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?

12 comments on “What Separates a Talker and a Doer?
  • Ben,

    First off, your take on the book Execution, priceless.

    As for the difference between a dreamer (or talker as you call it) and a doer:

    A dreamer thinks something can be done a doer knows it can be done.

    Knowing something can be done is the birthplace of execution plans and enlistment of a group to get there.


  • First, I want to thank you for bringing this subject to light. It’s an important distinction I’ve been battling the past few years.

    Second, I think one piece of the pie regarding “action habits” has to do with that short term future to a certain degree. But, there is another facet to it. Namely, being able to consistently 1) prioritize tasks according to importance rather than urgency, and 2) complete high priority tasks on a regular, daily basis.

    The completion of those high priority tasks facilitate the encouragement for the commitment to self you’ve mentioned. It also generates a confidence in success and a traceable path towards an end goal or objective. Being actionable is like adrenaline. Once you’re hooked on it, you want it more and more. The first few times, however, scare the crap out of you.

    Thanks again for the post. I appreciate your insight.

  • There’s a related distinction that I also find interesting: “workers” vs. “accomplishers.” There are people who work hard all day, accomplishing many small tasks, but that don’t actually complete many large projects. They can be quite organized and motivated, but big accomplishments elude them.

    On the other hand, you have folks who may not be the most organized in the world, and they may even suffer from frequent bouts of procrastination, but they somehow have a knack for steamrolling through projects to their completion–it might not always be pretty, but they get it done.

    This observation (based on an admittedly tiny sample of observations) has lead me to develop a theory that perhaps the single most significant factor to predict an individuals future “success” is his or her “hit-list churn rate.”

    To calculate your hit-list churn, simply make a list of all major projects you are actively working on (i.e., “launch new web site design,” “write article for XX magazine,” “decorate beddroom”), come back X days later, see how many projects you accomplished, divide by X, and you have your churn rate metric.

    In other words, perhaps, the key to productive accomplishment is not “getting things done” in the sense of a daily to-do list, but “closing projects down,” in the sense of one way or another a project gets pushed to completion and swapped out of your mental RAM (be it through carefully planned daily work or a series of crazed all-nighters).

    This is, of course, a gross simplification of the complication that underlies productivity. Furthermore, I have no data to back this concept beyond a few anecdotal observations. So I could be completely wrong here. But it’s interesting none-the-less, and I’m interested in hear other people’s thoughts on the issue based on their own experience.

  • This may sound profoundly stupid, but the most important trait about doers is that they overcome their fear and take that first step.

    Inevitably, I find that when I start to do something, it takes on a momentum of its own. I become engrossed, enter a flow state, and crank it out.

    The tough part is forcing myself to actually start.

    Dreamers dream great dreams, but never get started because of the apprehension they feel about trying to reduce them to reality.

    Doers may dream just as much, but they force themselves to take the first step. If it’s writing a book, they sit down and type the first paragraph. If it’s learning a new skill, they go to the library, check out a book, and read the first chapter.

    • I totally agree, Chris. The first is always the hardest, and usually one the train gets off the track it starts to roll under its own momentum with less mental nudging required to do steps 2, 3, 4, …

  • I love, love, love this post. The critical parts are the ones you bolded, and in early stages I’d say the most critical part is:
    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.
    So very, very important.

  • Hi Ben and everyone. I have to add thanks also for this topic of “Talkers” and “Doers”. I have several ideas and projects I want to do and everytime I get started something comes up and I have to put them on hold. Everyone’s perspective on this issue of “doers” and “dreamers” has truly inspired me to prioritize my day, to set out some time to get “started” one project/idea at a time. I’m new at blogging and plan to create a blog site today.
    Great idea Ben.

  • Though your ideas and distinctions are nice, it’s possible (and very likely) that a dreamer in one field may be a doer in another and vice-versa…

  • Nice point. The biggest difference between those who talk the talk and those who really walk the talk lies, I think, in one’s ability to accept that things might – most likely- go out of control to some degrees. Both kinds do knows there are some uncontrollable variables. Yet only the doers can accept the fact from their heart and finally go so far as to LET GO of them. And that’s the exact moment where the fear of taking risks and stepping into the unknown could somehow be overcome, enabling one to EXECUTE.
    To recap my point, it is the ability to accept the uncontrollable situation and let go.

