The Action Imperative

A few weeks ago, while shopping for a new car, I visited my local Volvo dealership. I already had a good sense of what I wanted and was ready to buy, so I assumed this would be a quick and easy transaction.

I took a look around the showroom and then went to find a salesperson.

I was about to make an $80,000 purchase, which meant whoever helped me was going to earn a very nice commission on very little work.

Car salesmen are usually so eager to sell to even the most casual potential buyers that they’ve become a stereotype. Not today.

There was not a single salesperson on the showroom floor. I finally found a maintenance guy who led me to a back office where six salesmen were all sitting at their computers.

The maintenance guy told them I needed help, and one of the sales guys–I’ll call him Jason–got up and followed me back to the showroom.

I led Jason to the car I wanted, told him my color preference and which features I wanted to upgrade to, and asked him how long it would take to get the car.

He said that Volvo was experiencing production delays–like most car makers are right now–but that he’d get back to me with delivery and pricing info within the week. We shook hands, and I went home.

A week later, I still hadn’t heard from Jason. I called the dealership and explained my situation to another salesperson who told me Jason was in the office that day and to please hold while he got him on the line.

Jason finally picked up and apologized.

He said he’d been meaning to get back to me but that he was waiting on some pricing information. I didn’t buy it, but he quickly emailed me the quote after our call.

In the past few months, I’ve noticed that more and more people I try to do business with are behaving like Jason. These are people whose job it is to sell products or services to customers and yet, even when an eager customer shows up on their doorstep–sometimes literally–they don’t follow through.

I constantly reach out to other businesses–car dealerships, home-repair services, software providers, and fellow entrepreneurs I’m interested in partnering with–and I’ve found that roughly 20% of them ever get back to me.

I believe there are three reasons for this:

  1. People are busier than they used to be: Right now demand for services is so high, especially in certain sectors, that the people who work in those sectors are receiving more requests than they can handle. In Ohio, where I live, it’s basically impossible to find a plumber without having to wait for at least a month.From a business perspective, this is obviously a great problem to have, but few of the businesses I interact with seem to be taking advantage of it. Even if they can’t take you on as a customer right now, you’d think at least one of these businesses would sell your lead to someone else, right?

    Or take advantage of the moment and hire more people so they can grow? Busyness is good for business, so it’s still a mystery to me why more owners aren’t capitalizing on this moment.

  2. People are lazy: This is what I think explains Jason’s behavior. People who work on commission should be thrilled to help a customer like me. Processing my order and getting me a quote would have taken very little of Jason’s time, but he couldn’t be bothered.Maybe there’s something going on in his life that I don’t know about that is preventing his ability to do his job, but based on my limited interactions with him, I think Jason should reconsider his line of work.

    If you can’t perform the most basic aspects of your job, and if you can’t take advantage of the opportunities that fall into your lap, then you’re not going to get much out of it.

  3. People are paralyzed by choice: This is probably the most common challenge that stands in our way of being proactive. In business, as in life, we have limited time and unlimited choices about what we can do with that time. As a result, many of us become paralyzed when confronted with the choice to take action.Maybe we’re overwhelmed. Maybe we’re afraid of the consequences of our actions. Maybe we’re trying to minimize uncertainty. There’s just one problem: refusing to make a choice is a choice and one that leads us to become bystanders in our own lives.

    How do we overcome this paralysis? How do we take advantage of the choices in front of us instead of letting them overwhelm us? Make a choice–however small–and act on it.

The counterforce to passivity is activity.

I recently went down a rabbit hole of reading a bunch of memoirs by billionaires. I have no desire to be a billionaire, but I took a lot of value away from these stories and found them strangely compelling. My key takeaway?

The most financially successful people on the planet are the ones who make the most choices every day. A choice could be something as consequential as whether to buy another company or as small as whether to cancel a meeting to free up an hour of time.

Choice leads to action. Action breeds momentum. Momentum produces results.

The world is always going to be full of risk and uncertainty. Unproductive people try to manage this uncertainty by trying to optimize each choice. Productive people deliberate to a point but prioritize action over information.

Over time, the more small, consistent actions they take, the more information they gather and the better they get at managing uncertainty.

It starts with small things. When I first decided to pursue financial independence, I had no idea how I was going to do it. It was such a huge goal, and I was starting from zero. I set out to become a millionaire in five years, but I didn’t map out a five-year plan because I didn’t have the knowledge necessary to do it.

Instead, I took small actions every day that would, at best, take me a step closer to reaching my goal and, at worst, teach me something valuable that I could use to help me reach my goal.

I read all of the best money books that taught me the basics of personal finance and investing.

I opened a 401(k) and set up automatic payments and started cutting back expenses so I could increase my savings rate.

Eventually, these small actions compounded into noticeable results and gave me the information I needed to make better decisions.

Jeff Bezos has famously said that everyone should strive to make three good decisions every day. That’s one philosophy, but I would take it a step further.

Because the world is changing so rapidly and time is so valuable, the less time you spend ruminating on a decision and the more decisions you actually make, the closer you will be to moving toward the thing you want.

The more choices you make, the better you get at making them. Making decisions trains your intuition to make decisions for you.

The more decisions you make, the more data you have to inform future decisions. Before long, you can start making decisions almost unconsciously.

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio talks about how establishing a set of guiding principles and values helps you make better decisions. In business as in life, you constantly have to make decisions, so by filtering them through a specific framework, you can become more efficient.

Dalio recommends formalizing this process, which can be helpful if you’re making decisions alongside other people. But you can also just trust and train your intuition, which is the ultimate guiding force in our lives.

We’re often taught to distrust our intuition. We’re told it’s irrational, or we feel pressure from external forces to make a decision that doesn’t feel true to ourselves.

But the more you practice listening to your intuition and the more actions you take based on what it’s telling you, the easier it becomes.

Next time you feel stuck or like you’re not seeing the results you want, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which action brings me closer to what I want to accomplish?
  • What is a choice I can make today that will lead me closer to my goal?
  • What actions have I been putting off?
  • What is stopping me from making choices and how can I remove those barriers?
  • What do I value? What action is in line with those values?
  • How much information do I need to make a decision that is good enough?
  • What is the opportunity cost of acting versus not acting?

Remember time is scarce and uncertainty is inevitable.

Any action involves risk, but inaction leads to stagnation, and you’ll never get ahead if you stay in the same place. Practice taking action and being open to the results. See how it makes you feel.

The more momentum you build up, the more it carries you.

Grant Sabatier writes about money, mindfulness, and financial independence – all with the ultimate goal of helping you build a life you love.

His story and ideas have been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNBC, Business Insider, and many other places.

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