What Separates a Talker and a Doer?

Calvin Newport, blog reader and PhD candidate at MIT, writes:

The reason I’m writing is to see if you’d be willing to offer some insight into a topic that I’ve been debating/discussing recently with a group of friends.

Specifically, we’ve been talking about what separates "doers" from "dreamers." That is, given two ambitious, intelligent people, both of whom have some big ideas, why does one starting getting things done, build momentum, and head toward big accomplishment, while the other one stays stuck in the dreaming stage? In other words, what constitutes the "action habit" that seems, more and more, to be the true underpinning to a lot of successful personalities?

(1) From a general perspective, what do you think explains the difference between people who talk the talk and those who execute?

(2) From a specific perspective, what’s your mindset/strategy/physiological states that fuel your day to day work? Think about an onerous project you started recently, what specifically got you going?

Important questions. Execution was a hot management fad a few years after Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote Execution, a book I found underwhelming at a tactical level but useful inasmuch as it elevated an important topic to center stage.

First, we have to be careful about bifurcating "people who talk the talk" and "people who execute." Both skills are important. For example, a CEO running a 20-employee company may be most effective if he’s a motivating, empowering influence who can articulate a clear vision and think strategically about what the business needs to do to succeed even if he’s not a terribly organized person who writes follow-up memos and Excel-spreadsheets things to death.

But, the most interesting part of this question is the difference between two people whose success is premised on executing tasks across a variety of disciplines — as is the case in most start-ups — and one seems to be able to do more quicker, while the other person spends excessive time fretting, planning, dreaming, or consulting people. Here are some differences I see:

  • People who get stuff done maintain a high commitment to themselves. They don’t want to let themselves down. The chief motivation to achieve comes from within, not external factors. It is very easy to not keep promises you make to yourself ("Gee, I think I’m going to stop smoking" or "Gee, I’m going to join the gym this month").
  • People who get stuff done strive for "good enough." Good enough is a key principle in entrepreneurship. If your aim is "perfect," the future is so far away it may be hard to get going.
  • People who get stuff done think about the short term future – At the end of meetings, they ask, "So what are the next steps?" It’s easy to analyze the present or dream about the distant future, but actionable tasks over the next 2-4 weeks is most important for keeping the ball moving.
  • People who get stuff done "dream" and "talk" as much as the next guy, but they share these dreams and ideas with others. By sharing your intentions with others, you introduce yet another accountability mechanism.

The action habit, in my opinion, is indeed a learned habit, not a permanent part of a "successful personality."

Calvin’s second question asks what mindset I bring each day that allows me to be productive. I should say I’m blessed not to have very many "onerous projects" that I loathe to work on. Loving what you do is among the biggest keys to getting stuff done and not simply talking about it. When I’m focused on work, I take a kind of "let’s kick some butt" attitude. If something is difficult, I break it down into parts and organize it on my computer where I track my to-do’s. When I’m effective and productive, I treat myself by going to the gym, eating a Cliff Bar, or making time to do a blog post.

If I ever feel like I’m letting myself down, I think about the "hit by a bus scenario." There’s a real chance that when I cross the street I will get hit by a bus and life is over. My impending mortality looms.

For me, my motivation and reward system are both internal and it drives me to write and create and analyze each day, to try to get the picture, to try to figure things out.

Readers — What constitutes the "action habit"? What mindset fuels your day to get going?

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