Action beats inaction

This article is the 13th of a 14-part series that explores the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly.

Five years ago, I was a different man. I had no savings, retirement or otherwise. I was literally living paycheck-to-paycheck on $42,000 a year. (Meaning: I had between $0 and $20 every time I got paid.) I was over $35,000 in debt. I had a job I hated because it had no meaning in my life. I spent my free time watching TV and playing computer games — especially World of Warcraft.

I didn't like my life, but I did nothing to change it.

Fast-forward to today. Now I have an amazing life. I'm out of debt. I have more than $20,000 in emergency savings, I max out my retirement accounts every year, and I made more than I ever have in my life in 2009. Best of all, I earned my money doing something I love: Writing about money. My work is meaningful; it helps other people while I'm helping myself. I no longer watch TV or play videogames in my spare time, but instead walk marathons and pursue other ambitious projects.

What changed? Well, to put it bluntly, I got off my ass and started doing things.

Overcoming Resistance

It's easy to read about personal finance (or any other area of self-improvement) and to say to yourself, “Yeah. That sounds nice. I really should spend less on eating out. I really should exercise more. I really should open a Roth IRA.”

It's easy to say these things to yourself, but few people actually follow through. They talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk. Instead, they sit on their hands, afraid to take action. They procrastinate because that's what seems easiest. (And sometimes they actively try to interfere with those who are bold enough to make changes in their lives.)

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about defeating procrastination — and the other things that prevent us from fulfilling our dreams: fear, rationalization, self-doubt. Pressfield calls these dream-killers Resistance. He writes (with some formatting help from me):

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark on a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others?

Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment?

Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture?

Then you know what Resistance is.

Resistance comes from the war inside you: from lack of confidence and fear of failure.

Action Beats Inaction

The best way to defeat Resistance is to actually do something, if only for ten minutes a day. Tell yourself that you'll move toward your goals for ten minutes a day. If you don't succeed, do it again. Keep going until you do succeed.

It doesn't matter if your actions are small. It doesn't matter whether your actions are “right”. It doesn't matter if you make mistakes. In fact, it doesn't matter if you fail along the way. It doesn't matter if there are other “better” things you might have done. All that matters is that you do something — that you start moving in the direction of your dreams.

  • You can only afford to pay off $10 per month on your credit cards? Do it.
  • You can only pay 1% of your income into a savings account every month? Do it.
  • You can only put $100 into your Roth IRA instead of the full $5000? Do it.

Do what you can, and do it today. Stop rationalizing. Stop saying, “I'll do this next week”. The best time to start any positive course of action is now. This isn't just New Age self-talk; it's the truth. Start saving now. Start exercising now. Start writing your book now. Start spending time with your family now.

Your life can be amazing, but the only one who's going to make that happen is you.

For more on this subject, see these past articles:

This is the 13th of a 14-part series that explores my financial philosophy. These are the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly. Other parts include:

Look for the final installment of this series next Monday.

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Ken
Ken
10 years ago

Well put. While we remain inactive about money, make no doubt money is active. If we sit back and say “tomorrow I’ll….”..the active money will benefit those who do something..Good post!

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

This reminds me, I heard the perfect example of fear of failure preventing someone from their life’s work. Recently in Atlanta, Neil Gaiman spoke about where he got the idea for one of his recent children’s books, “The Graveyard Book.” He said he got the idea in 1986, I believe, and he wrote the first couple of pages. Then he put it aside because he thought he wasn’t a good enough writer to write the book he wanted to write. And he said he came back to it in the 1990s and still felt like he wasn’t a good enough… Read more »

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
10 years ago

“It doesn’t matter if your actions are small. It doesn’t matter whether your actions are “right”. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you fail along the way. It doesn’t matter if there are other “better” things you might have done. All that matters is that you do something – that you start moving in the direction of your dreams. Great article and I especially love this paragraph. I started small almost 2 years ago saving for an emergency fund at $10.00 a week. Now it’s up to $100.00 a week plus additional savings… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I’m a big fan of small steps. Small steps are easier, not so scary but still steps in the right direction. I think money and exercise are very similar in that small steps add up to big returns. Save just $20 a week that ads up to $1000 a year. Walk around the block once a day and pretty soon you will be walking a mile. Everyone can find 10-15 minutes a day for exercise and 10-15 minutes for personal finance.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

