Taking Imperfect Action: A 5-Step Guide for Getting out of Your Own Way
On my recent coaching calls, I’ve been noticing a trend among my clients: business owners who KNOW deep down what they need to do, but hire me to help them actually act on it. It made me wonder: why is it so easy for us to encourage others to step out of their comfort zone, but so difficult to actually do it ourselves?
A lot of times we tell ourselves that we don’t know the answer. We think that consulting an expert, doing tons of online research, or running a survey will give us the answer (I’ve done all three, many times).
When it comes to planning and research, there can be too much of a good thing. In my opinion, there are two key problems with over-researching when it comes to taking imperfect action.
The first issue is that research is often confused with productivity, when in reality, it’s an activity. Activities keep you busy, but they don’t result in tangible outputs. Only productive actions will get you closer to your goal. In other words, you’re consuming a lot of information, but you’re not producing anything. If days go by where you have no measurable outputs to account for your time, then you are procrasti-planning.
That’s right. Planning/researching is a way that people avoid the discomfort of jumping in and taking imperfect action. It’s procrastination. Don’t confuse being busy with being productive.
The second, and potentially more dangerous part of doing too much research, is that you’ll often get a lot of conflicting advice. Some advice is good; too much advice is confusing. Here’s an example: while building my startup, Supporti, one source told me that I shouldn’t spend any money on marketing until I’ve reached the point of viral growth (i.e., customers are sharing the product with all of their friends). Another source told me that I should spend a casual $100/day on Facebook ads. Two polar opposite strategies from sources claiming to bring businesses like mine to great success.
Such conflicting advice can keep you stuck in indecision and foster self-doubt. When you spend all of your time overthinking and getting a lot of opinions, you miss out on the valuable opportunity to test and gather data to draw your own conclusions. The answer to this is imperfect action.
In this article, I’ll share the five strategies that work for me and my clients for getting out of your own way, pushing past the mental barriers that we put up, and the practical next steps that you can take to start doing and stop overthinking.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.
- Newton's First Law
(the same goes for people)
Step 1. Reframe research so that it consists of at least 50% real-world tests that you do yourself.
In any domain, there are experts, and their advice can be valuable, don’t get me wrong. But almost all experts also have an agenda: that is, to make money from you. And a lot of times the way they will do that is to make you doubt yourself and feel inferior so that you pay to get their offering. So they’ll tap into your self-doubt and convince you that you need this course/book/membership or else you’re doomed for failure.
I’m not saying that experts aren’t helpful. A lot of the time, we turn to them because their plans offer novel insights, useful strategies, and their words can motivate us. But experts are largely successful because somewhere along the way, they took action. The most successful people learn along the way, gaining unique insights that give them an edge on how to move forward and find greater success.
So while you may be able to learn some things from their teachings, imagine how much you could learn if you spent time taking action and learning from your own experiences.
As Confucius wrote:
“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”
Here’s an example. When I started my business, I used the word “accountabilibuddy” throughout the website to describe our service’s mutually supportive partnerships. When analyzing the search data, it turned out that people had a lot of trouble spelling the word (e.g., "accountabuddy," "accountabilabuddy"—you get the idea). By changing the website language to “accountability partner,” our site performed much better in search rankings. No book or expert could have advised me on the best phrase to use! I had to dive in and try something, make a mistake, and learn from it.
Commit to doing as much internal research (that is, learning from your own experiences, which WILL include mistakes) as external research. This might look like taking a few lessons of a course in the morning, and then spending the evening writing a blog post (or whatever you decide the action should be). Through this two-sided approach, you’ll not only make meaningful progress towards your goals; you’ll also grow more confident in your own abilities. According to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, novel experiences build confidence. When you acquire new skills, it increases your confidence in your ability to achieve goals that are outside of your comfort zone.
You can still get huge benefits even if you fail, provided you have the right mindset going in. Which brings me to the next section:
Step 2. Shift your mindset from perfectionist thinking to beginner thinking.
When you set a standard of perfection, anything less is a failure. But when you set learning as the goal, you can’t lose. To quote Nelson Mandela:
“I never fail. I either win or learn.”
Behold the beginner mindset! You can have this beginner mentality even if you’ve been at the project for a while. Whatever your imperfect action is, you’re probably not a pro yet. If you’re comparing yourself to experts who have been in the field for years, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, be okay with being a bit rough around the edges. The key to taking imperfect action is starting.
At the beginning, the stakes are low. You don’t even have to tell anyone what you’re working on, unless of course your imperfect action is telling people about your work. The best part of being a beginner is that no one has preconceived notions that you’re going to be a superstar. So why are YOU expecting this from you?
