Shifting from Dabbler to Doer

Written by Mark McElroy

Deciding where to invest your attention frees you to get more done.

I’ve always been a magpie of ideas. I’m drawn to the new, the bright, the shiny. I scoop these ideas up and carry them back to my nest. The result? I have an enormous nest, feathered with layer upon layer of ideas and insights.

Problem is, for the most part my fabulous nest is empty. No eggs. I’m skimming a lot, collecting a lot, but producing very little. I’ve mistaken inspiration (“Ooh! That’s neat! I’ll save it!”) for insight (“Here’s why this really matters!”). Worse, rather than let the act of research inform my work, I’ve allowed my work to become the act of research.

When our information addiction becomes divorced from projects and products, we demote ourselves from doers to dabblers. Once I realized this, I asked myself, “What do I need to do to turn things around? How can I go from pondering to producing?”

Or, in other words, how can I do less dabbling … and more doing?

For me, making the shift from dabbler to doer involved:

1) Going deep (even over going broad.) Rather than pursue dozens of topics in a shallow way, I’m choosing to pursue a few compelling subjects more deeply.

2) Prioritizing practices (even over principles). I want to spend more time with subjects that give me something to do or actions to take … and less time with subjects that tend to be more theoretical than practical.

3) Focusing on publication (even over collection). Rather than value a line of inquiry based on the size of a pile of accumulated links, I’m prioritizing topics based on the amount of output (blog posts, tweets, essays, videos, podcasts) they inspire.

Once I made these decisions, I found it much easier to identify, select, and prioritize a few key areas of interest to focus on. For me, those turned out to be:

Writing. I’ve commercially published more than a dozen books and self-published a handful more, but, lately, my identity as an author is more a matter of memory than activity. I want to immerse myself in this neglected craft, return to a daily writing habit, and generate more work I can share with others.

Living a More Balanced Life. A recent diagnosis with heart disease has prompted me to be more aware of the need for mental, physical, and emotional balance in my life. For me, that means going from dabbling in diet, exercise, and meditation to diving more deeply into these topics … identifying and committing to practices (like morning meditation and daily walks and Weight Watchers) that reinforce balance … and putting my notes out there where they can inspire people seeking a similar balance in their lives.

Faith. Having gone from fundamentalist to atheist to mystic to seeker can sometimes leave me feeling anchoress and adrift. I’m committing to thinking more deeply about spirituality, focusing on practical ways to express those beliefs, and “learning out loud” by sharing this journey with like-minded people.

To be clear, I won’t quit following topics like Apple hardware and software, branding, COVID-19, photography, or politics. But I will invest less time and attention in them, because I’m choosing to focus on writing, living a balanced life, and matters of faith.

And, of course, in sharing this practice with you, I’m not saying you need to prioritize your own interests on the basis of depth over breadth, practice over principle, and publication over collection. It’s okay to be an information magpie. If soaking in the information bath until you’re all wrinkled up is your thing, I’m not knocking it. It’s okay to pursue a broad range of topics, just for the joy of pursuing them.

But if you feel a need to be making something, producing something, or leveraging what you learn in ways that could change lives (and, by extension, change the world), then you might find some value in defining your own criteria and using that criteria to prioritize the topics you pursue. You might enjoy the freedom that comes from having clarity around which topics merit a deeper investment of time and attention. And this, in turn, might position you to get more done and make a bigger mark on the world.

Photo: an image I snapped while visiting the tiny but earnest natural science museum at Harutori Park in Hokkaido, Japan in 2019.

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).