Just Do It?

“Just do it!”

“Do Something!”

“Act now!”

“Ready, Fire, Aim!”

We are surrounded, on a day-to-day basis, by the exhortation to act. Hustle, hustle, hustle, get a move on, get going. Whether its a friend giving us advice or a multi-million dollar ad campaign, everyone seems to be telling us – in the vaguest way possible – to get off our butts and go do something. Any-thing.

New research out of the University of Illinois suggests that this social pressure to be always-on and always on the go may lead us to act, but only accidentally in productive ways (if at all).

The study, led by Dr. Dolores Albarracin, explored issues related to “priming”, which I’ve written about before (Your Brain Is Not Your Firend). In a nutshell, priming is what happens when your brain receives certain stimuli that channel its responses in specific ways. For example, the smell of cleaning fluid seems to prime us to desire cleanliness, and people in rooms scented with cleaning products tend to act in neat and orderly ways, cleaning up after themselves for instance.

In Albarracin’s study, the primes were words that conveyed action or inaction, like “go” or “motivation” for action and “rest” and “stop” for inaction. After priming the subjects, researchers were asked to perform tasks such as doodling, eating, or memorizing new information. The intensity of the subjects’ performance was measured – and, in a couple of studies where subjects were given the option not to perform the task, of their non-performance.

As you’d expect, subjects primed with action words were more active, overall, than those primed with inactive ones. That outcome has been seen before, and was expected. What wasn’t expected, though, was that it didn’t matter what task subjects were asked to perform – once primed to act, they attacked whatever task was placed in front of them with gusto.

The summary in ScienceDaily quotes Dr. Albarracin:

What you end up promoting is a very general message to be active. You can be active by exercising or learning, but you can also be active by driving fast or taking drugs. That is the danger of a global message to be active.

Pressure to Spin Your Wheels

In other words, once primed for action, we don’t really care what action we take. We may sit down and churn out that report that’s due tomorrow – or we might get really into updating our Twitter account, or playing Solitaire, or cleaning our desk.

And we’re always primed for action. Our social space is positively filled with general messages to be active, constantly “pinging” our consciousness and pushing us to do something, and do it now. Aside from the stress this can cause, Albarracin’s research suggests that the non-specific pressure to act might be leading us to do all sorts of non-productive wheel-spinning, actually detracting from our ability to get anything worthwhile done.

Perhaps you’ve experienced it? You’re facing a daunting task that you’re not really looking forward to, and finally decide it’s time to “get moving”. “Let’s get some work done!” you tell yourself, and stride purposefully to your desk where you get down to work… sorting your pencil cup. And there’s the vacuuming to do, and that letter to drop in the mailbox, and a load of laundry to do, and a voicemail to return, and…

Specificity Counts

This research has several implications for productivity – both in terms of how we motivate ourselves to get things done and how we motivate others. In all things, it suggests, specificity counts.

That’s why it’s important to write down tasks that are as specific as possible on your to-do lists. What a to-do list does, essentially, is to prime your brain to focus on a single task long enough to complete it. If the task is too vague – for example, “Write” instead of “Draft the marketing and demographics section of the Acme Widgets proposal” – it gets our brains all fired up without giving it anything concrete to focus on. Albarracin’s research suggests that the vaguely-primed brain will latch onto the first task placed in front of it that loosely relates to its prime – you might write that proposal section, or you might write your shopping list, an email to your mother, or the 10 things you hate most about writing proposals.

Likewise, it seems that all those inspirational messages, from Nike ads to motivational posters, are filling us up with a feel-good energy but not necessarily bringing us any closer to our goals. In fact, they could lead us to waste time on random stuff that doesn’t advance us in any way.

Instead, we should be sending specific messages when trying to motivate our staff, our team, our customers, or our friends – not just a call for action but a call for this particular action. If the goal is to get someone to eat, then “eat” is the prime you want, not “get busy!”

Finally, since it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to escape the social pressures all around us to “act now” without offering any focus, it might pay to keep an “action kit” handy – to keep a couple of tasks ready to go and to develop the self-discipline to turn to them when the urge to “do something” strikes. Albarracin’s research doesn’t suggest remedies, but clearly there are people in our society who cope with the demand to “just do it”, becuase meaningful work gets done along with all the busywork. Priming can offer us a great deal of energy, but channeling it into something productive is, it seems, up to each of us individually.

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