I agree that action beats inaction when things are not going well. Taking action is taking on risk and it is by taking risks that we bring about change. Change is a positive when things are not going well. I believe that it works the other way when things are going well. When things are going well, taking action is taking a chance that you are going to change a good situation into a not-so-good situation. You still need to take risks when things are going well. Otherwise, you give up all chance of getting further ahead and set yourself… Read more »

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

Thanks for this post, J.D. I really needed it today!

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

Small steps, like Sam mentioned, seems to be one of the best ways to move toward big goals like getting out of debt, changing careers, even setting up a new computer system at home can take many days of working off a check list. Many things in adult life can seem like big daunting projects to take on. And, many things can turn into part-time jobs. The best way is to check things off – a little every day. Use a timer – a big favorite at our house. And, like a diet or exercise program that you just didn’t… Read more »

George
George
10 years ago

Great post! I have the audio version of The War of Art and found it quite interesting. Another reason that action beats inaction is that we can only learn from action. We never know what would have happened if we took an action. We only know what has happened as a result of our action. That means that the more action we take, the more we learn. We can then use what we learn to take better and more effective action. Love your series! I am very interested to read more of your story, “TV and Warcraft to Riches and… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

As someone who has *read* almost every self-help book out there, I need this advice – to overcome Resistance by Action. The books made me feel like I was making progress – the way that a person treading water is making progress. I love the idea that Action, even small actions, can lead to great change, whether in money management or elsewhere in life. Will have to check out The War of Art now (hehehe, ok, enough reading, first I’ll go write a post for the blog)

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
10 years ago

Just a caveat: during the financial meltdown of last year, those who “took action”(i.e. bailed out of stocks) only–as it turned out–made things worse for themselves. Perhaps it would be better to say, small actions in any direction, good times and bad.

2 Cents
2 Cents
10 years ago

Acting on goals and ambitions is the only way to accomplish anything. But I think taking some time to really examine what it is we want can also be beneficial. That way, our actions propel us in the right direction.

Still, as a “perpetual planner”, I definitely need to move more quickly into the implementation stage of my plans!!

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Fantastic and compelling read! So many times everyday people abdicate control of their lives to others, their friends, their families, their bosses, etc, unknowingly unwittingly. We are like hamsters on wheels exerting an incredible amount of energy to get nowhere, looking at the same dreadful scenery. When the New Year rolls in, we are often faced with the same challenges of yesteryear; no substantive meaningful progress has been made. Perhaps, that is the true measure of one’s life – when the New Year Holiday comes, are you fighting the same battles? Empowering stuff, J.D. Best wishes.

Rick
Rick
10 years ago

I agree, start off small so that the little successes build confidence. Be careful who you confide in about your goals. Some people will say it can’t be done. If you are not succeeding it could be the goal isn’t right for you. When I fail I evaluate why it happened and try a different angle. Sometimes I invest my energy elsewhere. Some of my goals I will even post on the Internet, like my recent diet, to motivate me to be disciplined. Reporting successes and failures can also help others in their endeavors. Success doesn’t have to be worldly,… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

JD, You have talked about that time of your life before, and from what I understand you were financially flailing but Kris was doing just fine and plugging along. I understand that part of the point of separate finances is so you can each have your own philosophy, but what I don’t get is how you manage that when the person you love is harming himself and putting you at risk at the same time. What would have happened at retirement if you hadn’t seen the light and reformed? Would she have looked at a 70 year old you and… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

I love this! I have really been focusing lately on breaking down my own “Resistance” by simply using those small windows of time we find throughout the day to actually DO something. For my blog, that might be brainstorming and writing down ideas for posts, starting a new post or reading some of the great stuff I have saved in my RSS reader. The key, as you put it so well, is to get off your ass. I just announced a contest called “Improve Yourself! 2010” over at my site. I need accountability, and I have heard from many others… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

This is absolutely true. I’ve been taking tiny, tiny actions slowly over the last year and I’m starting to see where it’s going. I started a Roth IRA. I’m changing my traditional IRA to an account with much lower fees. I started investing in index funds. I started a dedicated emergency fund, even though it will take years to get it to where I want it. I FINALLY made up a simple budget. It’s all coming together. Re: separate finances, we have them. Most people seem to think separate finances = separate life and that’s just not true. I could… Read more »

Mark Wolfinger
Mark Wolfinger
10 years ago

Action is better than inaction.

