Balancing Mental and Physical Activity

It takes both, you know, to succeed. Too much action without thinking or planning and you’ll be “shooting from the hip,” acting impulsively, keeping busy doing something when maybe waiting for a better time or even doing nothing would lead to a better outcome. Too much thinking and planning without appropriate execution and action will leave you with “analysis paralysis,” where all your plans and dreams remain stuck in your head, and you earn a well-deserved, irrefutable reputation as a “dreamer.”

But striking a balance of both mental and physical activity is challenging. There’s no “one size fits all.” How much thinking you’ll need to guide your actions, and how much action you’ll need to realize your thinking are open questions you’ll have to answer for yourself.

Here, however, are some ideas to help you strike the right balance of mental and physical activity:

Think First

In most cases, thinking should come before acting. You may need to think for only a split-second, as when a speeding car is bearing down on you or a heavy object is falling in your direction. On the other hand, you may need to think for days, weeks, or even months before you act, as when you’re make a critical decision with a long-term impact on your work or your life.

But in nearly every situation, it’s better to lead with your intelligence than with your reflexes.

This is because reflexes were honed in a simple, physical world where dangers were fairly obvious and quick action was more usually far important than planning for anything longer-term than the next few seconds.

But today’s world is a lot more complex than that, and your options are more nuanced than whether to run to the left or to the right. To cope with this more complex world, we developed a larger brain with “higher level” functions like memory, planning, judgment, and the ability to simultaneously consider several different courses of action.

These higher-level functions will safely guide you through situations where reflexes and instincts simply cannot cope.

Consider Your Options

Once you get your executive functions cranked up to full speed, you can and should use them to:

  • Itemize the various courses of action open to you.
  • Search for – and even create or combine (where possible) to formulate – better courses of action.
  • Evaluate each option on several criteria, including:
    • Practicality and suitability to the situation
    • Your ability to effectively execute
    • Likely outcome in the current situation and its future development
    • Potential downsides
  • Select the course of action best suited to the overall situation.

There are many methods for doing this kind of thinking. The best of them generally culminate in a plan of action, with steps you can follow in an optimum sequence.

Sometimes, you can even think more deeply about your plan of action. You may want to probe for weak points you can improve, time frames you can adjust, and additional resources you can apply to make the plan more likely to succeed.

This all can and should take place before you initiate any action more complicated than jumping out of the way of a speeding car or a hurtling heavy object.

Take Meaningful Action

When you’ve done the right amount of thinking, it’s important to take meaningful action. Your action steps will be the main way you translate what you’ve thought about into tangible changes and possible improvements in the world around you.

Your actions can take many forms, including:

  • Work on yourself, through meditation, counseling, medical care, or other helpful interventions that change how you interface with the world around you.
  • Work on others, through talking, teaching, demonstrating, or otherwise imparting information to other people in hopes of changing how they interface with you and the rest of the world.
  • Work with others, through cooperation, collaboration, contribution, leadership, support, and other forms of teamwork that enable a group of people – including you – to accomplish more than they could accomplish working individually.

While these are the essential steps involving mental and physical activity, I haven’t been able to give you the kind of strict, objective guidelines I prefer to offer about how to strike the right balance between too much and too little of each one.

That’s because life is complicated.

If you think too much, you’ll accomplish too little. If you think too little, you’ll almost certainly accomplish more, but you may not accomplish enough of what’s most important to you.

However, I can offer at least …

One Broad-Ranging Suggestion

Before you act, consider your level of confidence that the action you’re about to take will help accomplish the task, project, or goal you’re hoping to complete. The higher your level of confidence, the more likely you’ve done enough thinking and can safely take that action.

On the other hand, when your confidence the action will succeed is relatively low, that’s an indication you can prudently delay taking action in hopes of finding ways to boost your confidence in it, or uncovering a different action in which you can have more confidence.

So the bottom line formula looks something like this:

  1. Think first.
  2. Think until you feel confident you’ve identified a fruitful action to take.
  3. Take that action.

It’s vague, I know. But it’s the best I can come up with at this stage of my thinking. When I develop more specific suggestions, I’ll let you know.

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