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Success Mindset

The Science of Taking Action: What Stops Us and How to Start

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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What Does “Taking Action” Actually Mean?

Lots of people get taking action mixed up with being busy. They think that doing lots of stuff means they are taking action. But that’s not really true.

Being busy is like being in motion. You feel productive because your wheels are spinning. But you’re not really getting anywhere meaningful. You’re basically on autopilot. Taking action is different. Action means you’ve made concrete progress towards a goal. You’ve moved the needle and gotten real results.

For example, let’s say you have a goal to get healthy and lose some weight. Joining a gym and buying some new workout clothes is being in motion. It feels good to do those things, but they don’t really count as action or progress yet.

Now, if you actually wake up early and hit the treadmill 3 days this week? That’s taking action. It’s doing the real work that builds better fitness habits and gets you closer to your health goals.

Action versus Motion

Here’s another example…

Let’s say you have a dream of building an online business. Buying a nice laptop and reading some business books is motion. It seems productive, but it’s not actual progress.
On the other hand, if you spend 5 hours researching products and writing your first online course? That’s real action towards your entrepreneurship dream.

The point is that action requires some concrete output that moves you positively closer to the results you want. Motion just keeps you busy without getting you anywhere meaningful.


So if you feel stuck or frustrated with a goal, check whether you’re confusing motion with action. Ask yourself – am I just being busy? Or am I actually moving my goals forward with focused effort that creates real progress?

The truth is, very few big dreams are achieved through massive bursts of action all at once. Lasting success happens gradually through consistent actions over time – even if they are small ones.

But those small actions do count. And they count way more than all the busy “motion” in the world.

Why is Taking Action So Hard?

If taking action brings results, then why do so many people struggle to make it happen?
The truth is that meaningful action pushes us outside our comfort zones. It requires focusing our time and energy deliberately. This is difficult for several key reasons:

1. Unclear Intentions

Often, we think we want something but don’t truly understand why. This makes it tough to commit to the effort real action demands.

For example, if your goal is “I want get in shape”, that intention is vague. Lacking clarity on your real motivation makes it hard to fund the effort to choose salads over pizza.

2. Blurry Progress Markers

Let’s say you do decide “I want to lose 30 pounds.” Even stated clearly, how do you know if each small action moves the needle? Without a system to track incremental progress, action feels frustratingly ineffectual.

3. We’re Not Ready to Invest

Meaningful actions require investing time, energy and commitment beyond what feels comfortable. Like muscles, taking action leads to growth by pushing our limits. But that discomfort makes it easy to slip back into complacent motion.

4. Lack of Sustainable Systems

The enthusiasm powering initial bursts of action (like New Year’s resolutions) fades when systems for continuity are lacking. Creating sustainable structures is vital so productivity doesn’t crater when motivation dips.

In the end, clear intentions, visible tracking, embracing some constructive discomfort and establishing systems sustainably convert motion into momentum towards dreams. The truth? Action is uncomfortable. But fortunately, there are proven frameworks to turn difficulty into payoff. Let’s walk through them…

The 7 Key Steps to Taking Action

Taking action is like building a house on solid rock instead of shaky sand. The foundation needs to be poured first before you start hammering those walls up. Without a stable base, even the most enthusiastic efforts usually crumble when storms hit. We’re laying that rock-solid foundation together right now.

I’ll walk you through the 7 key steps to not only take action effectively but also sustain momentum over time.


If you’ve struggled to stick to goals before, these steps aim your focus rifle at what truly makes the difference. They establish the structure for actions to build steadily rather than getting washed away next tide.

Think of each step handing you another sturdy brick. Stack them together as we move forward, cementing your dreams’ foundation block by block.

Step 1: Find Your True Intention. What’s Your North Star?

Lots of goals sound great when we speak them, but fail to launch in reality. Often, that’s because our intention behind the goal isn’t clear enough.

Let’s dig for the roots. Here are 5 reflection questions to help you uncover your fundamental motivations:

  1. What emotional outcomes do you want to feel by achieving this goal?
    Get granular here. If your goal is getting fit, is it mostly to feel confident? To reduce stress? To enjoy nature through hiking? Knowing the emotional payoff focuses your actions.
  2. How does this align with your core values?
    We only sustain effort for things that truly matter. Does your goal reflect what you care about? If becoming an artist connects to creativity and self-expression, that value alignment fuels motivation.
  3. How will achieving this change your identity?
    Goals transform how we see ourselves over time. If running a marathon makes you see yourself as an athlete, envisioning that future identity can pull you through when willpower wanes.
  4. What greater purpose does this serve beyond yourself?
    Helping others and leaving a legacy often underpin our most powerful intentions. If you want to build a company to nurture employees, that purpose fuels grit during volatile business cycles.

