Ernest Hemingway - Never Confuse Movement with Action

Movement or Action

We all know people who are so busy they meet themselves coming as they are going. The frantic, fast-paced lifestyle tends to be a badge of honor amongst United States workers especially. If we’re ragged, worn, and constantly moving then we must be successful or at the very least critically important. But this great quote by Ernest Hemingway comes to mind frequently in those situations.

“Never mistake movement for action.”
– Ernest Hemingway

As a society (and again because of my geographic location I will focus heavily on the United States) Americans seem to have lost the concept of action and replaced it with movement. I see people who are consumed with staying busy rather than productive. Being busy is not the same as productive. Just because you’re moving doesn’t mean you are active. Or rather, just because you are moving does not mean you have taken action.

I am important

I realize staying busy gives a sense of importance, of self-worth, and of the vital role we must play within our jobs if we are so busy we cannot stop to eat. But if we are not measuring our outcomes and pointing to our performance as proof of our movement’s value then we are merely moving for the sake of moving. We’re merely being busy. Here are 3 quick ways you can check to see if you have movement or action.

Work for a purpose

The first thing I check when I am feeling extremely busy is what I am working towards. What is the purpose or goal of what i’m doing? Is there a reason why I am so busy and not just why I am busy but more importantly – what am I hoping to accomplish. And I force myself to be specific. I can’t use excuses such as, “I’ve got to keep my job” or “Someone has to do these things.” Those generic reasons are not a purpose for movement. Those generic answers are excuses.

A better purpose for movement would be something like – “I am working this much or I am this busy because I have a deadline with an investor scheduled for Monday at 9am and I must get X, Y, and Z done beforehand.” A reason like this not only proves you are moving with purpose but also helps you to refine your tasks to better accomplish the goal.

Evaluate Progress

When I find myself incredibly busy I will most days evaluate my progress at the end of each day. This helps me ensure I’m actually doing something profitable. I want to work for a purpose and I want to be sure I’m not simply moving. If I am making progress on my goals then I know I am doing it right. When those times come where I get to the end of a day and feel mentally and physically exhausted but cannot point to clear progress made throughout the day I realize I’ve been moving too much.

There’s something important in that last sentence. When I get to the end of a day and cannot point to clear progress…to be able to point to progress means I must have a set of goals or a purpose to my work. Not just “make it through the day” (though sometimes I admit that sounds like a hard enough job in and of itself). But rather I must set out to accomplish clearly defined goals which will help me to arrive at my final completed work. I cannot evaluate my progress without them.

Improve Efficiency

I’ll never forget the impact the father in the book Cheaper by the Dozen had on me. Frank Gilbreth was a time and motion study expert. I learned so many little ideas from that book. In fact I don’t want to go into too much detail about that now because I plan to write an entire post on him. The bottom line is simple. Always be looking for ways to improve your efficiency. I want to make sure I’m acting with a purpose and making progress, and doing all of it in the most efficient way possible. The more efficient I can become the more I can accomplish.

The goal is to be less busy and yet more productive. I want to increase my efficiency by scheduling tasks in the right order, by prioritizing my workflow and my meetings so each builds on the previous and the end result is progress and goal completion.


We all end up being busy at one point or another. We all end up moving at a ridiculously fast pace. I am certainly not speaking out against that. I’d be the worst offender of all if that were the case. Rather, I’m speaking out against movement without action. As Mr. Hemingway so aptly put we should never mistake the two. When we find ourselves the busiest this is when we should pause for a moment and evaluate ourselves. Use these three quick points to check and see if you are moving or active.