Updated on 01.27.16

Take Action!

Trent Hamm

Watching someone else accomplish something isn't the same as doing it -- though it can feel that way to your brain.

A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a wonderful older article from the New York Times Magazine entitled Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch. The article is really a great read and is well worth your time.

The core point of the article is that the more people watch chefs on-screen, the less they actually cook at home. People no longer have the time to cook, but they have the time to watch cooking shows on television? The article’s author, Michael Pollan, spells it out:

But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

What is wrong with this picture?

I’m going to jump in here with my own conclusion. Sixty years ago, Americans spent zero time watching food programming on television and spent roughly an hour a day on food preparation. Today, the average American watches at least some amount of food programming daily, depending on how you measure it, and the time spent on food preparation has declined by about half an hour.

In other words, the average American has replaced at least some of the time spent on daily food preparation with watching food preparation on television or the internet.

There are a lot of factors involved in why this happens, of course. People work longer hours than before and thus have less energy at home, which leads to more sedentary activities like watching television and using the internet.

I think it goes a little further than that, though. People tend to live vicariously through the things they see and hear and read. We imagine ourselves doing those things and, to an extent, feel a bit of success for having completed something just by watching someone else complete something. To a small extent, I think the rise of food preparation shows has contributed to the reduction in time spent preparing food because people get some of that fulfillment of preparing a meal vicariously through watching a cooking show.

This isn’t just my own crazy idea, either. It’s backed up by the science of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons describe a phenomenon that happens in our brains whenever we watch someone else completing a task; to an extent, our brain fires in the same way as though we ourselves have completed that task.

Thus, in a subtle way, watching someone on television cooking a meal makes us feel more like a chef ourselves. Reading about someone cooking a meal makes us feel that way, too. We feel a subtle sense of having accomplished something when we really haven’t.

Now, this is fascinating and all, but what does it have to do with money?

Well, right now, you’re reading The Simple Dollar, which is a personal finance blog. Many of the articles describe techniques for saving or investing money. They talk about strategies for cutting back on spending, investing for the future, setting up accounts, and so on.

If you look at those articles through the lens of the mirror neuron theory, what you’ll see is that many people who read those articles come away not with a strategy for something that they should be doing to improve their finances, but with a sense already in place that they have achieved something. Just by reading the article and absorbing what someone else has done, a reader can get a subtle sense of personal achievement and a sense of having taken care of it, and that can be enough not to actually take action.

If I’m honest with myself, I see this kind of thing happening with me constantly. I’ll read an article about a great new money idea or a great new productivity idea or a great new food idea or a great new exercise idea. I’ll visualize myself doing it. I’ll feel excited about it and good about the idea.

And then I won’t end up doing it.

For the longest time, I always believed that this was just a personal failing, that I would get enthusiastic about things but simply not follow through because of my own weakness of character, but now I understand that I’m actually predisposed (at least a little) to not follow through on a good idea that I read about.

The truth is this: It’s hard to translate that good in your head into good action. It’s much easier to just feel good about this great recipe or great money tactic or great organizational idea, let it rattle around in your head for a while, and then end up doing nothing about it.

The problem, of course, is that “having a good idea and doing nothing about it” adds up to absolutely nothing at all over the long run.

Sure, feeling good and doing nothing might feel good in the long run and it’s definitely easier than taking action, but you get no results. If anything, you actually get negative results because you’ve spent time daydreaming without action.

The key to success on anything in life is translating the good strategies and ideas you learn about into action.

When you read a big list of money-saving techniques, don’t just tell yourself “Whoo hoo! I have all of these great money saving ideas! I’m ready to save money now!” and then not follow up. Do some of them. Take action.

When you watch a video that outlines how to sign up for retirement, don’t walk away thinking, “Wow, that seems simple and it is an awesome idea! I can do it now!” and then keep quietly putting it off. March right in there and sign up for that retirement plan.

When you hear a podcast about a great way to organize your time, don’t turn off the radio and think, “That’s brilliant! I could be so much more productive now!” and then do nothing about it. Start implementing that system right now, because if you don’t, your sense of being more productive actually amounts to nothing at all.

You can have all of the great ideas in the world, but if you don’t do something with them, nothing will change. You have to take action, because without action, all of the best intentions in the universe add up to zero.

Here’s my simple challenge to you. The next time you read any article or watch any video or listen to any podcast that contains a great idea that you really think would be useful, don’t just think about how great that idea is and then not do it. Do it. Make a conscious effort to put aside the time to take care of that task and make it happen.

What you’ll find is that you’ll actually have a real sense of accomplishment, which is a great thing, and you will have actually made progress toward the big goals in your life. You can’t get that kind of success simply from your mirror neurons. Real success requires action. There are no shortcuts.

As for me? It’s time to take action on the last article I read before writing this. It’s time to lace up my shoes and get some exercise. Action, not positive thoughts.

Good luck.

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