The Difference Between Trying And Doing

“Trying” to do is different than doing and different than not doing. Trying lets us off the hook – we don’t have to succeed and we don’t have to fail. We don’t have to really do anything. That is languishing, NOT flourishing.

trying or doing

Trying Or Doing?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Once upon a time, as I attended a workshop, the presenter asked me to come up to the front of the room. She laid a pencil down on the table and said to me, “Try to pick that pencil up.”

I picked up the pencil. “No,” she said, “I said ‘Try to pick it up.’ Instead, you picked it up. Now, again – try to pick the pencil up.”

I stared at the pencil. “Now you’re not picking it up. Once more, try to pick up the pencil.”

Confused, I picked up the pencil. She smiled. “No, you’re picking it up again. Do you see the problem? You can either do it or not do it. Those are your choices. There isn’t really a ‘trying to do’.”

What Does “Trying” Look Like?

Suppose you said something like this:

I’m trying to be a better parent.
I’m trying to quit gossiping.
I’m trying to lose a few pounds.
I’m trying to get more exercise.
I’m trying to stop smoking.

Imagine you were being filmed on closed circuit TV. In looking at the CCTV footage, what would “trying to” do any of these things look like? What actions could you point to that would show you “trying”?

What Doing Looks Like

When we are setting objectives, we don’t say “I’ll try …”. We say “I am . . ., I do . . ., I will . . .”, etc. Why? Because “I’ll try” has the prospect of failure built in.

For example, think about job descriptions. They state specific actions to accomplish. Here is a partial job description I had as the customer care director for a software company.

  • Develop customer satisfaction goals . . .
  • Maintain accurate records . . .
  • Prepare reports on service statistics . . .
  • Hire and train new customer service agents . . .
  • Stay informed on the latest industry techniques . . .

Was I trying to be the customer care director or was I doing it? Well, obviously, there was no mention of trying in the job description, only doing specific actions.

To Try Is Not To Do

It may sound as is we’re splitting hairs to draw so much of a distinction between the words “try” and “do”, but as behavioral economist Keith Chen has shown, our language affects our behaviors. “If we change the manner in which we talk about something,” writes Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM in a Psychology Today blog, “then we change our belief system – the way that we think about that thing — and, in changing our belief system, we can change our entire system of consciousness.” [Formica] How you speak about trying or doing can affect your belief about your ability to achieve or not achieve your objective.

“To try is not to do; it is actually to attempt, struggle, seek or strive” [Sendef] . . . or sometimes merely to think about or wish or daydream about.

Do Or Do Not

Either you do or you don’t do. “Trying” is the same as not doing but it lets us off the hook a little. Trying is “well, at least we tried”.

Trying is rooted in fear – fear of failure, fear we can’t do, fear of success with its added pressure to stay on top, fear of change, fear of others’ opinions. Trying puts success in a nebulous future – “someday we’ll do it if we try” – and gives us an “out”, an excuse for failure.

When you try, you have not committed to your goal. Trying has failure built into it. “Try” and “do not” are similar in this regard. If you “do”, you may succeed although success is not certain. If you try or don’t do, failure is practically guaranteed.

Doing Is Action

From my earlier examples, this is what “trying” looks like.

I’m trying to be a better parent.
I’m trying to quit gossiping.
I’m trying to lose a few pounds.
I’m trying to get more exercise.
I’m trying to stop smoking.

This is what doing looks like.

I’m listening to my children before I start talking.
I’m speaking about any person as if they are present with me.
I’m experimenting with eating more whole foods and less sugar.
I’m practicing getting up earlier and going for a morning walk.
I’m consulting with my doctor about nicotine replacement strategies.

If you were being filmed on CCTV, you could easily point to these actions where doing has replaced trying.

Fear Of Doing

To eliminate the fear of doing, use small steps to sneak past the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our response to fear. Simply thinking about making a major change, even if it’s a change for the better, can set off a reaction in the amygdala. But by stating our intentions to do in small, incremental steps, we can progress without setting off warning signals and sending our brains and our bodies into fight or flight. [Maurer]

So when you change your “I’ll try”s into “I do”s, state them in terms of making a small improvement. That way you eliminate the “try” word, plus you deal with the fear reaction that perhaps you were suppressing by using “I’ll try”.

Make The Choice

Try to pick up a pencil. Try to be a better person. Try to be on time. Try to eat healthier. Try to find a job. Try to take better care of yourself. How do you do that? What does trying look like? In my experience, it looks a lot like not doing.

Try removing “try” from your vocabulary. Just kidding – drop the word “try” from your vocabulary. When it comes to trying or doing, choose the one that leads to accomplishment. That is doing the Excelerated Life™!

Excelerated Accomplishment™ — achieving meaningful objectives — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being and a life of meaning, purpose and service.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Formica MS, MA, EdM, Michael J. “How Trying Versus Doing Limits Potential.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, October 9, 2009. Web. June 9, 2020,right%20out%20of%20the%20gate

Maurer, Ph.D., Robert. One Small Step Can Change Your Life. New York: Workman Publishing, 2004.

Sendef, Gina. “If At First You Don’t Succeed…Trying Vs. Doing.”, September 20, 2012. Web. June 9, 2020.

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