If we want to be successful and happy, we need to get the important things done. Unfortunately, this is not easy. Although we know we should do something, we often don’t do it. What can we do about this?
I analysed the matter and came up with a couple of techniques which have worked well for me. Let me share them with you.
When Do We Take “Action”?
If we want to make ourself do something, it is crucial to understand the basic structure of why we “do things” at all:
1. We Do “It”… If We Don’t Have a Choice
This scenario has two possible subsets:
We physically don’t have a choice
Example: We are at home and hungry. We have only vegetables in the fridge and all the shops are closed. If we want to eat something, we have to eat vegetables. Other options are physically impossible.
For example, if you want to eat healthier foods, first remove all the junk food from your home. Then take some time (e.g., over the weekend) to cook tasty but healthy food for the whole week. When you come home from work on weekdays, your prepared food will already be in the fridge and you will have no other option.1
We don’t know about other options
If we don’t know that our favourite show is currently on TV, we don’t have the choice between studying or watching our favourite show, because the latter option does not exist for us.
Crucially, the true value of these two techniques is more than just that they force us to do something. They are effective ways to reduce the pain associated with a task. Continuing the examples above, it is certainly easier to…
– … eat healthy food if you aren’t looking at a chocolate cake
– … study if you don’t know your favourite show is on TV
Why does limiting our options reduce the pain? One possible explanation may be that the role of pain (and pleasure) is to steer us toward specific choices. However, if we don’t have a choice, there is not as much need for pain.3
2. We Do “It”… If We Don’t Give Ourself a Choice (Mentally)
This differs from the above in that we physically have a choice (and know it, if asked), but we don’t consider any other options. No mental “arguing” occurs.
One example (for me) would be getting up in the morning to go to work. On an intellectual level I know sleeping in is an option (it is physically possible), but I don’t consider it, because I perceive it as an unquestionable task to get up and go to work. Importantly, I don’t need to picture all the negative consequences of sleeping in (making it appear as an unattractive option) which would be associated with arguing / evaluation (which is considered under section 3). Instead, I get up automatically, without thinking about it.
Most of what we do falls into this category. We breathe, scratch an itch, change gears when driving (assuming you are used to it), and do many other activities without thinking about them in detail. Arguably, this is the most powerful and efficient way to get things done.
Interestingly, we could provide logical reasons for why we do these things, although these are not actually why we do them. For example, if somebody asks you why you are breathing, you could say that failing to breathe would be fatal, and therefore not a good choice. This makes sense, but it is not the direct reason why we do breathe – we do it because our brained is programmed to do it (I don’t want to be a nitpicker, but I believe this is an important difference).
How can we make our brain carry out the things we know we should do without arguing or complaining?2
Our brain does not argue if… we don’t let it
One way to prevent our brain from evaluating different options is by simply not allowing it to do so. Reaching an internal resolve to do something beforehand and then implementing it without the slightest doubt is an invaluable skill (also called self-discipline).
I believe this is one of the most crucial skills for getting things done. Like all skills, it has to be learned and practiced. Steve Pavlina, who has written a wonderful series of free articles on self-discipline, compares developing this skill with lifting weights: start with easy tasks and then gradually increase the challenge according to your skill level.
Our brain does not argue if… it is used to performing the task
Habits can be very powerful: they can make us do things “automatically” without leaving room for internal arguing.
How can we establish good habits? Here, again, I believe Steve Pavlina came up with a very good proposal in the form of 30-day-trials. He suggests trying “it” out (not smoking, going to the gym, eating healthy food, etc.) for 30 days and only later deciding whether we want to stick to it. This makes it easy to start (after all, it is only for 30 days) and in many cases the new action becomes a habit, so that stopping almost requires an effort.
Our brain does not argue if… it sees how the task directly relates to a greater goal, mission, task or purpose it has already fully accepted
Most tasks are performed in the context of a greater task or goal. For example, if you’ve fully bought into the idea of working for a charity, the task of “meeting with the other charity members” directly relates to this greater task and therefore does not get “questioned” anymore.
To tap this source of energy:
1. You need to have a greater goal, mission, task or purpose which your brain has fully bought into and
2. The task in question must be directly connected to achieving the greater goal
How do we get there? As this source of energy a very important one, a future post will dive into it in detail. For the time being, please read Steve Pavlina’s How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes.
Please note: When applying these techniques, I realized that they can be useful if applied individually, but they become really strong when combined.
These techniques are the major ones which came to my mind. This is certainly not a complete list.4 If you know any others, please describe them below!
3. We Do “It”… If We Perceive It to Be the Best Option
If we have several options, we pick the best one. “Best” refers to how attractive we perceive the option to be versus all the other options available to us. Therefore, the challenge becomes making “it” as attractive and appealing as possible, while making all alternatives as unattractive as possible.
Techniques for doing this will be described in a follow-up post. In the meantime, I welcome your feedback, as always!
1.) However, keep in mind that this technique creates some inflexibility. For example, if you want to focus on studying and you lock yourself in a room with a time-lock set for two hours (physically removing the option of going into the living room to watch TV), it may create problems (or foster some serious creativity!) if you then realize you have to go to the bathroom.
2) Warning: We must keep in mind that these techniques aim to cancel out our rational and conscious thinking, and may therefore be dangerous. Some people are capable of doing terrible things because they accept “it” as an unquestionable task and stop reflecting on it (which may lead to disastrous results, such as war crimes). These techniques can be a powerful source of energy and drive to do things, but they must be applied with care!
3) I say as much need for pain, because only some elements of pain can be reduced by limiting our options.
For example, a certain type of pain (or uncomfortable feeling) is experienced directly when doing something, such as eating healthy, less-tasty food while looking at a chocolate cake. This uncomfortable feeling can be reduced by limiting the options (e.g., by not knowing about the cake).
Another type of pain provides deterrence, such as physical pain, which clearly instructs us to make different decisions in the future (don’t touch the fire!). This type of pain cannot be reduced by limiting our options. The pain does not diminish if we are tied to a chair (no options) and pain is inflicted.
Pain perception can play a crucial role when trying to get things done. A future post will dive into this topic (and that of how to reduce perceived pain) in greater detail.
4.) Basically everything that removes alternatives in our brain can be used to help us focus on the things we should do. Here’s one more example: Some people find it useful to schedule a task on their calendar. This can make it feel as if the decision to do that task has already been made, preventing internal arguing when the time arrives (this works especially well if you respect your calendar as something “holy” and committal – it won’t help if you don’t usually use a calendar).