It’s not the thought that counts.
Too often, we’re told that stress is the result of having too much to do and expecting too much from ourselves and others—but that’s not necessarily true. Stress isn’t only caused because we do too much. It’s often caused when we do too little… too little of the right things.
What I have begun to refer to as the stress of theory is caused by lack of focused action, often on the things that matter most.
When we or others haven’t done what we should do, we feel stress. It could be a work project we’ve been putting off or delivering difficult feedback to a team member. Or, it could be something personal – a once-solid relationship becoming rocky. Maybe someone around us has made promises that are unfulfilled. Or maybe we have a leader at work who prefers to hide behind to-do lists rather than holding themselves accountable for taking strategic action.
Stress is often caused when we know that important things that should be happening are not.
But most often, the things that cause us to feel stress can be improved and can be acted on. We just choose not to – sometimes consciously and often unconsciously. So, what holds us back? An overabundance of theory, often about the most important things.
Theory comes at the expense of thoughtful and timely action on the things that matter most.
We’ve all heard the expression “paralysis by analysis.” We’ve experienced the endless conversations and meetings, the ruminating, procrastinating, complaining and excuse making. This is exhausting, demotivating and we wonder why we are stressed!
We get stuck, not wanting to take risks, not wanting to fail. By our very nature, we fear failure, and thinking and talking seems easier than doing. We’ve become excellent at excuses, which we rationalize as legitimate.
“Stress is often caused when we know that important things that should be happening are not.”
“I’m too busy.” “It’s not my job.” “I don’t want to make waves.” “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.” But this lack of action really just says: “This is not a priority for me.”
These often-unconscious choices pave the way for us to be too busy with the wrong things, where we can fool ourselves into thinking we are taking meaningful action. Being busy does not mean we are driving forward the priorities that really matter. We get caught in the status quo quicksand and it holds us down.
The problem is that theory is the silent killer of action. Too much theory creates real damage. It damages our self-confidence, it damages our relationships and it breaks trust, which is very difficult to recover. Words and thoughts become meaningless and have no value without action. We lose our credibility and ultimately, we will lose whoever is counting on us.
Of course, balance in everything is key. Although I will always choose action over theory, sound theory takes action to heights we would not otherwise reach. Sound theory leads to quality action. Thinking and talking through things is of course vital to ensuring we have enough information and understanding to act strategically and with clarity.
Taking thoughtful action requires commitment and courage. It requires being willing to fail from time to time. But it is a lot less stressful than inaction.
We know how theory causes stress. And we know what we need to do: If we can improve something, we must act on it. If we can’t, we should stop talking about it, and stop promising it to ourselves and others. Either way, we’ll reduce our stress levels. Ultimately, only strategic action counts.
When we take strategic action, we become leaders. We become masters of our environment – fearless, confident and decisive.
What’s the stress-busting way to take meaningful action?
- Always know your top priorities.
- If you’re tempted by theory, ask yourself whether further delay will help you meet your priorities.
Imagine what life would be like if we took action on our biggest priorities every day? If we chipped away at the stress that is beneath every unmet challenge? If we took the initiative and seized the opportunities? Think what it could mean to us in every aspect of our lives if we were able to move beyond theorizing and towards action and accomplishment?
If you find this vision exhilarating, you’re not alone. Most of us want to live in a world where challenges are finally addressed. Great leaders are defined not only by their greatest successes. They are defined by the courage to take the risks that are essential to those successes. They take action when others were consumed by theory.
Leaders know that informed, focused and clear action is what determines success. They know that if you’re waiting for the perfect moment or perfect outcome, you’ll never lead your life. You’ll just follow.
The stakes are great – and the cost of inaction high. Life is not a dress rehearsal. At the end of the day, what we will regret is not what we didn’t think – it’s what we didn’t do.