If you achieved this goal 5 years ago, what opportunities would you have today?
This question frames your goal as a vehicle to long-term opportunities rather than a short-term fix. The further back you envision achieving your goal, the more motivation compounds.

Getting ultra clear on the root Why behind your goals focuses actions and multiplies grit. It’s like finally seeing the mountain peak after wandering lost in fog for years.


Step 2: Define Milestones That Actually Move You Forward

Alright, with intention locked down, we need signposts to guide focus and track progress. These are milestones. Real milestones reflect tangible advancement, not just being busy. They originate from stone markers on travel routes indicating the next town 2 miles ahead.

Similarly, your milestones note actual progress made, not just flipping calendar pages. This distinction motivates momentum. Let’s explore how to set milestones that truly move you ahead.

Characteristics of Strong Milestones

Effective milestones have 3 key traits:

1. Clarity of Task and Method

Milestones clearly state:

  • Exactly WHAT needs to be accomplished
  • HOW you will complete it
  • Without defining the what and how, progress feels vague. Be precise.
2. Specific and Achievable

Ensure your milestone is realistic within a set timeframe you can commit to. Quantify it like “Write 1000 words of my book draft by Friday.” Achievability builds confidence to undertake the next milestone.

3. Focused on One Target

Isolate one measurable outcome per milestone. Multitasking diffuses focus and overwhelms, delaying completion.

  • Simplify objectives to drive results.
  • Remember, milestones indicate actual advancement made based on focused effort.
  • They transform intentional motion into measurable momentum.

Let’s make this concrete with some real-life examples…

Learning a New Skill

  • Intention: Stay competitive at work by learning digital marketing
  • Milestone: Complete the first module of the online Digital Marketing Fundamentals course by Saturday night.

Improving Fitness

  • Intention: Boost energy levels to better handle work stress
  • Milestone: Walk or jog 2 miles after dinner with my spouse 3 days this week.

Strengthening Relationships

  • Intention: Invest more quality time with my kids before they leave the nest
  • Milestone: Have a 30 minute one-on-one chat while playing board games with each child by Friday night.

The key is to make milestones specific, measurable and focused. They track tangible progress made rather than just checking off an item.

Step 3: Pay With Your Heart

We’ve all seen the washed-out resolutions and abandoned goals littering January gyms. What makes hopes eventually lose steam and veer off track? Often, practical plans cater to the mind but lack fuel from the heart. Lasting action requires emotional commitment – understanding the sacrifices and paying the hidden costs anyway.

Your Mind Makes Plans, Your Heart Takes Action

The mind rationally breaks down goals into logical steps. But talk is cheap. The heart provides the emotional rocket fuel to actually start, persevere and finish.

Without heart-level clarity on the sweat and grit reaching that mountain summit requires, even the most brilliant plans remain intellectual exercises.

What Goals Really Cost

Achieving ambitious goals has a clear price tag attached. It’s not about money per se. The currency is time, mental bandwidth, changing old habits and even ditching activities we enjoy.

The mistake comes pretending otherwise. We downplay costs to avoid short-term discomforts. But underneath, we sense that bargain means underfunding dreams.

You Get What You Pay For

There’s an old business saying – you get what you pay for. Cut corners on website design and end up with a clunky site no one visits. Buy cheap tools that break after a few uses.
Goals operate similarly. Want something badly enough? Be prepared to fund the effort and costs.

Building a profitable business requires long hours, tough decisions and emotional rollercoasters over years.

But that’s what makes it worthwhile. In deciding to pay a goal’s price, you shape yourself into someone who can set a vision and carry it through. You become a person who faces costs squarely, pays them, and collects the rewards of perseverance.

That self-trust and self-mastery makes YOU the real achievement.

Step 4: Build Momentum With Small Wins

When facing a mountainous goal, we often psych ourselves out staring at the summit instead of enjoying the climb.

I’ve learned that sustainable momentum trumps unsustainable bursts of willpower. Momentum means chaining small wins together till progress starts snowballing.

Momentum is Like Riding a Bike

Remember learning to ride a bike? You pushed off, wobbled ahead a few feet, stopped, repeated. No one expects cycling up steep hills on day one.

But each small win built confidence and competence. Gradually, momentum carried you further faster with less effort. Before you realized it, you were cruising around the neighborhood. Apply this to your goals. Momentum makes progress feel easier, almost automatic. Chains of small wins build emotional resilience covering more ground.

Compare starting to bike uphill from zero speed versus with momentum already going. What feels more possible? Exactly.

Small Wins First

When we attempt big complex goals straight out the gate, it’s easy to get demotivated when we struggle. Having sky high expectations from the start is a recipe for failure.

