Never confuse movement with action. – Ernest Hemingway
What does that mean?
This quote was related in the book by Marlene Dietrich, who added “In those five words he gave me a whole philosophy.”
Let’s start with movement. Movement can be anything which causes a change in the situation, whether it’s the deck chairs on the Titanic, or the hierarchy in a political party.
Now for action. It’s what the director calls for to get a scene started when filming a movie. It is movement, yes, but with a purpose. In the case of a movie, it’s telling a story.
The quote asks us not to confuse mere movement for actual action. It doesn’t want us to presume that because there are things happening, that anything will actually change.
Why is action important?
We can move things around in our lives, but without action, does anything useful actually take place? I would say no, things will not change. Not from simple movement. To make an actual change, there has to be meaning or purpose to the movement. Only then does motion become action.
Consider the old comment about someone just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The boat is sinking, but someone is moving the deck chairs because it seemed like the only thing to do at the time. Was it doing any good? Could that time and effort have been put to better use?
If the person had, instead, cleared a path for the people trying to get to the lifeboats, that would have been action. If they had chosen to help get people to the lifeboats, that also would have been action. The whole “rearranging the deck chairs” has become a metaphor for useless movement.
Taking action is to do something which is both important and urgent. Motion is usually doing something which is not important, and probably not all that urgent either. By choosing movement, we waste time, both ours and that of others. By choosing action, we invest our time in the desired outcome of our action.
Where can I apply this in my life?
Movement is the term for doing things which don’t achieve much for useful results. Another word for it might be busy work or wasting time. We all do it from time to time. The key, per today’s quote, is to never confuse it with taking action.
That means we can make use of down-time to rest and relax, to do things which don’t achieve great results. We can spend that time doing what-ever we want. We just need to remember not to expect much in the way of results. We also should be cautious about how much time we spend in motion without action.
Take a moment and think back through the last few days, or even weeks. How much time was spent on busy-work or simply being in motion? How much of that time could you cut out? What activities tend to eat up the most time? Consider what you might change to free up some motion time for taking action.
Don’t misunderstand me, few of us can be in action continuously. We need down time, and there are always the mindless physical tasks we can do to relax and unwind. One can be busy petting the dog or cat, and be in movement, or we can do the same thing and be in action. It all depends on why you are doing it, right?
Over the years, I’ve been trying to remove as many movement habits as I can. I try to make as many of the things I do meaningful as I possible. Even when I’m petting the cat, I try to make sure the cat is getting something out of it. In this manner, I’m bonding with the cat, and helping it’s health as well.
Also remember that not all action is created equally. Some actions will get very little results while others will get massive results. Another place to find more time is to cut back on some of the actions which result in very little results and refocus that time on other actions.
We only have so much time and so much energy in each day. How we use that time and that energy is up to us. We also need to remember that we are the ones who place a value on the results of our actions, so select carefully on what you choose to act. Unless you’re at work, then you might not get to decide.