Less Information, More Action: Building The 'Ship It' Muscle

Don't feel like reading? You can listen to this post here.

It happens at least once a week.

There's a thing I decide I want to do. Maybe I want to make some active investments alongside my usual passive ones. Or record podcast episodes for this site, or try something different for work. Or improve my exercise routines or figure out how to set up 301 redirects.

So I start researching. I buy half a dozen books, I listen to hours and hours of podcasts, I read every article I can find, collect Evernote notes. I soak myself in information for a while.

And then it sort of stops there. Worn out and overloaded by information, I never act on what I've learned. 

Research can be a form of procrastination. It's an easy way to put off action.

When I'm listening to podcasts on personal finance, I could be dealing with bank paperwork. When I'm reading a 600-page book on cholesterol (as I am at the moment) I could be at the gym. When I'm fiddling around with Google Analytics for my site, I could be writing. Information is a poor substitute for action. 

The times when I do act are always when I don't go crazy with information. I learn the minimum viable guidelines, then I start. Along the way, I make a lot of mistakes, take a few detours, mess up a lot. But I start. That's a big difference.

Knowing how to wing it is a meta-skill.  

The only way I get anything done is by starting. By trying. By testing. By messing up. The downsides are limited, but the upsides are open-ended.

What's the worst case scenario? A bit of embarrassment and some wasted time. What's the best case scenario? An infinite array of possibilities and potential benefits.

My life would be completely different if I hadn't started my first blog at 13. I didn't know what I was doing. I made every mistake in the book. Still, getting started and learning along the way changed everything. I spent months debating whether I should start incorporating audio/video into posts. At some point recently, I decided to get started, make something very imperfect, then learn as I go. It's how I started blogging and how I started the work I do now. It's how I learn languages when I travel.

As a kid, I remember driving out to the desert to meet Bedouins (nomadic people who live in the middle east.) One thing which stuck with me is the way they approach their art. Bedouins believe that no human can make something perfect. So they are careful to always include at least one deliberate ‘flaw’ in everything they make. A dropped stitch, a scratch, an out of place line. That’s the attitude I try to adopt when I start something new: planning for imperfections and mistakes, not fearing them.

The imperfect decisions we make and actions we take are a hell of a lot better than the perfect ones we forget about. 'Move fast and break things' is a good policy. Start moving and solve problems as they arise. Go with the broad overview you already know, then look up the details.

Our muscles weaken and wither if we don't move. It's the same with our minds. The less we act, the harder it is to act. We need to build the 'ship it' muscle. We do that by getting comfortable with starting before we feel ready and finishing before we feel done. 

We don't always need more information. Most of it is obvious. I don't mean that in an arrogant way. But most of what is floating around about a topic is the same few ideas endlessly rehashed. The same few studies cited, the same few lines quoted and misquoted. And most advice is bad advice despite the best intentions of the giver.

If you ask some with three kids, a mortgage and a 9-5 for advice about your plan to go to Paris and live up a tree, they’ll tell you not to do it. If you ask someone who lives up a tree in Vietnam the same question, they’ll probably tell you to go for it.

Neither is wrong. The information filtering through their minds as they answer happens to be very different. That’s the nature of most of the information we base our choices upon. It’s not objective. When we turn to other people for advice, they base it where they are at that point.

As Renaissance artists used to say, ogni pittore dipinge. The painter paints himself. Derek Sivers writes that receiving advice is like asking someone to take a picture of you, only to find they took one of themselves. 

The first time they speak in public, everyone gets told to slow down, breathe, smile and keep their hands still. Good advice. All the best public speakers follow it.

Except that advice assumes that you’ll be acting based on rationality the first time you speak. And you won’t - you’ll be acting based on strong emotions.

There lies the problem with gathering heaps of information before acting. Acting - doing something new, taking the leap - is inherently scary. No amount of information is any use when you flounder. It pays to be prepared, provided you prepare to forget your preparation. 

There is a mantra I have adopted lately: perfect is the enemy of done.

Or alternatively: perfect is the enemy of better.

It's a cliche but cliches are usually true. Whatever that thing is for you, the idea or dream where you're substituting information for action, get started. Stop procrastinating by preparing. Make the tiny step. Anticipate messing up. There's very little to lose and a lot to gain. 

P.S. If you're still stuck, read the Cult of Done Manifesto. I love it.