Why Do You Think Before You Act?

 Why is This Rule Golden? 

Think before you act is a rule you’ve all been taught to use – think things out, look at things rationally, think before you act.  But often this gets you into the “analysis, paralysis” mode of operating.  You fear making a mistake, so you think and think and think and your acting is delayed.  You’ve been socialized to believe that if you don’t follow logic and intellectual reason you will fail.  This goes all the way back to the Enlightenment when instinctive reasoning was discredited and replaced with purely rational thinking.

Our school systems teach this and you internalize it all of your life.  It is no wonder that when you get into business, this is the preferred and accepted way of thinking. 

So when the conative part of your mind, often experienced as a gut feeling, is telling you to just start trying things, but the process tells you-you need to collect more data, what do you do? Probably ignore what your gut is telling you.  But your gut is giving you important information – conative information.  When you ignore it, your problem solving just got messier and more time and energy consuming.

Your Mind Knows a Different Way

Thinking before you Act is something you’ve learned.  But your mind knows there might be a different way – at least for some of you.  And it is often telling you to do something different, that’s where the gut feelings come in, but you ignore it, and pay the price with stress and fatigue.

I had them come together and share what their instincts were telling them to do, and why.  The conversation quickly focused on a set of actions, and all at once, the data they had seemed to be enough and it supported what their instincts were telling them all along.

I once worked with a team that was stuck and couldn’t seem to come to a decision.  When I talked to each person individually they each told me they ‘knew’ what action to take, but felt that they needed to follow the process and keep collecting data.  They never shared what their instincts were telling them to do with their other team members.  To a person, they just kept trying to follow the prescribed process and collect more data.  There wasn’t much teamwork going on, and not a lot of instinctive action either.  I had them come together and share what their instincts were telling them to do, and why.  The conversation quickly focused on a set of actions, and all at once, the data they had seemed to be enough and it supported what their instincts were telling them all along.  Once the first actions were taken, they were able to see what worked and what needed to be adjusted.  The team went from unproductive and stressed out to energized and productive.

Maybe You Should Act Before You Think Instead?

If you Act before you Think, you can quickly come to a decision and keep going.  That doesn’t mean you keep going down a wrong path, but it means you get to that conclusion quicker without expending as much energy.

In the case of the team I worked with, they quickly realized that one set of actions wasn’t working and changed course.  They could do this easily and quickly because they trusted each other and their collective instincts.

Thinking before you act can kill your momentum.  How many times have you known in your gut the right direction to take, but instead of taking action you or someone else on your team puts the breaks on by wanting to review all the data or follow a prescribed process where your kind of action was the last step?  For some people, gathering or reviewing data IS their way of taking action.  For others, it may be following a process.  But that isn’t everyone’s way, and you need to recognize that for yourself – and for your teams.

When you are driven to take action, and you do, that jump-starts the process.  It starts by feeling strongly about something, that triggers your instincts into action and then you think about what you are doing and can improve upon it.  I’m not talking about acting without thinking, I’m talking about acting WITH thinking, but taking action first.

There are some people whose instinctive way of taking action is to gather data.  For those folks, getting all the data IS acting before thinking.  However, if your instinctive way of taking action is to brainstorm solutions, or create a process to get to a solution, being forced to go through a data gathering exercise will sap your energy and do more harm than good.

Diversity is a Strength

Some people have an instinct to gather lots of information, some to gather just enough and some as little as possible.  Forcing all three to gather data in just one way is stressful and frustrating, and doesn’t lead to a better result.

Let me give you an example of what this might look like.  You are on a team of people and you are trying to solve a distribution problem.  At your first meeting, one individual comes in with a set of spreadsheets an inch thick that shows you all of the activity at the distribution centers around the world for this particular product for the last quarter.  It is down to the individual level – who has touched the product, for how long and where the product went next.  They’ve analyzed the data already but would like to go through that data with the whole group before they share their conclusions.

When they say this half the team groans.  That is clearly not an activity they are interested in pursuing.  One person speaks up and says – ‘can’t we just get the summary?’.  And someone else says, ‘just give us the bottom line – we trust you.’  Those are the three different instincts when it comes to gathering information.  Each of these individuals is using data as part of their problem-solving in the way that works best for them.

The team leader reads the room and asks the individual to give their conclusions first and then allows time for people to ask questions.  The key, in this case, is balance, not imposing one way of gathering data to solve a problem on another.  Each person trusted that they had the exact right amount of data to begin solving this problem – and for them they did.  How to best use the data to really solve the problem was up to the guidance of the team leader – and their decision to balance everyone’s needs allowed the team to come to a solution in record time.

Maybe the amount of data needed to solve the problem was that in-depth analysis and an inch thick spreadsheet.  But that doesn’t mean everyone on the team needs to do that work.  The person whose instincts lead them on that path is the right person for that job.  The rest of the team adds their instincts to get to the solution in other ways.  The team’s synergy – their ability to value and utilize each other’s MOs to solve business problems – is critical to their success.

I know I’ve probably said this before, but it bears repeating.  When you encourage yourself and your people to work in their MO (their Modus Operandi) and DON’T dictate the ‘how’, they are able to reach the outcome in a more effective way – for them.  When you put the breaks on and make them conform to one way of approaching the problem –  energy and therefore time, are wasted. 

Trust Your Instincts

You conform to the way you have been taught, or the way someone else wants you to solve a problem.  You have learned to ignore your instincts even at great personal cost in engagement and productivity.

Trusting your instincts isn’t acting without control.  The person with the least need for details isn’t any less engaged in solving the problem than the person with an inch of paper filled with every last detail.  What is great about this example is that each person in this situation felt free to be themselves and brought it with them into the meeting room.  Most of you don’t do that.  You conform to the way you have been taught, or the way someone else wants you to solve a problem.  You have learned to ignore your instincts even at great personal cost in engagement and productivity.  That’s where the ‘not enough hours in the day’ and ‘procrastination’ comes from – from you ignoring your instincts.

Think Before You Act isn’t always the recipe for success.  It is when you are going to cross the street or grab a hot dish – but when it comes to problem-solving there may be a more effective way.  That better way requires you to trust your instincts.  Easier said than done in today’s work environment.  Next Up: Why Do I Need to Trust My Instincts?


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. Instincts find their foundation in the experiences our life goes through, at a great cost at times. Looking at life from where I sit now, it is not hard to say that a vast majority of the challenges we face are born out of our own shortcomings. I’m not talking about the challenges of running an enterprise in the face of competition from overseas or sudden legislative changes. That calls for rules, regulations, relationships and a rational approach. The challenges we face in tackling tough situations may not always find their solutions in consensus, rather we would find them hidden in the deep crevices of our own management skills.

    For fear of writing an entire article endorsing your own views, Ms. Beth, suffice it to say, I find absolute conformity in your well-meaning and calculated approach.

    Thanks a lot; Merry Christmas to you and yours!