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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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    More by this author

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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