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Know the Difference Between Action vs Activity

activity vs action and setting goals - picture of camera, plant and coffee on a desk

Professor Jerry Uelsmann taught a photography class at the University of Florida. He divided the class into two groups and assigned each group a different final project. The first group was graded on the number of photographs they submitted. The second group had to submit one photo and was graded on how good the image was. At the end of the semester, the best photos all came from the first group: the students who were grade on quantity.

Action vs Activity

James Clear shares this photography class story in his book, Atomic Habits. Of course, the goal of a photography course is to learn how to take better pictures. The students who focused on quantity were naturally focused on taking pictures. And by actually taking pictures, they were able to experiment with lighting and composition and all of the other things that make a good picture. It was an experiential, hands-on lesson in photography. The students took a lot of actions that led them to their ultimate goal: taking great pictures.

The group that focused on one perfect image researched, debated, and discussed the best way to take an image. As a result, the number of photos they took was substantially fewer. They went through a lot of activities (researching, debating, discussing, etc.) but they didn't take action towards their final goal which was taking a near-perfect photo. And because they participated in activities rather than action, they didn't improve as much as the group that focused on action.

Action vs. Activity in a Coffee Shop

Consider a coffee shop - there is a lot to do to make the coffee shop run. You have to stock the coffee cups and coffee beans, clean the counters, empty the trash, clean the espresso machine, ensure the technology is working for the cash register and credit card reader, sell gift cards. Just imagine going into a coffee shop to order your morning latte. The barista chooses that moment to empty the trash and wipe down the counters and restock the coffee cups. No doubt, the barista is completing a lot of activities but is not taking action on the goal at hand: making the latte.

Isn't this true of nearly anything we are trying to learn or improve? If I want to learn yoga, I need to take action and do yoga, not just research yoga studios or watch Yoga with Adriene YouTube videos. If I want to be a better writer, I need to write, not just read or look for online writing courses. Sometimes the action you need to take is to find a mentor or a teacher to help give feedback while doing the action.

How to Take Action instead of Focus on Activity

  • Determine your goal.

  • What are the activities you can take surrounding your goal?

  • Now, what are actions you can take to reach your goal?

  • Focus on the actions!

Goals (taking great pictures, drinking a morning latte, practicing yoga, writing better) happen when you take action, not just focus on activities!


Action expresses priorities.

-Mohandas Gandhi


I would love to know examples of where and when have you seen this in your own life?



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