Thinking Versus Doing

February 28, 2013

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Baltimore Print Studios.

When I first saw this poster in a friend’s house, I laughed out loud at its brilliant obviousness. I am often so caught up in the planning and plotting of good intentions that they become nothing more than intentions—a whole world of great ideas that never become reality.

It took me years to identify this tendency toward thought-over-action as a form of perfectionism, but once I saw the connection, I realized I was over-thinking many endeavors as a way to protect myself from failing at them. If I didn’t try, I couldn’t do it badly, and the safety of over-planning was a great way to justify inaction. My desire to get certain things right…okay, perfect…actually resulted in the sort of pressure that kept me from taking any action at all.

Years ago my husband read some parenting advice that suggested putting failure and mistakes in perspective by talking with kids about who’d made the biggest mistakes that day and what they’d learned from those mistakes. I love this as an antidote to perfectionism, and it seems a perfect companion to Herb Kelleher’s advice. As I’ve tried to get ideas and plans out of my head and into my life, I’ve found great freedom in doing things, instead of just thinking about doing things.  

Judging by the number of platitudes we have on the subject—just put one foot in front of the other. Start with baby steps. Eat that elephant one bite at a time.—it might be a universal feeling. I’m curious, has the desire to get something just right ever kept you from taking action? Have you learned to embrace mistakes as a natural part of learning? And how has just doing things liberated you?

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tina February 28, 2013 at 8:18 am

My husband and (and my son, I am discovering) suffer from this same condition…LOL. I am sort of the opposite. I start doing before thinking and then I overthink the heck out of what I did! But sometimes I am too fearful to even try and leave things to my husband. This past summer after looking at our stairs that had just been built and feeling angry because my husband was planning too much to finish them, I just started DOING it. And they look like crap. But I did it and I just decided I’m good with it.
I read TOO many parenting books (occupational hazard) and I am currently reading a favorite called Simplicity Parenting. One of my favorite quotes is something like “the essential challenge of parenting is to let our hopes outweigh our fears”.


2 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

My husband read your comment this morning before I did, and he shared that last part with me. We both love that wisdom. May all our hopes outweigh our fears! Thanks, Tina! (And I have a hardwood floor home-improvement project that I botched. I know the feeling of living with some imperfection.)


3 Lauren February 28, 2013 at 8:23 am

Why is it so hard to just get started?! When designing a new product line for my shop, I struggle with this ALL the time! I want everything to be just right- ten different colors, six different styles, amazing photos, perfect descriptions. Sometimes I have to force myself to just post the products I have ready and tweak them as I go, otherwise I’d never sell anything :)


4 Amy February 28, 2013 at 9:22 am

Oh yes, I have this in my house too! Last year my motto was “perfection is the enemy of completion”. Once I got that mentality, I was able to accomplish so much more.


5 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:00 am

Justin and I are often reminding ourselves…ok, really he’s often remind me…”Perfect is better than done.” Love your motto, and a little jealous that you own this print!


6 christina February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

I’m a middle school art teacher and I often see in my students that starting is the hardest part. There is so much tension in making something out of nothing. Then adding a blank sheet of paper staring up at you only adds to the tweeny-bopper angst. And I encourage, “Just start. You’ll feel better in 10 minutes.” Then it always happens, ideas spark more ideas, ideas become concrete, the direction of the work changes, opinions are welcomed not feared, and like a chain reaction, work gets done. It’s an amazing process…once it starts!


7 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:01 am

Yes! I love picturing the momentum of your students. This will give me strength! :)


8 Lisa February 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

So true! We’ve been remodeling and sometimes I’ve just fretted over every little decision. When I finally decided I’d never actually make any decisions that way, it’s been liberating to just find something I love, purchase it, and move forward. I should really do that in all areas of life.

Planning is necessary to a great outcome but overthinking the minutia can really thwart progress.


9 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity February 28, 2013 at 9:38 am

I totally know what you mean. When I was in grade school I would never write on the first page of a new notebook for fear of messing it up. I realized that this perfectionism got in the way of me keeping a clean house too. Now I try and force myself to just get one job done or work for 15 minutes and then it will often trick me into doing more. So funny that I can actually trick myself, but it actually works.


10 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 28, 2013 at 9:59 am

The 15-minute method has helped me so much! A great antidote for perfectionism. And, yes, it tricks me every time, too!


11 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:02 am

Oh, man. I still don’t write on the first page of a notebook. Is there still hope for me?

I love the 15-minute trick, too!


12 Emily February 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

I happened upon a few bits of this type of wisdom on the streets of Dublin last week – you can see little photos here – It’s amazing, though, what having those little bits of wisdom written down in front of you can do to keep you on track!


13 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:07 am

Love it! And as I said on your blog, it delights me when public spaces are used like this. And what wise reminders!


14 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

Oh, Amy, I can so relate to this. I quit a great editor/writer job years ago to write my own stuff and have sent out exactly zero queries. Every week I say, This is it. I’m sending out a query. But then I don’t. I can’t handle the idea of failure! Writing’s always been my thing, but what happens if I get rejected because I didn’t word the query correctly?

(I did start a blog, though, so at least I’m writing something and putting it out there.)

Maybe we should start a support group. And please write more about this!


15 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:09 am

Sympathy and encouragement from my writer’s heart to yours, Shannon! We can do it!


16 Jeannine February 28, 2013 at 10:21 am

What a great post!!


17 Torrie @ a place to share... February 28, 2013 at 10:31 am

this is my one & only 2013 resolution… Do.

{an over-thinker, planner, pinner, sharer, tear-outter, filer………}


18 Amy Hackworth February 28, 2013 at 11:11 am

Awesome, Torrie! I’m applauding your awesome resolution and totally cheering you on!


