Why people don’t take action

With all the material available teaching us how to stay fit, be healthy, be successful, achieve anything… Why is it that we are still fat, unhealthy, poor and stuck in our day jobs? What makes anyone else more capable of achieving their goal, than we are of achieving ours? What holds us back?

This is a theme I been studying for a while now. About 8 years ago it suddenly became a very clear question for me. I was in Germany, studying theatre, part of which included learning to speak correctly – i.e. with the correct accent. I was in a speech class with native Germans. The teacher asked us, “How do you say the sound which is spelled ä?” There was a lengthy discussion, as the students were from various parts of Germany and had strong opinions, until they settled on a few – all of which were wrong. The teacher then told us how it is supposed to be said (like the sound spelled “e” for you curious people). So far, so good. The big revelation, however, came the following week, when the teacher asked us exactly the same question. I turned to him and said, “but you asked us that last week!” He replied to say nothing and see what happens. Exactly the same conversation took place, with people giving exactly the same answers and coming to exactly the same – wrong – conclusions. They had not taken in what the teacher had said a week earlier.

I was so flabbergasted, I could not believe it. And it would seem that it is a widespread problem, as I have encountered it many times since then.

I therefore started thinking about what leads us to make these same mistakes, over and over, what stops us from taking the advice of the experts, taking the right actions, rather than continuing what one has done – with negative results – before.

Here are the results of my searches:

1) Procrastination: Many people have difficulty doing something which takes effort, courage, will power, or breaking out of the ‘comfortable’.

2) Habit: It is hard to change one’s ways, despite people saying it only takes 21 days. A more realistic view is that a habit (i.e. getting to the point where it is automatic) may take as long as 3 times that, or even longer, depending on the habit and person trying to acquire it. Sometimes this is made even harder by one habit being linked to others eg. Going for a run in the morning may be linked to going to bed earlier, which may be linked to eating earlier in the evenings, which may be linked to starting to cook earlier (or cooking at all), which may be linked to being hungry earlier, which may be linked to having lunch earlier and lunchtime may be determined by the boss. So that in fact, my boss is the reason I don’t run in the morning!

3) Fear: Especially fear of failure, ridicule and the unknown. “If I ask that expert, that will make me look stupid.” Why? Experts who are not willing to explain and help people who are not as good as them are not worthy of the name. Admitting that you do not know something does not make you look stupid, it makes you look intelligent. Only intelligent people can admit their faults. And not knowing something is not even a fault. Try this exercise: think about what you are good at. It may be a sport, maths, languages, art, cooking, watching TV, driving… Everyone is good at something. How would you feel if someone came up to you and seriously said, “I think you are really good at [your thing]. Would you mind showing me how I can become better at it? I would even be willing to pay you.” Would you think that person is stupid? You might wonder why they would want to learn it, but assuming they really did, would you sneer at them? Insult them? If you answered no to these questions, if you would merely accept to show them, why do you feel that someone who is better than you at something else would laugh at you? Is what you are looking to learn any less noble than what you are already good at? (If you replied yes, take courage, not everyone is like you.)


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