Never Mistake Motion for Action – Decoding Ernest

never mistake motion for action ernest hemingway

Never mistake motion for action

These are popular words spoken by an artist that some people like to consider famous. Ernest Hemingway dropped numerous lines that shape the way authors and writers mold words, but for some reason the motion vs. action quote grabbed my attention.

What does that mean exactly? I heard it from my football coach all the time in high school, but no one really defined what walking through the motions really means.

Is It Any Good At All?

Will Smith talks about how his father made him and his brother work over a year to rebuild a brick wall. He learned that you don’t start by saying, “I’m going to build the biggest, baddest wall.” You learn how to place one perfect brick everyday and eventually you have a wall.

I think this is where people get confused with the motion vs. action situation. It seems natural to dream about the huge successes that we want down the road, but then someone tells us we need to take it one day at a time. The only problem with this is most people aren’t thinking like Will Smith, in that they have their priorities aligned.

It becomes easy to confuse checking emails and reading blog posts and “learning” about creating art with laying your daily bricks. I think there’s a fine line between narrowing down what you truly have to do everyday in order to achieve a goal and just acting busy because it looks or feels productive.

Where Only Action Will Do

Neil Gaiman once stated that he responded too frequently to his emails. He started to realize that he wasn’t even remotely close to being a professional writer, but rather a professional email checker. Although writers like Hugh Howey are known for interacting with fans and responding to emails, Gaiman is known for rarely responding to emails anymore. He just writes. And this is OK in his mind since checking email was hindering his ability to take action and write.

Being busy isn’t a good thing, even though we (especially Americans) advertise our “busy-ness” in an attempt to show other people that we are contributing to society. It doesn’t seem to matter that multitasking is proven ineffective and it’s best to minimize it. It doesn’t seem to matter what the result of that work is, just that we are doing it. Even if you build weapons you hear folks talking about what a great job it is.

Having a job doesn’t mean you’re taking action, and staying busy is often the opposite of striving for your goals.

Focusing on Your Goals to Define Your Actions

Danny from Firepole Marketing (or the Freddy Kreuger of Blogging) once decided that he needed to guest post on as many relevant blogs as he could in order to build a readership. It worked because he wasn’t just doing busy work. He knew that the marketing and writing blogs he wrote for held strong followings, and he wanted to attract those people to his site.

On the contrary, early in my blogging venture, I started getting into Facebook and Twitter. I spent hours friending and following people to see if they would follow me back. It turns out I was just walking through the motions and not fighting for my ultimate goal of building a community and getting published. These people just followed me out of niceness and not because my content was any good. I’ve learned since then.

A Magnet for Bad Habits

I’ve found that writing is a magnet for bad habits. You work for yourself, can sit in your underwear if you want and if you’re a freelancer no one has to ever see your face. In a sense you could hang out naked in your basement and never leave your home and still work as a writer.

Anyways…writers build bad habits, and I think this has to do with going through the motions.

Think about typing “Facebook” into that new browser tab every twenty minutes, or standing up to grab a bag of fruit snacks after every written page.

These are motions and they have one thing in common with actions: You need to make them habits in order to do them. Write to Done outlines how to build writing habits, and I particularly agree with spending at least a month to develop the habit. I use many iPhone apps for writing, but my favorite one has become one called Balanced, which pushes you to create weekly and monthly habits.

Overall, these actions need to replace the motions that you currently hold as habits. But in order to effectively replace these habits we need to identify them as good or bad beforehand.

What do you folks think about Hemingway’s ” never mistake motion for action” quote? Are there certain tasks that you partake in throughout the day that you would consider just going through the motions? Is going through motions a way to relax and release the tension before diving into the creative stuff? Let me know in the comments section below.

Hemingway photo credit.

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About Joe Warnimont

I am a writer, marketing expert and adventure seeker. I help people write, market their writing, live truthfully and embrace their lives through creativity. You can find me riding my bike around the streets of Chicago. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


  1. Great post. I viewed this page through reciprocity – but I’m staying for the content! The difference between ‘real productivity’, ‘abstract or indirect productivity’, and ‘faffing about’ is very difficult to discern.

  2. I loved this post, thanks for sharing. i might check out that App – Balanced, i really need to change some bad habits I’ve accumulated. 🙂

    • Glad you liked it! Let me know if you like the Balanced app. I use it just about everyday, and it keeps me on top of reading, working out and trying some other new things.