Enjoy this time of learning. Be a student again. Embrace the messy that comes with it.
Step 3. Identify the most important thing to learn, and target your imperfect action around it.
There is a tendency for people to pick the imperfect action that feels most comfortable to you. An example might be designing a logo, which probably involves hiring a designer, looking at pretty websites, etc.
Fight that tendency! The action you need to be taking is probably the one that feels scary. Why? Well both you and I know that you could find someone or some way to make you a logo. It's a slam dunk. You can do that anytime.
But the imperfect action you NEED to take should be testing an assumption—something that you DON'T already know—so that you can actually learn something of value.
Here are some examples of questions for assumptions that you might want to test:
Does what I’m making solve a problem that people have?
Does my dream job/school actually align with my values?
Will someone pay me to do X? How much?
Write down the assumptions you have about the project. Which is the biggest assumption, the greatest unknown? THAT’s the one you should focus on. For business owners, the biggest assumption is that there is a market that actually needs or wants your offering. For students or job applicants, the assumption might be that you’re a strong candidate.
Once you have an idea of which assumption you’d like to test, the next step is choosing an imperfect action that will give you some data that helps answer whether or not your key assumption is correct.
Step 4. Decide which imperfect action will help you learn more than you know today.
What might you do if you HAD to learn something in the next week? Could you make something that’s 50% or 80% as good as you’d like it to be in order to learn something new?
Let's say that your big goal is to create your own blog. The main assumption is that people will want to read what you’re writing. How can you test this? Well eventually, you’ll want to create your own website, which means picking a name, getting the domain, hosting provider, design, etc. This all takes research, planning, strategy, and can feel overwhelming, so you stop. But what if instead you write ONE article, and applied to guest blog on your favorite platforms? Or what if you wrote on Medium instead, so that you don’t even need to figure out the website design side of things until you see the response to your article? By getting one article out into the world, you can start learning what people want to read. You can get feedback from people on your work, which will then make your next blog post 10 times better. Plus, you can use this feedback to help you choose an even better website domain and style.
Another example: The big goal is for your coaching business to offer a 3-month group coaching program and have it become your main revenue stream. Your assumption to test is whether people want the program that you’re making. Imperfect action in this case might be as simple as setting up a waitlist and description of the program and then sharing it in relevant communities. From there, you can scale back the program to be a one-time free event in exchange for testimonials. Imagine how much you could learn about what people like, what language resonates, and what questions they have by running this test.
Think about your goal. What does a bite-sized version look like? Could you put it together in a week? What could you learn by putting it out into the world?
Step 5. Create an action plan which includes how you’ll hold yourself accountable.
We’ve covered the first large part of taking imperfect action: deciding what the bold yet scaled-down action is and what you'll learn from it. The second part is actually doing it. It’s time to create a plan for how you’ll take imperfect action.
Get really specific here so that you don’t forget, slip back into a research rabbit hole, or let a week go by without making any progress. When you know exactly, when, where, and how you’ll do it, you can put it on your calendar to block off the time and set yourself up for success.
Pro-tip: Always have a contingency plan. What if something takes longer than you think it will? What if your in-laws pop by for an unexpected visit? What if the power goes out?
When you bake in a contingency plan, you open up more avenues for your success.
Once you know when you’ll take your imperfect action, create a system of accountability.
One way to do this is by setting a deadline for yourself. Sometimes deadlines will already be established for you, like an application to a program, or the availability of a location where you plan to host an event. That’s exactly what we want because it forces you to act and might require you to scale back any perfectionist tendencies.
Another option is to create internal deadlines, but of course, it has to mean something to you. One way to do this is to tell someone your deadline, to keep you honest. Social expectation is an extremely powerful motivator, which is why having an accountability partner or accountability coach can be so effective. Plus, by bringing someone along for the ride, the journey feels less lonely and more fun. I always say that success is sweetest when shared.
If you think social accountability might help you take imperfect action, commit to doing your next step by telling your accountability partner. Let them how you’d like them to hold you accountable to doing the thing you said you’d do.
Not sure where to find an accountability partner, or how to work together? Start your free trial of Supporti, the accountability partner system that’s made to help business owners stick to the actions they set for themselves.
Once you dive in with imperfect action and execute your test, reflect on what you've learned. What will you try next? How will you get better and better with each imperfect action? Repeat as necessary.
Like a muscle, the more you take imperfect action, the easier it gets. By having the right mindset, clear learning goals, and a plan of action, you can make tremendous strides in a short amount of time and learn more than you ever could by reading about someone else’s experience.
So go ahead, take the (imperfect) leap. And if you need support along the way, Supporti’s here for you.