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Just Don’t It


For years it’s bothered me that “Just do it” is in use as a corporate slogan, because it’s a practical and extremely useful self-motivation shortcut. “Just do it” can sometimes sneak you into success while your brain is still arguing the merits of failure. While you’re trying to decide whether to start working on taxes or to watch some TV, you might say to yourself “Why don’t I sift through my files and dig out all my tax-related materials, just as something to do while I’m deciding?” If it works (and of course it doesn’t always, but if you haven’t tried it,¬†you might be surprised how easy it is to fall for this handy trick), you end up doing what you hoped to do without ever having to decide to do it.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Instead of talking about just doing it, I’m going to talk about just not doing it. Here’s how that works:

Let’s say I’m at home on a Sunday, as I was this past Sunday, and I have a lot of writing I’d really like to get done, which I did. And let’s say there’s a movie I’d like to see, which there was, and that it wouldn’t be hard for me to just go to it and carve a couple of hours out of my afternoon, which was the case.

Deep down, I knew that I wanted to be doing the writing. I enjoy the writing, and it’s important. But the movie was very tempting: it was hard to argue that it would do awful damage to my plans for the day, because it wouldn’t. It was hard to argue that it was unreasonable or damaging, because it wasn’t those things either. No, it was just a worse choice than writing. Even so, pitting the two against each other, writing would have a good chance of losing, because movies are more obviously attractive, easier to picture having fun at.

But this is where I employed the mighty power of just not doing it: as I was beginning to imagine going to the movie, just the kind of visualization that tends to make a person more likely to do something, I stopped and said to myself “Or … I could stay home and get back to writing.” I felt an immediate relief, as though I had been waiting to give myself permission to make the right choice, and thinking about the options as little as possible from there, I went back to writing and wasn’t bothered by that choice the rest of the day.

I’m not describing this situation (or the cinnamon bun one) because I think it’s impressive or especially virtuous: the usefulness of it is that it isn’t anything special. I didn’t have to build up to it or use clever techniques: I just took advantage of the possibility of saying “No, let’s not.” It’s an option I’m trying to use more and more lately, and it’s surprising to me how much I’m able to accomplish by saying “No.”

Photo by D.B. Blas

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