Dreams to Action

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would solve most the worlds problems.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Fellow blogger, Ben Casnocha brought up an interesting point recently. What is it that separates those who dream and talk about big things from those that actually take action towards achieving it? I think this problem could be considered one of the fundamental problems with most self-help, personal improvement or goal-setting, in that most people dream big and know what to do but then they never do it!

Most of what I have seen to resolve this problem involves various motivational techniques. The hope is, I guess, that if you get yourself pumped up enough you will cross a threshold and start taking action. Some techniques, such as goal-setting, emphasize creating clarity and precision to turn those dreams into action. While many of these skills can be effective in turning dreams into action, I think they avoid the real reason why crossing the threshold from dreams to action is so difficult.

The Problem

I believe that the fundamental reason why turning dreams into consistent and directed action is actually rather simple. The process of dreaming up your goals is completely different then actually taking action towards them. In fact, the two activities aren’t even close. It is because these activities are, in essence, so completely different from each other that is the real reason why it is so hard to turn a dream into action, because it is like turning lead into gold.

Dreams VS Action

This distinction is highlighted again when we examine why so many people can buy tons of self-help books and then make little or no consistent changes in their lives. The answer is simple. Reading self-help books is a completely different activity than pursuing personal development. Generally if someone says they are interested in personal development it means they like reading self-help books, it doesn’t mean that they enjoy actually pursuing the personal development they read about.

A great analogy of this phenomena I heard from financial blogger Ramit Sethi. Ramit pointed out that many people like going to a Footlocker, trying on and purchasing a nice pair of running shoes, and then never end up running in them. The reason isn’t that hard to understand. Buying running shoes is a completely different activity from running. Even though they seem related in terms of their context, the emotions, actions and skills involved in each of them are so different you might as well be comparing doing an exam to lovemaking.

Just because something has a similar context, doesn’t mean it is the same experience. Researching the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome and studying the culture isn’t the same as having hungry lions and barbarians with battle axes killing you in front of an audience. In our minds we may sort the two activities of being a similar context, but actually experiencing each event separately would tell us that the experience is completely different.

So this is why turning dreams into action is so difficult. The activity of imagining feeling thin, fit and healthy is nowhere close to staring at the clock on the treadmill as seconds slowly tick away, drenched in sweat feeling like your lungs are on fire. Imagining owning your own business and being a successful entrepreneur would be nowhere similar to the day to day tasks of keeping your organization afloat.

Dreaming can occasionally create action because of the sheer motivation it creates. If you get enough positive energy worked up from dreaming big you may temporarily start taking action. But unfortunately this motivation is only temporary, so unless you do something to make that action consistent, you will likely slide back to where you started. Because of these occasional leaps from dreaming to action I think some people have falsely assumed that dreaming is related to taking action. If you need to have a huge boost of motivation every time you take action, I promise you it will be incredibly difficult to be consistent or stable enough to produce the action necessary to achieve the dreams you want.

Most self-help authors approach the dreaming to action gap as if it were a natural and logical shift. This isn’t true at all. There is a gaping chasm between dreaming and actually taking action and until you have successfully built a bridge, you have a long way to jump and an even longer descent if you fail.

The Solution

If there is such a gap between dreaming and action, what really separates the people that dream big and realize it from those who never make that bridge? What separates those people who buy the self-help books and those that actually use that information in creating a greater life? Unfortunately the answer is neither simple or easy, which probably explains why self-help books are so popular and inspiring success stories so rare. But, I believe that if you are willing you can transform yourself from a simple dreamer to a dreamer and achiever.

Step One: Enjoy the Action

Why do we love to dream big? The answer is obvious, dreaming big is incredibly enjoyable. Thinking about that success makes us happy. Reading self-help books and uncovering those great ideas makes us feel like our dreams are more realistic which makes us even more happy.

Is this how we feel about taking action? Hardly. Most people abhor taking the actions necessary to fulfill their dreams. Thinking about losing weight and being attractive is fun, wheezing while you struggle to run to lose that weight is not. Thinking about earning money and being wealthy is fun, waking up early and going to work every day is not. Herein lies the problem. As long as you don’t like taking action, it is very unlikely that dreaming big enough will compensate for it.

Why are successful people successful? It is because they enjoy taking the action to make them successful. Bodybuilders enjoy lifting weights and eating right. Successful entrepreneurs love working and starting companies. If you enjoy the action towards your goal you don’t require the insanely high motivational reserves to achieve it. This seems pretty simple, but it is astonishingly true. The reason I have changed and improved so many habits, is because I love doing it.

What if you don’t like taking the action necessary to reach your dreams? Well here I think you have only two choices. Either change your dream or find a way to enjoy the action. There are only two options. Change your dream to something that you would enjoy fulfilling. Perhaps the dream you have isn’t really the right one for you, changing it to something that you can really enjoy fulfilling can fix this. Otherwise you need to find a way to enjoy taking the action either by changing how you perceive or approach it. I may follow-up with another article for improving enjoyment of the action, but until then I’m sure you already have some ideas you could use.

Step Two: There Is Only Now

Another reason why so many people fail to turn dreams into reality is because they imagine their dreams as a part of the future and not the present. Unless your dreams are some how tied into this very second, they will be impossible to achieve. Until tomorrow comes you have no stake in it. All you ever have is this moment and until you realize this everything you want will remain on the never-ending horizon of tomorrow.

If your dreams don’t have roots in the present there cannot be any trees in the future. By present I mean this very moment, not this year, week or even this day. If your dreams don’t somehow tie into this exact moment they can’t come to fruition later. I have written extensively about the need to think in the now in several articles including velocity-based goal setting and one of my most popular posts Balancing Today and Tomorrow.

Step Three: Build Momentum

A lot of people talk about building momentum, but what really is momentum? Momentum is simply habits. If you were an incredibly successful person and loved taking the action necessary to make you succeed, but with a magical flash suddenly disliked taking that action, what would happen? For a short time, nothing. Because your mind and body are so used to taking action it may take weeks, months or even years before you completely stopped taking action.

This also works in reverse. If you suddenly change your perspective towards dieting and exercise so that it becomes fun, you still need to build habits and momentum to make that action consistent. Some of these habits can be formed subconsciously over time, other major habits may require more conscious effort. I have written extensively about changing habits, so if you want to build momentum, some techniques to do that are here.

Momentum cannot overcome the first step of enjoying the action. A great analogy of this is that momentum is your speed and enjoyment is the relative amount of friction. If you don’t enjoy the action you are taking it will be like rubbing against sandpaper and you will lose momentum steadily. Don’t think you can just create a bunch of habits to do things you really hate and hope they will stick.

Dreaming is still incredibly important. You need to dream to provide direction, clarity and inspiration to your action. Just remember that turning dreams into action requires a little more than a self-help book and some fancy running shoes. Ultimately action is what makes imagination into reality.


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