Improving Happiness at Work: Positive Practices and the Power of the Positive Question
Professional Development from Inspiration, Not Desperation

Action vs. Activity

Over on his Learnstreaming blog, Dennis Callahan writes about the difference between signing up for social media and joining: 

Having a social media account (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin) doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve joined.  It means you’ve signed up.  It’s like signing up for the gym.  You can say that you belong to the gym but if you don’t get on the equipment and exercise, what benefit is there to your body?

I've experienced this a lot with myself and with other people. We sign up for something (always with the best of intentions), but then don't actually USE the thing we've signed up for. Then later we'll say that it didn't work. 

I've come to see this as the difference between action and activity.

Action vs. Activity

Action is purpose-driven and strategic. It is based on knowing where you want to go and acting in an intentional manner that gets you there. There is a sense of discipline in it because it is grounded in vision and alignment with your goals. 

Activity is something else. It is the illusion of action without the driver of purpose or the discipline that's grounded in vision. It is action without strategy. 

So signing up for social media is activity. It makes you feel like you're doing something. Joining--really engaging with the tools and the people you meet--is action. It is moving beyond a sort of disjointed awareness that you need to do "something," into a more purposeful practice that is at the heart of real action. 

This distinction between action and activity is important for professional development because we can become consumed with activity--more useless acts with no connection to our real goals or purpose--and then wonder why we aren't really getting anywhere. We aren't getting anywhere because we are moving for the sake of moving, rather than looking at engaging purposefully so that we're taking real action. 

This is why I think reflective practice is so important. It keeps bringing us back to the WHY of what we do. It helps us be more intentional about our activities so that they are not just movement for the sake of movement, but transformed into purposeful action. 

Dennis asks a great question--how do you move from signing up to joining when it comes to social media? I want to enlarge it and ask, how do we move from activity to action in all facets of our professional development? 


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Hi Michele - nice post. Action vs activity is a great way to think about the bigger picture of personal development. I also agree that reflection is key to purposeful action Thanks for the mention.

Thanks, Dennis--I appreciate you talking about the differences between signing up and joining, as I feel like this is one of the big areas in social media where people aren't as purposeful. We can get really bogged down in signing up. :-)

Hi Michele

This is true for us business owners too. Lots of ways to be busy and we have to keep pulling back to see if we're moving in sync with the overall strategy.

Why are we doing what we're doing in any given moment? Is it just activity or action that's going to help us achieve our goals?

Hi Dennis and Michelle,
Thank you for this post and inquiry. I'm reminded of a good friends description of action versus activity. She mentioned the image of a pelican sitting on a pier flapping its wings wildly (which they apparently often do). The pelican is going through the motion of flight (activity) but doesn't accomplish much (action-flight) until it takes off. The imagery has stuck with me and seems to fit here too. We can sign up (flap our wings) but until we actually join (take flight) we've not gotten or given benefit.

The second thought that came to me was about "showing up" online. I have a friend who resisted facebook until she could consider what it would mean to her work and practice, and how she would present herself there. Seems to me this is getting at this notion of signing up versus joining. Most of us just jump in a sign up without thoughtfully considering why, what it means to our work or practice, or how it fits (or not) etc. Thanks for a great thought-provoking post to noodle on.

Hi Tom-VERY true about the distinction between action and activity for small business owners. This is something I have to look at on a pretty regular basis, as it's easy for me to get caught up in activity, only to find that it's not particularly strategic or helpful. It's one of the issues I sometimes find hardest to address.

And LaDonna, love the image of the pelican! Not only does it fit here, but I can see it applying to a lot of the ways we live and work. I know a lot of people who are exhausted from flapping their wings and who never end up taking off.

Reflective practice crucial - but maybe the pelican is flapping it's wings for a purpose we don't understand! Flight may not be the immediate objective, but the flapping is somehow part of the process towards flight ....

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