Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Actions vs. Activities

Do you know the difference between action and activities? Though they may seem to be same thing, they are not same. You should know the difference between these two to become successful in your life. The difference is beautifully explained by Al Secunda in his famous book “15 second principle”. Read and ask yourself often "What am I involved with right now: an action or an activity?” The question may save your life from being wasted.

- N.Ganeshan

Actions vs. Activities

Anyone pursuing excellence and well-being must learn to differentiate between two important words: actions and activities. While both connote movement and may appear to be similar, more often than not they are diametrically opposed to each other. Actions set us free, whereas activities have the ability to enslave us. Actions help us regain control of our lives, while activities perpetuate procrastination. Actions assist us in achieving our full potential, but activities lure us down unfulfilling and addictive paths. Actions, therefore, are endeavors that are related to fulfilling our needs, goals, and contentment.

To help you understand the differences between these two words, imagine that a rat is placed in a cage that contains a treadmill and lots of toys. In the middle of the cage is a red lever that, when pressed, will open the door and set him free. If the goal of the rat is freedom, no matter how fast he runs on the treadmill or how involved he becomes with his toys, he will never gain freedom. There is only one way out of jail for this rat: going directly to the red lever and pressing it. In this example, pressing the lever is the freeing action; busying himself with the treadmill and toys is the imprisoning and distracting activity.

The human condition is very similar to the rat's situation. Quite often, we will seek out activities that are not essential in helping us reach our destinations. Let's look at two examples:

If April arrives and you have not touched your tax returns, calling your accountant and setting up an emergency meeting is an action , whereas cleaning out a closet and washing your car are activities.

If you desperately want to begin a dream project (writing a novel, starting a report, getting an article published, doing a home aerobics program, creating an oil painting), taking a step toward that project is an action, while going to the movies is an activity.

Why We Avoid Taking Actions

Unfortunately, when we human beings are left to our own devices, we are much more likely to direct our attention toward seductive activities rather than toward challenging actions. This is because activities are safer to approach and engage in. They tend to contain less emotional and psychological charge, which makes them less confronting.

Because activities do not address our dreams, personal identities, or mastery, they tend to be easier to think about, begin, and complete. Actions, on the other hand, deal with more important core issues and can be more frightening. In addition, activities are about staying busy or kicking back rather than about facing our full potential, fears, and responsibilities. They are more about avoidance and unfulfilling patterns, less about risk, fulfillment, and the unknown. As a result, the feelings and emotional rewards we reap from completing activities are limiting. With low stakes come low payoffs. Perhaps Mick Jagger
was thinking about activities when he sang, "I can't get no satisfaction." What's vital to understand is that a thousand activities cannot give you the relief and self-satisfaction of one powerful action. The following double-negative saying holds a lot of wisdom: "You can never get enough of what you don't really want."

One way to distinguish between an action and an activity is to observe how you feel afterward. When you feel energized and empowered after completing a task, chances are it was an action. Here are some examples:

If you finally go back to the gym after stopping for two months and you feel like you have taken back control of your life, it was an action.

If you take a full day to clean out your entire garage and you feel free and in control of your life, it was an action.

On the other hand:
If you call a friend to discuss last night's party rather than phoning a potential new customer, and afterward you feel as though you squandered 15 minutes of your life, it was an activity.

If you watch a movie on television rather than paying bills and starting an overdue report, and you feel overwhelmed the next morning, watching television was an activity.

It's important to note that the same task might be an action one day and an activity the next. A bachelor who finally vacuums his carpet after six months is performing an action. If he continues to vacuum every day for the next month, this behavior has become a compulsive activity. A young workaholic who finally takes a vacation is performing an action. If this same executive quits her job and vacations for the next five years, she could be living out one huge activity.

By the same token, the same task can be an action for one person and an activity for another. If a relentless "party animal" shows up at one more party, this is an activity. If a shy recluse shows up at the same party, this is an action.

Bear in mind there is nothing wrong with pursuing activities as long as they are done with awareness and in moderation. We all need vacations, breaks, and escapes. What's dangerous is when we engage in a constant diet of activities and think they are actions.
The skill is in differentiating between them. At any given moment, you should be able to answer the question, "What am I involved with right now: an action or an activity?" This heightened awareness can help you to select a healthier balance between them.

- Al Secunda in “15 second principle”


  1. Wow.......really a great article...!

  2. the difference to me is similar to the difference between the head and the heart

    head is synonymous to thoughts which is connected to actions.

    heart is synonymous to feelings which is connected to activity.

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