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« Where is your time going? | Main | Celeritas »

Action versus Activity

One of the most basic distinctions to make in our lives is the difference between action and activity.

Action is what achieves our goals, moves our business and personal lives forward, produces what we want out of life and actually gets the job done. It is immensely rewarding but is also very likely to be difficult and challenging.

Activity is all the things we fill our lives with in order to avoid taking action. Strangely enough activity often looks better than action to our colleagues or even to ourselves. If you are an executive or run your own business then productive, focused thinking must be one of your action priorities. Unfortunately thinking often appears to be “lazy”, compared to making phone calls, dealing with email, attending meetings and generally rushing around.

You can be pretty sure you have fallen into the activity trap if:

a) You never have time to think. (Thinking is your number one top priority ACTION)

b) You work through lunch and don’t have a definite finish time in the evening. (Lack of proper breaks reduces your working efficiency)

c) You don’t have time for exercise. (Lack of exercise reduces your working efficiency and shortens your life span)

d) You don’t have time for a personal life. (If your personal life isn’t a top priority for you, what chance the rest of your priorities make any sense?)

e) You never have time to do the things you really want to do. (What’s the point of all that work then?)

f) You are constantly doing things which anyone else could do. (You should be concentrating on the things only you can do).

The best weapon in your war against activity is the Stop Doing list. Be ruthless in making out a list of activities which you are no longer going to do. And keep expanding it. Most businesses (and lives) thrive best when they concentrate on a few core objectives, rather than spreading their energies over too wide a field. Time is like money. When you budget it you should be going through a process of deciding what projects to fully fund. If you are not going to fully fund a project, then it should not be done at all.


Monitor yourself throughout a working day and keep asking yourself the question “Why am I doing this?”. There is only one acceptable answer: “Because it is an action which will take this business forward.”

Unacceptable answers include:

“My secretary doesn’t know how to type up these records”,

“I promised Joe I’d do this and I don’t want to let him down”,

“If you want anything done you’ve got to do it yourself”,

“I don’t see how I can get out of it”,

“I know it’s a waste of time but my boss expects me to do it”,

“I’ve never got around to handing it over”,

“We’ve always done it that way”,

“I’m putting off getting on with that report”,

“It’s important to be seen to be busy/interested/sociable/caring/etc.”,

“I’ve always been interested in [something entirely irrelevant]”,

“I like doing it”,

“It might be useful sometime”.

I’m sure you won’t have too much trouble adding to that list.

If you get an unacceptable answer, immediately put the activity on your Stop Doing list. And start taking the necessary action to stop doing it!

Reader Comments (5)

I love the idea of having a constantly expanding list of things NOT to do. I find it very comforting.
April 17, 2007 at 11:49 | Unregistered CommenterNicky Perryman
I am not sure I can make the distinction between action and activity. Isn't it a bit arbitrary?

Judging by the definitions given here, the distinction is in the purpose or goals. The process of writing this comment would be action if I were doing it to establish a business connection. It would, however, be activity if I were doing it because I had nothing better to do. Thus, all actions are activities but only some activities (only the ones directed at specific goals) are actions. I hope I am not misinterpreting you.

I was thinking that perhaps activity defines the broader context of what one is doing and action defines specific deeds within that context. For example, I am involved in the activity of gathering information on the differences between activity and action. My current action is writing this comment and my previous action was reading your post. Thus, an activity consists of a number of actions.
May 23, 2008 at 5:46 | Unregistered CommenterDimiter Simov

You are missing the point of the article, which is not to define words (yes, my definitions are arbitrary) but to give you a useful distinction when you are auditing your tasks.

The real point is this: Is what you are spending your time on at work really taking your work forward or is it just time-wasting? It is perfectly possible to be rushing around being seen to be very active without taking any real action.

In other writings on the same subject I have called the two types of work "real work" and "busy work".

Hope that helps!
May 23, 2008 at 7:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Brilliant. I've returned to this blog so many times. Applies to everything - personal and professional. Thanks.

I give many short speeches through Toastmasters. In conveying a message, if Action versus Activity is a foundational concept, the audience always likes it.
March 12, 2012 at 1:35 | Unregistered CommenterDebra
Thanks, Debra. I used to belong to Toastmasters myself.
March 12, 2012 at 2:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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