    Ben I think you’re very much right in that perfect is the enemy of good. Perfect virtually inhibits action.

  • “By sharing your intentions with others, you introduce yet another accountability mechanism.”

    – I believe there is actually some palpable evidence to the contrary. I first became curious about this concept during the rise of Facebook, where I found an odd pattern occurring over long periods of time, both in my own status updates and those posted by my network of friends. Analysis revealed how individuals will routinely vocalize their intent to do something, their words potently laced with such ferocity and determination, but ultimately they just fall into a long succession of self-serving mini-epiphanies, never to be spoken of again.

    I realized that when I publicly posted about a goal, it became considerably less probable that I’d actually accomplish it. This became even more true when I posted about things multiple times, especially where in-depth discourse was exchanged in the comments. Next I reflected on situations where I completely neglected to share any detail of an upcoming goal and I found that my rate of accomplishment was much higher.

    This was enough for me to immediately adopt a personal best-practice which states that I’ll never publicly elude to any specific goal or intention, instead opting to share only once I’ve followed through with obtaining an outcome.

    Recently I stumbled upon an interesting article that seems to elaborate on my previous insight and thought you’d welcome the concept.

    ” Because it’s so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events, it can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality”


    • Hey Zach,
      Does this behavior necessarily discount the aforementioned statement from Ben?

      Could we not map some curve of “talk” vs. “do” from your data? And wouldn’t it naturally move in the same direction either linearly or through another curvature? Would it behave different if you added in the variable of “talk” in a group setting, versus internal “talk”, versus just 1-to-1 “talk”? Very likely.

      Regardless, wouldn’t “talk” always progress more steeply ahead of “doing”, regardless of that extra variable of sharing? Especially if we consider “talk” includes vocal speech, writing, messaging, emailing, forum discussions, documenting, and overall shared communication.

      Therefore, wouldn’t more shared talking always lead to more shared doing? Fine, the bulk would of shared epiphanies will not sound as wonderful after getting them out there, getting them off your chest. And, true, an increased feedback loop may dampen the ratio too of “doing”. But that’s ok. All of it enhances our focus on the true gems, the ones perceived as having the highest shared value. And we know it sooner than later.

      Sounding boards like you describe are wonderful. Many times the dart bounces off the board altogether, or lands on a low priority. But every once we hit a bullseye which motivates everyone around us in our circle.

      Both Ben & Zach,
      I’ve been doing a lot of writing on this very topic. Yet to publish anywhere except to my respected circle of critical thinkers. Would be happy to share with you too, and eager to see your results as you move forward!

      Regarding “inner motivation”/passion, my intuition agrees based on my life and career and focus on this topic for the last couple years. You absolutely need this, it’s the most essential force. And without identifying it, it’s very difficult to accomplish anything which matters to you or others. It’s likely you’re doing nothing but treading water, simply surviving to the next day, the next paycheck, the next job.

      At the same time, my experiences highlight that sharing puts further external pressures on myself. Perhaps external pressures won’t initially match internal ones, but as ideas are tagged with higher priority the external pressures increase. Rather, they’re likely just intertwined– I simply don’t want to let people down who are depending on me.

      People deceive themselves much more effectively than they can deceive others. This is essential for dreaming after all. We create our own inner reality (a deception so to speak) and strive to make our external reality the same.

      It can also be counter-productive too. You may tell yourself that something is important, but fail to actually act on your declaration, due to known or unknown desires and fears. We keep telling ourselves that we’ll do this one important thing, tomorrow, next week, next year… By adding externally shared pressures from other stakeholders which are depending on our results, it forces one to evaluate their internal deception and make a firm decision — either write off the action altogether or embrace it head on. No more lies.

      Jason Collins

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