But only when you don’t do something stupid.

mendy
mendy
10 years ago

I have been a GRS reader for only a couple of months now. I really love everything about it and can’t wait to read everyday. this post and this site are very motivating to me. I. also realize that is just the.beginning of making the right decisions. I hope to follow through w. Making a few steps of positive action this new year. thanks for providing useful tools.

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

I agree, little steps get the ball rolling in the right direction. Over the past year, my husband and I have finally started saving money. We have a goal to buy a house by next year. We have hit some speed bumps along the way, like his business slowing down, but we keep plugging along. Even if we can only put $100 into savings in a month, we do it. I was able to pay down some debt last month, but can only make the minimum payment this month. But, as soon as I get a little more income coming… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

@Shara (#14)
Those are some great questions. To be honest, I’ve never asked Kris what she would have done if things hadn’t worked out. Maybe I’ll ask if she’s willing to write a guest post about it…

E
E
10 years ago

@ Mark #17: at least then you’d know what NOT to do in the future. 😉

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

Thank you! I love this series. This is the thinking that got me off my @$$ and starting my blog. I too was deeply in debt and the thing that hurt the most when I finally looked deeply in the mirror was how simple the solutions really were and the weird, deep reluctance to actually execute them. I am still a work in progress, but at least stumbling along the right path with steady improvement.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Thanks for the reminder! I like the focus on the general idea– this isn’t just true for finances but for every aspect of our lives.

It’s especially hard to get off my rear end during the holiday season. But getting started is often the hardest part. What a great post to start the day with.

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

I really liked this post. Action definitely beats inaction every time, but we often need a kick in the butt reminder. Procrastination/fear is my greatest self-inflicted obstacle, and it took me a long time to realize this fact. Your blog was one of the things that helped me realize it, and for that I am sincerely thankful. I still need a reminder every now and then, but now that I know I have a problem with it, I have a much easier time recognizing when I’m putting things out of fear or self-doubt, and so I can do something about… Read more »

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

Shara’s questions (#14) are very thought-provoking. I would love to hear what spouses with separate finances think of these issues.

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
10 years ago

This is a very encouraging read! I’ve been blogging for a while, but it’s only been a few months that I really started writing in line with my real, you-don’t-have-to-pay-me-for-me-to-do-this passion. Every day I struggle with the fear of failing, fear of never making it as a writer, fear of never being able to have a successful career in writing or photography or freelancing. And yet, here I am, striving every day to come up with new ideas for posts and ways to improve my blog. I would completely and totally fail if I never even tried, so at least… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I agree. Doing *something* is better than doing nothing, often even if it makes things worse (at least you know not to do that particular thing again). I wish more people would write about things they’re actually doing. I’m absolutely bored to tears lately with personal finance articles about which on line bank has the lowest interest rates, or which credit card has the most rewards points, or “here’s a list of N things that might be useful in some situation but is really just a filler post”. I wish more people would write, “I did X, here’s how, and… Read more »

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

You always have to be proactive in your life and take charge. Whether, finances, health or just lifestyle, you need to be in control to help you reach your goals and lead a better life. The more you sit around, the faster life passes you by.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Okay Tyler! Here’s a couple of concrete examples. Way back when, I signed up for a 401(k) plan. I couldn’t (or didn’t) contribute very much, but I qualified for profit-sharing. The firm ended up contributing about 80% of the initial funds, now grown to over $100K over a period of 8 years’ employment + 2 subsequent years of extremely volatile markets. Just a little nudge for those who haven’t yet signed up with their company plans! Note, this was a self-directed 401(k) and I guess my stock picks were good. Second example: when high-deductible health plans and Health Savings Accounts… Read more »

arjay
arjay
10 years ago

I completely agree with what J.D. has said here. For a long time, and even today my dream was to work in broadcasting/television news. However, I didn’t end up taking that career path. After being miserable, and finally deciding to “do this tv thing” I really can’t believe my life. I still have a day job, but it’s part-time and the other “part-time,” I get to do all kinds of media, journalism, and entertainment stuff. It’s a great double life for now, but I can’t wait until I’m fully involved with TV. All it really took was me telling myself… Read more »