19 Sarah R. February 28, 2013 at 10:43 am

I have this hanging on my wall as well–it’s our family motto!


20 Margaret February 28, 2013 at 11:28 am

Thank goodness I am not the only one!! (a support group would be great!) My partner wrote me a note once which says “procrastination is a long and very bad word”. By that he meant, stop just thinking about doing things and actually do them. I think part of me is actually scared of looking stupid and failing. I planned to open an Etsy shop a good year ago and I am still thinking about it. What’s holding me back? Nothing but myself. I should do it, but no, it’s much easier to continue to ponder it and look at other Etsy shops and blogs. As long as it remains just a thought in my brain then it cannot fail. Thank you for writing this post, it’s made me stop and think. I shall definitely try Grace’s 15 minute trick. And yes, I have loads of empty notebooks.


21 Maria Baker February 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm

I am such a complete random mess most of the time, but people would never know that I’m a closet perfectionist. I’ve been trying to start a photography business for a couple years now, but I just don’t seem to have the courage to dive in completely. I just feel like I don’t know everything about the business aspects and I’m terrified I won’t have the right answer or someone will think I’m a fraud. I have the photo part down though! I’m really hoping this summer to just jump in headfirst and trust myself that it’ll all work out. Here’s hoping.


22 alexis_gentry February 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Ah, my enemy and lover; perfectionism. :) I am attempting to give myself some grace for my periods of paralysis. Perhaps, I am incubating a wonderful new phase…or growing in a different place…or just expecting myself to be super-human. Whatever the reason, I am making progress. One. Foot. One. Moment. At a time. Thanks for a great post Amy!


23 Amy Hackworth March 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Thanks, Alexis. I also like the idea of grace, and ebb and flow. I believe in that, too.


24 KatieB February 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I remember watching my perfectionist mother as a child and imagining her on a diving board nervously biting her fingernails, looking into the water and all around her for some sort of clue as to what to do. I wanted to scream JUST JUMP!

Little did I know, I’d inherit a watered down version of that perfectionism. So many brilliant ideas…safely staying perfect in their ideal state.

I follow Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog and I think she falls into this category as well. She recommends doing the dreaded task for 15 minutes a day. And one of her go to quotes is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I have a resolution to attack one of my millions of brilliant ideas (neatly filed in a folder) for at least some amount of time every, single day. I get a check mark for doing it and that satisfies the perfectionist in me. Gretchen’s idea to do the resolution chart.


25 Amy Hackworth March 1, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I love Gretchen Rubin, too. Lots and lots of practical wisdom. And congrats on your progress!!


26 Michelle February 28, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Unfortunately, thinking it through has been my life story. This year before my 50th birthday, I promised myself to take action on all of the past things I have been thinking about doing. It is beginning, and I feel such a sense of accomplishment. I’m going to put this sign up in my house.


27 Dragonfly UK March 1, 2013 at 3:50 am

Its nice to see other people who are in the over thinking club! But don’t you think the internet is where to find us – it really encourages extensive research, consideration and planning and is so big this stage can go on for ever and then you never actually get to the end of it and start!


28 Jennifer James March 1, 2013 at 5:08 am

I’m definitely an over-thinker, but more and more I am getting the courage to just jump! Great post, Gabrielle.


29 Christi M. March 1, 2013 at 5:16 am

An artist I met when I was 16 told me he lived by the three P’s… In that perfection = paralysis, procrastination, and polarity (taking us further from “perfect”). I definitely reflect on it but value the positive attributes of perfection as well… Striving for greatness! I find that by doing without thinking too much has been a rewarding and motivating upward spiral… enables me to accomplish more and learn faster. :)


30 Amy Hackworth March 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Christi, thanks for this comment. This is exactly what I needed to hear: “doing without thinking too much has been a rewarding and motivating upward spiral.” I love that! Thanks for your good example!


31 Mel March 1, 2013 at 7:40 am

I can definitely relate. I usually am able to talk myself into taking action but I keep it a secret that I’m trying for something from everyone but my husband! My secret endeavors have included qualifying for the boston marathon (succeeded!), applying to grad schools (success and failure), interviewing for a new job (success!). If there is success, I share the news with everyone. If I fail, I decide how to succeed next time and decide to secretly try again :)

What is it about the possibility of failure that makes us so scared to try or admit we are trying?


32 Margaret March 1, 2013 at 7:45 am

I’m definitely guilty of making the perfect the enemy of the good, and using that as a defense against failure. I haven’t conquered that particular bad habit yet, but I try to keep in mind that quote: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” A failed attempt is better than no attempt at all!

Also, just had to add that I love Baltimore Print Studios — I took a screenprinting class with them, which I highly recommend, if you’re in the area! The pair who run the place definitely embody that “doing things” mentality.


33 Zoe - SlowMama March 2, 2013 at 9:58 am

I do life coaching and find this to be so true — the simple secret to making change is taking action. And when people are stuck and confused the only way out is to start moving – somewhere, anywhere – because the momentum helps propel them to further action and insight.

Great print — I need to remember it to eventually go in a home office.


34 Cherie March 19, 2013 at 5:41 pm


Imagine how surprised (not really) and pleased I am to stumble upon your lovely thoughts on this blog. I only occasionally visit and didn’t know you were contributing!

I relate to your lists and procrastination and need to prepare oh so very much. I am currently sitting on a musical arrangment that is ready for publication, but I’m terrified that I don’t know enough about the industry to start the process (i.e., a convenient excuse to delay possible and probable rejection). Just showing the piece to fellow musicians and friends felt like an enormous leap into the dark!

A book that has helped me recently is Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. That book could have been written about me! I try too hard.

Can’t wait to read more of your words. Wonderfully thought-provoking post. Thanks!

(PS – this is Cherie from the hometown)


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