08/15/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

Think You Take Action for Greater Success? Think Again!

My buddy Jim and I messed up the other day. Big time.

Jim and I are treadmill neighbors at our building's fitness center. Each morning finds us climbing on to our individual machines at 5 a.m. On the dot.

On this particular day the room was extremely cold... the air conditioner was pumped up. I called the front desk and was told nothing could be done.

Jim raised his fist at the news. "We don't need to take this. We need to take action!" he said. I heartily agreed as he dialed again, demanding that management be called immediately. Which they were.

Victory! Except...

One little detail I've left out? The fitness center does not officially open until 6 a.m.

And so, the next morning we were greeted with the news that the hours would now be strictly enforced, and that the locks changed to make it so. Which meant our little routine was completely... messed... up.

Apparently management was none too pleased about our self-righteous indignation the day before.

What really happened here? What was the core misstep?

It was that even though Jim and I thought we were acting to fix the situation, we weren't.

We were reacting.

Most of us feel like we're taking action all the time, even with small things:
  • We have a terrible day and we slam our boss to our friends at happy hour because we believe letting off steam will help.
  • We get a rude email from a colleague and reply with a slightly snarky tone because we believe we need to stand up for ourselves.
  • We get a harsh critique on our latest project and start completely over because we believe we need to make things right.

Some of these decisions are perfectly fine. Some of them lead to pretty unfortunate consequences. Either way, none of them are actions. They're reactions.

Reactions can happen in a bigger way, too. Jobs can be quit and relationships can end and people can be hurt, all in a reactive heartbeat.

What's the difference between an action and a reaction?

A quick website search shows that action is defined as a step that one consciously wills to take. It is a step forward.

A reaction is defined as something done in response to a stimulus. The root word of the prefix "re" actually means "back" or "again." Not quite as strategic or effective, right?

The trick of course is that it's not easy to know the difference especially in the midst of the moment. In fact, most of us don't even consider which one we're doing.

Until, that is, something gets messed up:

  • Until we learn our boss' daughter was sitting at the next table at happy hour, and has spilled the beans
  • Until we need some critical information from our colleague, who is now a whole lot less inclined to give it to us
  • Until we spend all night creating a new project, and our manager says the last one was better and just needed a little tweaking

How do we know if we've got an action or a reaction on our hands? A few key indicators:
Actions are thought through first. Reactions are impulsive.
Actions are based on new ideas. Reactions are based on recycled ideas and feelings.
Actions are more objective. Reactions are more personal.

Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, is the feeling that comes afterwards. In the case of a reaction, it's the one that sometimes creeps up into the pit of our stomachs.

It's the feeling of regret.

Sure, sometimes actions can also lead to regret. But regret visits a whole lot more often when we act impulsively, when we don't think about the implications of our actions... until they happen.

Sometimes the consequences don't even need to happen. We just regret acting a certain way, treating people a certain way, or being a certain way.

What's a reactor to do?

Begin noticing if you're acting or reacting throughout the work day. If you find the reactions column to be significantly greater, practice taking a beat and weighing things out before taking your next step.

For those of us who need to work on this, here's the good news. When we act more...
Chances are, our successes will be greater.
Chances are we'll have less regret.
And, for me, chances are, my treadmill routine won't get so messed up. Next time.

This week...

Pay attention to how much you act versus react. Notice how it might mess you up.

Then take a beat and think things through first. And act accordingly.

Now, go do good... and do it well.