M
M
10 years ago

thank you so much for your blog. I’ve been reading for two years now and have paid off $16500 in debt (with 23000 left to go) accumulated a $33000 emergency fund, a $3600 special emergency fund, started a Roth IRA that now is worth $9000, started to run and have gotten 48000 words into my novel. When I started reading I was just out of school in debt with no plan. Small steps did it. Reading the blog daily definitely helps. The best thing is the sense of security and accomplishment that comes with taking small steps over time. Thank you for what you do.

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

Unrelated comment, J.D., but I’m just wondering if the social networking (reteets, comments, other links) box in the upper left of your posts is a plugin, or is it a custom part of your layout? I know the retweet part is a plugin; I’m just wondering if you’ve modded it on your own or if it’s publicly available in the state you have now.

LiveCheap.com
LiveCheap.com
10 years ago

J.D., I couldn’t agree more with this. I’d even say that action to get you going is often good even if it has no direct impact on your goal. I’ve seen people unemployed that can’t get going, do volunteer work for a few months and it gets them stimulated. Then they are much more ready to take on the next paid job. It is utterly amazing to me that if there is a great opportunity that requires hard work, how few people will go after it due to inaction and risk aversion. If you put 10 people in a room… Read more »

dk2009
dk2009
10 years ago

As for self-improvement, I’d suggest looking into treadmill desks. Just Google “Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic” and look for articles discussing his studies with treadmill desks. It’s not for everyone (due to your specific working conditions) but certainly many could find a way to make this work with a little effort.

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

This article is a bit disingenuous. Of course it’s better to get up and do something. But telling people that won’t help them to do it. When you were spending years sitting on your ass, did you think that inactivity was a good thing? Of course not, you just weren’t motivated to make a change. Doing some introspection and actually figuring out what sparked your interest, what helped you get started – that might actually lead to some useful advice. I’m a counselor and a huge part of my job is helping people figure out how to make the changes… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

I think the point is, a lot of people are so scared of doing the wrong thing that they do nothing instead. Those are the folks JD is talking to. If you know what to do and just can’t make yourself get up and do it, then you need more help than a blog can provide. Also, a lot of people think changes have to be big to make a difference. They don’t. Some people start their weight loss journey doing nothing more than remembering to drink water every day. Some start saving with $5/month. If you have $20k of… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Of topic, I’m with Shara and Sarah, I don’t understand the separate finances for shared goals (like the house and retirement). Mr. Sam and I keep separate accounts for our day to day spending (we each get the same amount) but our long term goals – paying off the house, retirement and building a retirment/vacation house are shared so our investment plans and goals need to be coordinated.

CarA
CarA
10 years ago

Love this article. It’s great to hear success stories from others that have been there. My lifestyle has changed from a 2 check household to a 1 check household and the bills still follow–they don’t go away.
So, you really have to learn to majorly adjust your lifestyle. I’m getting there. And inspirational stories help a lot of us!

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

@Tyler – it’s hard to read about the small changes. I take a break from the frugality blogosphere for months at a time & come back, and there’s usually something new to learn. The problem is that after a great big turnaround, the rest of the story is…you keep doing the same thing and eventually you have a lot of money and then it’s a whole new problem to think about. But there’s a big gap in there where you’re occasionally learning a slightly cheaper way to do whatever you’re already doing, or a slightly better way to make money.… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

@ Sam et al, sometimes the sharing part of a shared goal is non-financial. If I waited for my husband (then boyfriend) to come up with an equal share to put towards our house, we would still be renting. If I waited for him to begin retirement planning, it would never get done. (If I leaned on him to get it done, our relationship would have ended years ago.) So I do what there is to do money-wise, and he contributes in other ways. For example, our house looks great. It’s clean, beautifully decorated, furnished with great thrift-store and yard… Read more »

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

love the post! I want you to know that the only reason I have a Roth IRA is YOUR site that kicked my butt into action. You kept mentioning it, I kept putting it off, but something finally clicked (maybe a combination of this and GFS?). I’m happy to say that I only made $10k this year, but I put $1,100 into an IRA. And I am actively working on improving my income situation to improve my overall financial picture.

Brenda
Brenda
10 years ago

Wise words, and something I’ve always advocated too. Even though my income is extremely low, I still save whenever I can. It’s not much, and some people might even look at my savings and laugh, but I’m doing whatever I *can* do. Saving even $5 or $10 a month is better than not saving anything at all, something that some low-income people refuse to see.

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

#42 Brenda~~My son had $2& some odd cents in his bank checking account . He got the monthly statement& they took it all for inactivity fee . So when you start small who does it really help , you or the bank?He only recently started back to work & it’s been no work, 2 days work, work 1 day, off 2 weeks . So now his bank account is at zero. I’m wondering if next month they will overdraw him , cause there’s nothing left in it. This is a no fee free checking account too. He is going to… Read more »

Brenda
Brenda
10 years ago

@ Lisa, #43 First off, go to a different bank! Goodness, I try to always bank with good banks who don’t resort to slapping you with all sorts of fees. If you’re in the southern USA, I highly recommend SunTrust bank. Very good bank with very few fees. If you’re in Utah, the Southern Bank of Utah is a good one. If you can’t get to these two banks, use a local credit union. Banks to STAY AWAY FROM: Chase & Bank of America. I’ve had friends who’ve had bad experiences with some semi-sleazy practices from those banks. As for… Read more »

Brenda
Brenda
10 years ago

Oh, something else I meant to add to the above statement. There are also high-interest online banks where you can save money, without it being subject to inactivity fees or monthly (at least to my knowledge there aren’t any).

ING Bank http://home.ingdirect.com/index.html
Ally Bank http://www.ally.com/index.html

Luke
Luke
10 years ago

Well put J.D. – my thoughts exactly.

I’m a fan of your blog, but haven’t felt the need to comment in the past as I’m in the UK and quite a bit of it is US-specific.

Just thought I’d mention that based on this post (and the growing realisation that while good things may come to those who wait (but it takes too long!)), I will be coming up with New Year’s resolutions for 2010 which are almost entirely based on *doing things* – not *stopping things*.

Enjoy the holidays,

Luke

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

I can completely relate to this post, I only wish I could say that I’m as happy with the things that I have accomplished! I struggle with “resistance” constantly, especially brought on by my day job. I have a dozen things I’m interested in doing, but I’m very skilled at coming up with as many excuses why I can’t. While this may sound funny, I try to motivate myself with some advice from Ben Franklin: “If you were a servant, would you not be ashamed that a good Master should catch you idle? Are you then your own Master, be… Read more »

Justin W
Justin W
10 years ago

J.D. –

I’ve been wavering on the idea of starting a blog of my own. After this post, I’ll gladly credit you as muse if I’m able to get off my ass and actually do it.

Great post. Great series, in fact. Great blog in general. Happy holidays!

Justin

Cindy
Cindy
10 years ago

You say that Resistance stems from the war inside, thus fear of failure, but I think fear of success is just as powerful. Believing (from previous experience) that people close to you will tease or give you a hard time can sometimes cause one to not try to “do better.” Wanting to be accepted by friends and relatives can be very motivating to stay in the same old rut. This is another side of the war inside.

Peter
Peter
9 years ago

JD, I’m glad you got yourself out of debt and onto better things in your life. As a 21 year old, I know action can stem off of my achievements: -being healthy -having a girlfriend -having meaningful friends that care about me -having a good part time job -finishing college in a year -studying real estate If you haven’t yet, I recommend understanding real estate and using it as an investment when the market bottoms out. A roth IRA is good but not necessary. I like the pay yourself first mentality but going beyond what you’re doing is important to… Read more »

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