Motion versus action: an important reminder for writers who want to actually write

There are a lot of activities associated with writing that aren’t writing.

They sound good. They feel productive. They seem relevant–maybe they are relevant.

But they aren’t writing, and, by themselves, don’t produce writing.

So, in most cases, these activities are big time-wasters for a writer. I’ll list some of these “writing activities” below.

First, let’s talk about motion vs action.

Motion vs action

I’ve been rereading James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, this month.

As usually happens when I reread a book, I noticed a gem I’d missed before:

“I refer to this as the difference between being in motion and taking action. The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome. If I outline twenty ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually sit down and write an article, that’s action.”

James Clear

Now, of course there are things you can do—”motions” you can make—that are helpful and can increase your efficiency and efficacy as a writer.

I’m a big fan of outlining before I write.

However, when all I do is outline and I never get around to writing, as in the example above, I’m in motion but I’m not taking action.

There’s a line we cross with these preparatory activities: the line from preparation to procrastination.

“Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing.”

James Clear

Preparation vs procrastination

There’s no universal line marking the spot when you cross from preparation to procrastination.

Generally speaking, preparation becomes procrastination when you have what you need to start writing, but you don’t.

  • How many outlines do I need to write an article? One outline.
  • How much research do I need?
  • How many quotes do I need?
  • How many experts do I need? So on.

If you can’t answer those questions specifically–with a number, a defined endpoint–then you’re setting yourself up for procrastination. You’re failing before you even begin.

Don’t do that to yourself.

Decide ahead of time what you need. This gives you a clear line: once you cross it, you know you’re not preparing anymore. You’re procrastinating.

The hard limits keep you from lying to yourself about whether or not you’re ready to write.

Here are some of the most popular preparation procrastination activities for writers:

  • Networking with other writers
  • Reading
  • Reading about writing
  • Reading about freelancing
  • Making outlines
  • Researching a topic
  • Looking for new writing gigs
  • Commenting on or sharing someone else’s writing (which is lovely, thanks)
  • Polishing up social profiles
  • Posting on social media
  • Working on SEO
  • Tweaking your website or blog
  • Taking courses about writing
  • Planning and scheduling your writing
  • Writing headlines
  • Working on outlines
  • Doing just a little more research
  • Organizing your research

Those activities can be valid, helpful ways to prepare.

They can make you more efficient. They can help you build skills as a writer. But none of them will replace the key skill, the most important object of a writer’s daily life: writing.

How to go from motion to action

None of this is meant to give you guilt or put a pile of shoulds upon you. This is all me talking to myself (hi!) and letting you listen in. And the point is not to feel bad or feel obligated or, well, feel any sort of way.

The point is to help myself do more of what I really enjoy doing.

For me, that’s writing. (Not exclusively, but it’s a priority item.) But, as with all worthwhile endeavors, there’s a natural resistance.

Motion helps me build up momentum. Momentum helps me get over that resistance.

There’s a key moment when the motion must become action.

If it doesn’t, I spend all day spinning and flailing. I end up feeling exhausted and unsatisfied.

Here are a few ways I help myself move from motion to action:

I track my daily word count. It helps enormously, because it gets me thinking in terms of word written rather than “time spent writing” which can easily be “time spent preparing to write.” Today, I’ve written 1,753 words (not counting this post).

I use a timer. A timer is so helpful. When I resist writing, I can set it for 5 minutes and require myself to “just write for 5 minutes.” Inevitably, I get into it and keep going. I can set a timer for “writing only” and I can use a timer to limit how long I spend on other stuff, like researching and outlining.

I keep my measures of success as a writer simple and clear: writing and publishing. A day that I write and publish is a successful day as a writer. It could equally be “a day that I write.” But, for me, publishing what I write is an enormous part of the good feeling. I write to think, I write to learn, and I write to share. Sharing makes it feel full-circle and brings me a lot of joy.