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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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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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