So kickoff goals focusing on incremental progress . This accumulates small victories, building real capability making the next win likelier.

Celebrate these tiny triumphs. Small wins provide nutrients for your confidence and competence to grow taller. And soon enough, you’ll be looking down from new heights.

Step 5: Work Smarter With Mental Models

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” But what does working smart actually mean?

We know 20% of actions drive 80% of goal progress. But identifying those vital few tasks is tough. That’s where mental models come in – they pinpoint high-impact tasks to focus time and energy efficiently. Working smart is about applying the right mental models to the actions you need to take – simple thinking frameworks that help make better decisions.


They act like shortcuts that save time and energy. Let’s explore some top examples:

First Principles Thinking

This means breaking down problems to their core elements. Understanding the root goals and minimum solutions needed.

For example, a parent wants to connect more with their child. By applying first principles, they identify that daily quality time and weekly one-on-one activities are the core bonding solutions. They resist overloading the schedule with activities.

Circle of Control

Focus your energy solely on things within your influence. Redirect wasteful effort towards high-impact aspects you can shape.

A person wants to find a life partner. Rather than obsess over finding “the one”, they focus energy on self-growth, meeting new people, and building communication skills.

Diminishing Returns

Ask if additional effort continues improving results. Often, a few key tasks carry most weight.
Someone wants better sleep so tries expensive pillows, white noise machines, and bedroom makeovers. But incremental solutions stop helping after establishing simple sleep hygiene habits. They redirect efforts to regular bedtimes.

The key is directing energy to the vital few actions within our control that drive personal life goals — whether relationships, well-being, or purpose. Mental models enable working smarter here too.


Step 6: Go For Energy, Then Time

Energy is more important than time when it comes to getting things done. Even if you have a free day, if you don’t have the mental energy, you won’t be very productive. The same one hour could either fly by if you’re feeling good, or drag on forever if you’re drained, even if technically you have nowhere else you need to be.

So it’s important to pace yourself and keep your energy levels high over the long-term. Don’t just sprint through tasks. Think of it like running a marathon rather than a short dash. Make sure you realistically keep your energy reserves stocked.

There are two main types of activities:

  • Things that give you energy – exercise, hobbies, learning new things, hanging out with friends. These boost your mood, focus, and sense of purpose.
  • Things that drain your energy – stressful obligations, frustrating people/situations, too much digital stimulation. These lead to burnout.

We often don’t realize which activities give us energy and which drain it. So pay attention to how different tasks and situations affect your levels.

It’s absolutely essential to balance the two. Do more activities that fill you up and intentionally invest that good energy into your goals and must-do tasks.


And make sure to build in genuine rest to recharge. Just like muscles need recovery after strength training, don’t overdo it mentally without taking breaks. Learn rituals that help you relax, let go of stress, and prep for another productive day. The key is flowing between active effort and intentional renewal.

Small, steady steps forward is better than pushing too hard and flaming out. Progress happens through consistent effort anchored in self-care.

Step 7: Turn Actions Into Auto-Pilot Progress Routines

Kicking off something new feels exciting. But after a while, keeping intentions going requires ongoing effort. What if you could make progress more automatic?

That’s the idea behind progress routines – transforming goals into maintainable habits fitting smoothly into your life.

The Time Flow System makes this work through 3 connected pieces:

1. North Stars

These are your big, life-changing dreams. Keep them present to stay on track. See them as guiding lights remaining steady in the distance. For example, career targets, health goals, family plans.

2. Initiatives

Break North Stars down into measurable milestones. These are engines driving toward targets through projects and plans. They evolve adaptively while moving closer to North Stars.

3. Focus Blocks

Finally, turn milestones into actions repeated routinely. Think 30 focused minutes daily to finish writing a book this year. Repeat blocks sustain momentum.

Assembling Your Routines

Together, the layers automatically move you forward:

  1. Match actions to milestones fulfilling Goal Stars
  2. Estimate reasonable daily/weekly time
  3. Schedule blocks into your existing flow
  4. Set reminders to help stick to routines

Soon your goals start running on auto-pilot. Small consistent steps compound into big dreams.

Take Action: You Can Make Your Dreams Real

Going after what you truly want takes more than just wanting it. It means putting together a step-by-step system to turn those big goals into doable actions.

The steps in this article give you the tools to transform inspiring ideas into realities through building the right habits. When you line up small wins day after day, they build the runway to lift off towards destinations you set for yourself.

As repeating focused actions gets more natural, you start reshaping your life’s path automatically. Your goals become self-propelling because your patterns do the work for you.

Pretty soon, you’ve created your future intentionally by design. The question is – how far are you willing to steer yourself? The choice awaits.

More Tips to Get You Into Action

Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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