationships. Be that romantic, like when you decide to marry a person without thinking it through because you think you found the love of your life forgetting that 1/2 marriages turn into a divorce.
There is also the classic scene on the movie in which strangers, in a binge-drinking night decide to become business partners, forgetting that a business relationship is more than just about two people agreeing on how awesome an idea is, but also about the blend of personalities, weaknesses and strengths that just like with parenting, will/will not provide the adequate environment for the birth and healthy growth of the idea into a profitable business.
The last in line and by no means the last in the long list of examples is that of investing your money on an idea without doing the adequate background work on the idea itself, the qualifications, skills, and personality of the person you’re investing in, just because you’re sure you “feel it”. The crazy thing about investing money is that even those who claim to do it 100% objectively lose money sometimes, which makes it even crazier to base your investment decisions on gut feelings.
Just like most things in life, this is one of these things that is often looked one way. We emphasize the ability to turn thought into action as this amazing trait to have that we forget that there is also the other and bad side of the coin, such that if not looked at carefully can be the source of much misery. This post is nothing more than a tour on both sides of the street. An appreciation of the pros, while not downplaying and making careful consideration of the cons. Again, at the end of the day, the bias to action can work for good and bad, and it’s only by monitoring the bad that we can fully enjoy the fruits of the good.
It is all about knowledge and experience 😉
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