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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 July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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