BL&T No. 117: Going Beyond Surface Actions

Personal Growth

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.

Borrowed & Learned

I recently finished reading Straight-Line Leadership by Dusan Djukich. It's one of two books I'm reading this quarter with the other Barrel partners. There's a long list of takeaways from the book, but one that stood out over the weekend was the concept of core actions vs. surface actions.

Here's the difference in Djukich's words: "Core actions are actions that will make a real difference in producing what you intend to achieve in life. They are a very straight line to desired results. Surface actions can keep you busy but they don’t produce much, if anything at all, in terms of real results. Think back to the people you know who are on a continuous diet and exercise regime but hardly ever lose weight. You are looking at surface actions."

What's fascinating to me about surface actions is that, at face value, they can seem like a valuable use of time for making progress. And maybe, early on, they were. Djukich cites a person who exercises and diets regularly but never loses weight. Perhaps this person saw initial results when they went from a poor diet and no exercise to their current routine. Since then, their progress has plateaued. Now, they have to push harder to achieve better results.

Todd Hargrove describes a similar phenomenon in his book Playing With Movement, "The body’s structure adapts to mechanical stress. When the stress exceeds a certain threshold, this initiates physiological changes that, if continued, will eventually make the stressed tissues better able to handle similar loads in the future." In this way, core actions can become surface actions as we experience growth, or in this case, as our threshold expands.

Hargrove adds, "When muscles are challenged by weight lifting, cells are damaged, and accumulate metabolic waste. Both of these conditions stimulate changes that promote muscle growth." Weightlifters won't build muscle if they don't increase the weight they lift over time. To continue achieving results, we need to constantly revisit our actions. But what if we don't see the flaws?

For the person who has adopted and maintained a new healthier routine, they can convince themselves they are on the right path because their actions appear helpful on the surface — to them and those around them. According to Djukich, "Many times people engage in surface actions to look good to others and to show that they are somehow committed… but what they are really committed to is staying comfortable."

The payoff of surface actions can make us blind to our poor performance, but paying close attention to our comfort level can be an effective way to open our eyes. In Cal Newport's book So Good They Can't Ignore You, he puts it like this: "If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an 'acceptable level.'"

This Morning's Workout

One recent recurring complaint on my mind is being unable to get the fourth session of my powerlifting workout program done in the week. I know completing all four workouts at a minimum is critical to achieving my desired results, but I make excuses like:

  • I'm still out of sync from so much traveling in October. I'll bounce back.
  • I can't workout on Monday evenings because I finish up my newsletter.
  • I need a rest day between sessions during the week, so I can only get a fourth session in on weekends.
  • Some weekends are busy, or we're out of town, so working out is impossible.
  • I can't workout on weekday mornings because post-workout meals would interrupt my fasting schedule.
  • I can't workout on weekday mornings because we walk our dog Gizmo, which I enjoy.

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking about ways I could adjust my routine to achieve all four workouts. I even entertained sending my newsletter on a different day.

Reading Djukich's insight on core actions shed new light: "Growth does not occur in the land of comfort. It all comes down to: 1) What comfort choices do I need to give up? 2) What growth choices do I need to take on?" I realized comfort was in the way of my progress, not the excuses listed above.

When I brought this up with my wife Dana this weekend, she offered to walk Gizmo on Monday mornings on her own (I do the same on Wednesdays when she volunteers at a local horse farm). In hindsight, I was overthinking the situation, avoiding discomfort, and refusing to make trade-offs.

This morning was my first Monday AM workout session. Our warm flannel sheets were hard to part with, but I was glad I did once I got going. It felt great to get a head start on my workouts and feel energized heading into the week. I'm excited to continue dialing in my routine while looking for opportunities to confront core actions in other areas of my life.

Performance Management

Surface actions are just as present in our professional lives as in our personal lives. An example that came to mind was how a manager handles an underperforming employee. I've been there in the past. Looking back, I can see when I let surface actions delay tough decisions.

When a manager is dealing with an underperforming employee, surface actions might look like the manager having feedback conversations in one-on-ones. To their manager, colleagues, and even the underperforming employee, it may look like the manager is committed to their report's performance. However, these discussions may last for months with little change. If the manager really wants to see their report improve, chances are core actions are not being addressed.

These core actions might mean the manager has to rearrange their schedule to spend more time with the employee and get hands-on. It might require them to spend time synthesizing the feedback they've gathered, making suggestions for improvement tactics, and having an uncomfortable conversation about the challenges. If the situation doesn't improve, a core action might be the manager letting that employee go. Making this move is never easy; however, delaying action can be detrimental to projects, company culture, and the productivity of other team members.

Looking Out for What's Core

Identifying and doing core actions is not set-it and forget-it. Djukich suggests "At least fifty times a day ask yourself if you are doing the necessary required action for what you are up to in life." While I'm not sure fifty times is a requirement, I appreciate the sentiment. Surface actions can disguise themselves as core without close attention.

Thought Starter

Where am I staying busy with surface actions without producing my desired results? What are the core actions I'm avoiding?

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