Once upon a time I had the problem of realizing I was overweight. The initial inspiration aside, the process was fairly simple. For a day or two, I spent a couple of hours researching solutions, and then I spent the next year and a half putting it into practice diligently.
I noticed there was an immediate problem that needs attending (problem), I discovered solutions and expertise that described how to do it (theory), and then I put it into practice and adjusted variables until I got the intended result (action). This basic system of problem -> theory -> action can work really well in this order. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t go so smoothly.
I. Books, courses and seminars, oh my!
There are seemingly infinite resources on every topic imaginable. Imagine you want to start a business. There are books on starting, marketing & advertising, hiring the right people, keeping your best talent, scaling, outsourcing, and likely quite a few books on why all of those books are wrong. It would seem miraculous that anyone ever manages to be successful! Unfortunately this can quickly become problem -> theory -> theory -> theory-> theory -> theory.
One book tells you how to advertise (theory), it refers to the principles of some advertising guru. Next, you go to read the book written by this guru (theory), and he says how simple his process is, and maybe even watch a few of his videos (theory). He mentions that he’s merely following the basics of psychology and how the mind works, and so you grab a book on introductory psychology (theory) to understand that better too. Obviously it’s not enough to read one school of thought, you’re clever, so you’ll read the opposing schools too (theory), so you can get a complete picture.
I’ve likely spent as much as an entire year of my life bouncing from subject to subject to subject, without ever taking time to put them into practice and see how valid they are for real life. Perhaps the next thing I read is the thing that will inspire me to take massive action! If only it worked that way.
II. Why Does It Happen?
There are a lot of possible answers for this, and it may vary greatly from person to person, but let’s take a look at some common ones. A problem typically has a negative association to it, it is something that cannot be immediately resolved with the available resources. Perhaps with enough trial and error it could be, though you may not have time for that.
The same way one may binge on a Netflix show to avoid a complicated problem with a partner, one may avoid returning to the initial problem by continuously exposing themselves to more and more theory. The real issue with the latter is that it certainly feels so productive. Look at me, I’m learning marketing and I can tell you how to scale your business 10X, yet I haven’t even started thinking about what kind of business I’d even create and certainly haven’t made $1 off of it yet. It feels so much better to be off learning about the psychology of how people make purchases, than to face the risky potential that kicking off a business may lead to failure.
You may also just be an incredibly curious person who loves to learn, this is of course alright, but a proper balance is still required to actually get something physically created in the real world. Scheduling time dedicated to studying and learning, and other time to putting it into practice is the simplest solution to this problem.
III. The Problem, Theory, Action Principle
The way out is relatively simple once you take a step back. It’s the same way I was able to make progress towards my weight loss and it’s the same way you’ve consciously or unconsciously accomplished anything you were unfamiliar with in the past.
If you’re trying to work on an assignment in university and you hit a wall (problem) then you’ll likely check around on the internet or ask your friends (theory) and once you find the answer, you try it out (action).
If you did your university assignments the way most people operate in personal development, you’d start by trying to solve a syntax problem in a script, and finish with knowing the morning routine of the man who created the first computer, having entirely forgotten what you were trying to solve in the first place.
IV. What Now?
If you are currently caught up in the midst of bouncing between seminars or books, the simple solution is to follow the thread back to the start. To find the problem you were trying to solve in the beginning.
If you got into spirituality because you suffered a great loss or wanted to better manage your day to day stress, perhaps have accumulated piles of books and hundreds of hours watching gurus on YouTube (guilty), without ever having actually established a meditation or yoga practice. The next step would be to move into setting aside some time daily to meditate (action), and break the endless theory -> theory -> theory cycle. You may find incredible relief and boundless additional free time in switching out dozens or even hundreds of hours of reading for a simple 10-20 minute daily practice.
If you’ve wanted to start a business, take new opportunities in your current job or find a new job, perhaps you’re reading about how to get more clients, how to network better, how to outsource, or anything in-between. Consider seriously what your problem is at the current moment. Return to the root of all of this searching, and see if you now have the skills and resources to solve the problem that initially triggered your search. If you do, work on solving that problem, and move onto the next one, with more awareness and while avoiding falling into a theory loop. If you do not, search specifically for the right resource, whether it be a mentor or a book, to solve that exact problem only.
I’ve met countless people who’ve gotten into learning and studying various subjects for reasons starting from I want to be learn to manage my anger better, to I want to increase my sales, or even as simple as, I want to be a better programmer. Whether soft skills or technical skills, I’ve never seen a bigger trap in my own life or those of others, than falling into an endless cycle of theory. One may hate their 9-5 job, but spend the entirety of their free time learning everything imaginable about how to start and manage their own business without ever taking a single action, dispassionately looking back on the last 10 years wondering where the years have gone.
Return to the root of the problem, find out where it all started, solve that problem, and move onto the next. Use your awareness to not fall into another theory trap. While you’re in a long bout of studying, constantly return to the forefront of your mind the problem you are working on solving and honestly determine whether you have what you need to at least make an attempt at solving it. Two people of equal talent and knowledge may have vastly different levels of success, simply because one decided to take action before having entirely mastered a subject, and allowed themselves to fail and adjust along the way, returning to theory only when they’ve hit a wall.
The choice of what to do next, is yours alone.