Symbolic Lip Service in the Form of Small, Ineffective Actions

People trying to take control of their personal finances often read personal finance blogs, and then stop. By reading about the topic they check the "I'm managing my money" task box in their head…without actually taking the necessary steps to manage their money.

It'd better if they read no personal finance blog at all and thus couldn't delude themselves that they'd actually done something.

Process-obsessed people are particularly prone to "pre-mature box-checking dissonance avoidance." They approach goals like "be smart about money" by looking for little steps they can do — read blogs, research, buy budgeting software. Results-oriented people restate the goal as "have $50,000 in savings in x years" and then then focus ruthlessly to make it happen.

Other examples: buying low-fat food at the supermarket and thinking you've taken care of the "lose weight" goal (instead of busting your butt at the gym and eating less), or paying a monthly fee to and thinking you've taken care of your dating life instead of getting out and meeting women/men.

This phenomenon is something like paying "lip service" to a goal, although it is through symbolic, ineffective action rather than talking.

And because the symbolic actions delude you into thinking you've taken meaningful action, it's worse than doing nothing at all.

(thanks to Ramit Sethi, Cal Newport, and Dave Jilk for helping brainstorm this idea and providing some of the above sentences.)

8 comments on “Symbolic Lip Service in the Form of Small, Ineffective Actions
  • Great post.

    The reason why God gave us a body is to act on the physical plane. It takes real action to achieve the goals which we have set up for ourselves.

    Nobody else can do the work which you need to do for yourself.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.


  • Totally agree. I assume you read Merlin Mann’s “Real Advice Hurts” back in December ( ) … same idea, but applied to productivity “tips” and how they actually make us less productive.

    Another angle is that not only do most people who read productivity/finance blogs consider that box checked off in their heads, but so much of that information is fluff. The main goal of most popular blogs in those niches today is to generate page views for advertising — and reading five posts a day with pictures of people’s workstations and open comment threads and thinking you’re being productive just makes my efficiency consultant brain explode.

  • The data we would need to prove that the effect you’re proposing is cause for worry would be that people who take the small action are subsequently less likely to take the big action. don’t think we would find this in many circumstances. In fact, I see your seatbelt example, and I raise you the positive effects of bibliotherapy (ie, reading self-help literature; see, which is effective even when the correlation/causation effects are controlled for.

    So, I think that this whole framework is not as complete as it could be, because it ignores the large number of people who do nothing to act towards their goals. Ceteris paribus, you might as well recycle. You might as well buy low fat food at the supermarket. The best we can do is take small steps towards a much better world.

  • Guess you risk a wee bit generalizing here. In some cases, it could as well be that the budgeting software forces a first time user to seek info that he never felt the need for. Soon, it’d give him a new dimension that spurs him on to fix his lifestyle so that it might leave him a neat surplus in the end, because till now he was clueless about budgets even after sensing a dire need to have one. As Abraham Maslow says “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

  • “And because the symbolic actions delude you into thinking you’ve taken meaningful action, it’s worse than doing nothing at all.”

    That’s why I haven’t started Ramit’s book yet, because the symbolism is worse than doing nothing at all 🙂 And what about people who say, “Someday…” or “If I just had more time…”

  • I love this phrase: “premature box-checking dissonance avoidance.” However, I think truly process-oriented people are likely to create a whole process, or set of steps, for themselves, which may start with buying the budgeting software, but which includes further follow-up steps to get to an intermediate goal, like “develop clear picture of where my money goes each month.” These intermediate victories provide important emotional rewards for those who have a hard time simply setting a big goal and then plugging away at it. I think that’s why these people (I’m one of them) become process-oriented in the first place.

    Also, there’s certainly an ‘affiliation’ effect happening with the accomplishment of small, merely symbolic actions: “I’m the kind of person who tracks her spending and actively manages her budget,” for example. I can’t help but think that this new sense of identity motivates people to continue taking steps along the path to actually accomplishing real change in their lives.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *