Action not words: The difference between talkers and doers

It’s Sunday morning and I should be editing articles in advance of my upcoming vacation. Instead, I just got done playing another game of Starcraft II. Since the game was released on July 27th, I’ve played many games of Starcraft II. In fact, I’ve played at least 150 games of Starcraft II. (I know this because the game keeps track of your record. I played 50 training matches, and have since won 47 and lost 42 against human opponents, putting me near the top of my division in the “Silver League”. Plus I’ve played some single-player games.)

My Starcraft II ranking as of noon on Sunday, August 29th.

How much time has playing 150 games of Starcraft II sucked from my life? At about 30 minutes per game, it’s safe to say I’ve spent about 80 hours over the past month — or about 20 hours per week — building virtual armies and blowing stuff up.

Now on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with me having a little fun. I’ve been waiting for this game for almost twelve years. Plus, I’ve been working hard for the past two years, and I’ve been stressed because of it. I deserve some time off, and have intentionally been downshifting to a simpler life, one that gives me time for computer games.

However, having said that, in this case there’s a problem. Recently my game-playing — I’ve also been obsessed with Carcassonne on the iPad (getting close to the global top 100 list!) — has been obsessive, and has come at a price.

  • I haven’t been cycling (though I have been going to the gym).
  • I haven’t been doing my work around the house.
  • I haven’t been studying my French. (One of my goals was too be able to speak a bit of French before our upcoming trip to Paris.)
  • I haven’t been prepping my Animal Intelligence blog for re-launch (which is still scheduled for Wednesday!).
  • I’ve been scrambling to get articles ready for Get Rich Slowly.

I say I’m going to do all of these things, but I never do. Instead I play computer games. Basically, I’ve turned into the old J.D. — the J.D. of five years ago. I’ve become a Talker instead of a Doer.

Talkers vs. Doers

Five years ago, I was full of hot air. Well, that and I was clinically depressed. And lazy. This was not a good combination for Getting Things Done. I talked a lot about the things I wanted to do, but I never did them. I found reasons not to. I even had trouble keeping up my end of the household chores, which my wife found very frustrating.

I was a Talker.

Maybe you know somebody like this. A Talker seems to know the solutions to everything, has great plans on how he’s going to make money or get a new job. But the funny thing is, the Talker never acts on his solutions and his great plans. And he never gets that new job. He’s out of work or stuck in a job he hates. To everyone else, it’s clear that the Talker is full of hot air, but he believes he’s bluffing everyone along, or conflates talking with doing. When confronted, a Talker always has excuses for not getting things done: he doesn’t have time, he doesn’t have the skills, the odds are stacked against him. When a Talker does do something, he often takes a shortcut.

That, my friends, was the man I used to be.

But something changed in the autumn of 2005. I began to read a lot of books. Not just personal finance books (though, as you know, I read plenty of those), but also self-help books and success manuals. I read Feeling Good to deal with my depression, How to Win Friends and Influence People to learn how to talk with people, and so on. And gradually I began to take the advice in these books to heart.

I began to take small steps, began to be more active in my world. Instead of just talking about doing things, I did them. I stopped looking for shortcuts — I had been a huge fan of shortcuts — and started actually doing the work required to get things done. Shockingly, this worked. By doing the work, I got the expected results. By doing instead of talking, things started to happen.

I became a Doer.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Will Durant, though often misattributed to Aristotle

We are What We Repeatedly Do

Author Kevin J. Anderson has a fantastic post on his blog about the similarities between the Olympics and writing. Here’s a lengthy excerpt:

I’ve had many people tell me, “Oh, writing is easy. Anybody can do it if they just sit down and put their minds to it.” Here’s how the conversation goes:

Somebody at a book-signing: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I could write a novel.”

Me: “Oh? Why haven’t you?”

Person: “I just don’t have the time.”

Me: “Hmm. Nobody gives me the time, either. I have to make the time, set priorities, discipline myself to get my writing done each day, no matter how tired I am. I worked a full-time regular job while I wrote my first novels, scraping out an hour here or there in evenings and weekends. That’s how I’ve become a successful author.”

Person: “Yeah, right. I think you’re just lucky.”


I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. I sat in my dad’s study and plunked out my first “novel” on a manual typewriter when I was eight. By the age of ten, I had saved up enough money to buy either a bicycle (like a normal kid), or my own typewriter. I chose the typewriter. I got my first rejection slip by the time I was 13, had my first story published when I was 16 (after I had gathered 80 rejection slips), and sold my first novel by the time I was 25.

I have a trophy in my office proclaiming me to be “The Writer with No Future” because I could produce more rejection slips by weight than any other writer at an entire conference. My files now bulge with more than 800 rejections. On the other hand, I also have 100 books published, 46 of which have been national or international bestsellers, I’ve got a shelf full of awards, and my work has been translated into 30 languages. I’ve written more than twelve million words, so far.

Anderson is a Doer. He doesn’t just talk about writing — he writes. He writes over and over and over again. Through the sheer act of writing, he became a writer.

Note: Anderson’s entire post is awesome. Go read it now. My article will still be here when you finish.

People often ask me about the secret to this blog’s success. “How did you get so many readers?” they ask. “How can I do the same?”

My answer is similar to Anderson’s. There aren’t any secrets. Write and post great content on a regular basis for a long, long time. In short, you can’t just talk about building a great blog; you also have to put in the work. Simple, right? But it’s not easy.

(I appreciate the folks who come up to me and say, “You know, J.D., I don’t know how you do it. I tried to keep a blog for a few months. It was hard.” Yes, it is. It’s work, just like anything else.)

If there’s something you want to be or do, the best way to become that thing is to actually take steps toward it, to move in that direction. Don’t just talk about it, but do something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just take a small step in the right direction every single day.

If you want to get out of debt, take small steps toward becoming debt-free. If you want to save for a trip to Africa, save a little bit at a time. If you want to get a new job, make moves in that direction. But take action. That’s the most important step.

Action Not Words

Of course, there’s more to getting stuff than just taking action. It’s one thing to say you want to become a commercial airline pilot and another to actually do it. Here are some of the things I learned as I made the move from Talker do Doer:

  • Make time for the things you want to do. One of the keys to getting things done is setting aside time for the things you want to accomplish. You have to make time to get stuff done. As the Kevin J. Anderson article I mentioned above demonstrates, you don’t just become a best-selling author or an Olympic athlete. Talking doesn’t make it so. You have to carve out time to do this stuff. You have to put your Big Rocks first and fit the small stuff in around them.
  • Have a goal in mind. I truly believe that the biggest reason I used to struggle with getting stuff done is that I didn’t have any sort of plan. I had no goals. Goals give you purpose. It wasn’t until I became committed to digging out of debt that I was able to actually start moving in the right direction. Part of my current problem is that I’ve recently achieved a bunch of big goals, but now have nothing planned for the future.
  • Don’t take on too much. While it’s important to set goals, don’t take on too many tasks at once. I try to set just one or two major goals at a time. Any more and I find I can’t pursue any of them effectively. This year, my one goal is to lose 50 pounds. I’m on pace to do that. Why? Because I don’t have anything else on my schedule competing for time. This is my Big Rock.
  • Don’t let failures deter you. This is huge. One of the reasons I used to talk so much without acting is that I was afraid of failure. I’m not sure where I learned to be afraid of defeat, but that’s the way I was. And when I did try something but failed, I’d give up. This is no way to get stuff done. Talkers let fear of failure keep them on the sideline; Doers overcome fear and move on, and when they fail, they simply try again.
  • Don’t find reasons that something can’t be done; instead, find ways that something can be done. This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate when people come to me for advice, but when I give it, they tell me all of the reasons it won’t work for their circumstances. (This often happens when I suggest people take a second job to boost their income, for example.) One of the biggest difference between successful people and those who aren’t is that the successful don’t make excuses. If something looks difficult or impossible, they find ways to make it happen anyhow.

In the past five years, I’ve learned that I can do anything I set my mind to. Get out of debt? After I stopped talking and started doing, I got out of debt quicker than I thought possible. Losing 50 pounds? Well, I’m not there yet, but I’ve lost over 30 pounds since January 1st — but it didn’t happen until I stopped talking about it and started working hard to make it happen. Learning French? Well, there’s one where my talk outpaces my action right now, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say actions speak louder than words. I don’t study my French as much as I should, so basically all I can do is count and tell you what color my clothes are. (“J’ai deux chemise noir.”)

For five years, my doing slowly increased until this past winter it reached a frenzied pace. I was burning myself out. I was writing and speaking and working and exercising and…well, it seemed like I never had a spare moment. This was the dark side of doing, and it’s what triggered my desire to downshift. It’s what led the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of Starcraft II.

Finding a Solution

So what’s the solution to my current problem? How can I stop playing computer games so much? How can I stop just being a Talker and become a Doer again? Well, making this public confession is a first step. But the thing that I think will really help is the “decision tree” I came up with the other day. Whenever the urge to game strikes, I’m going to ask myself the following questions:

  • Have I exercised today?
  • Are the house and yard tidy?
  • Have I run all of my errands?
  • Have I written and/or edited at least two articles for Get Rich Slowly?
  • Does my inbox have fewer than 20 messages?

If I can answer “yes” to these five questions, then it’s okay to play Starcraft II or Carcassonne. But if I answer “no” to even one of these questions, I need to have the discipline to let the gaming go. I believe this will help me strike a balance. It’ll help me return to the world of Doing again. Because you know what? Life is a lot more fun as a Doer than a Talker.

Note: At the risk of creating more Talkers in the GRS audience, I’d just like to point out that the Carcassonne app is outstanding. If you’ve played the board game, you must play the iPhone/iPad version. The ability to play — gulp — dozens of games in a matter of days lets you see just how rich and complex this game is. This adaptation is perfect in every way.
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