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Why “Just Do It” Just Doesn’t Do It for You

Why “Just Do It” Just Doesn’t Do It for You

Just Do It?

    “Just do it!”

    “Do Something!”

    “Act now!”

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    “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.

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    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.

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    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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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