Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Hidden Meaning of "Just Do It"

It's been way too long since my last article.  Partly, that's because a piece like "How to Stop Having Problems" is a tough act to follow.  What do you do after you stop having problems?

In fact, that very question created some interesting new problems for me.  Around the time my computer died (about a month ago), I happened to fix a couple of problems that I had, and once I stopped having them, I didn't know what the hell to do with myself and my life!

The first thing that I discovered was back when my computer broke down, and I had to replace the motherboard.  I was trying to clean up all the hardware, tools, and other junk that was floating around my office afterward, and  I was going to have to go into the Closet of Doom (doesn't everybody have at least one Closet of Doom in their house?) and it was freaking me out a little bit.

I didn't actually pay much attention to this at the time, because freaking out about such things was so normal to me that I never really notice it; it seems like just "life". 

Anyway, what happened was this: I was walking back to my office from the kitchen, worried about how much work it was going to be to clean up the mess, and feeling depressed about being set back so far by this computer problem intruding into my life.  I didn't want to have to clean it, and I wished there was a way to get out of it.

How To Stop Being Yourself

Then I remembered something I experimented with a few months ago: a technique for doing things automatically, without feeling like I'm the one who has to do them.  In this altered state, I would simply observe myself doing, and "doing happens".  Just remembering it caused me to spontaneously pop into that state, without really even thinking about it.  "I" had been walking to the office, but now "I" was watching "myself" walk to the office.  "I" was not walking.  Instead, "walking was happening", and "I" was just along for the ride.

When I watched myself get to the office and begin cleaning up, I eventually saw myself facing the Closet of Doom.  But the interesting thing was this: the apprehension I had about sorting stuff out in there was no longer present.

Well, it was, sort of, but it also wasn't.  Imagine this: you're sitting on your couch watching a horror movie, and you're really involved in it, being scared witless.  Now imagine instead that you're walking through the room and glancing in the general direction of the TV set as you look at the movie.  What's the difference in emotional impact?

In How to Stop Having Problems, I wrote about the "DVD player in your head", and how it's only a problem if you believe the pictures it shows you are real.  But when you shift your viewpoint, so that the pictures are only a small part of a bigger perspective, their impact is diminished...  and at the same time, the images become clearer and easier to see, because they don't trigger so many strong emotions.

So what happened was this: because I was just watching myself work, "I" was not the one who was afraid of dealing with the mess.  Instead "I" just saw -- for the very first time -- the previously-subconscious images that were triggering my reactions!

To Stop Being It, Start Seeing It

Specifically, I saw that certain types of disorder were subconsciously reminding me of a childhood incident where my mother yelled at me about a messy room.  I don't recall a lot of details; I just remember the messiness and the yelling and the feeling bad -- especially about not knowing where to start, feeling paralyzed because there was so much to do and I had no idea what to do.  So there was this whole self-reinforcing cluster of feelings linked to disorder and not knowing where to start.  No wonder I felt so bad about any project to clean things up -- but only at the beginning of such projects!

My point, of course, is not to blame my mother for all my cleaning-related procrastination, although there have been times when it would be tempting to do so.  :-)  Instead, my point is that you will never find out about these things while your eyes are glued to the TV set in your head! 

While you think you are in the movie, you can't see the movie.  You react too quickly: your heart starts pounding or your stomach clenches, and the pictures that triggered the feeling are already gone.  And if you don't know what the trigger is, it's going to be hard for you to use the techniques from You, Version 2.0 to change them.

For me, of course, I've gotten so used to this sort of thing that I don't even consciously do the change techniques any more; I've got it down to a quick shorthand communication between me and my subconscious for eliminating a problem memory: "Burn it!", I say to myself, and the memory goes up in flames.  This works for me because 1) I previously took the time to set up this mental "housecleaning process" (as described in the book, Turtles All The Way Down), and 2) the memory in question was one with no personal identity ramifications: it was not a memory that structures "who I am" or any fundamental beliefs, it was just a feeling in a situation.  Easy to fix, because there were no conflicts of interest involved.  (At least, not directly...  but now I'm getting ahead of the story.)

It's amazing, though, just how many things in life are "just a feeling in a situation".  I was surprised to find that the same feeling was linked to starting other kinds of projects, even programming ones.  Pretty much anything where I might say, "I don't know where to begin", I had that same bad feeling attached -- even for projects that I really  wanted to do.

So, with that feeling gone, I suddenly started doing a lot more projects.  I also found it a lot easier to use the autopilot trick, and to "just do" things in general.

What It Means To "Just Do It"

In the past I've often been critical of those who exhort others to "just do" something, like the time management gurus who say that to avoid procrastination, you should just do the thing you're putting off.  This is not very useful advice; if people knew how to "just do it", they would!  Thus, the standard answer to this non-advice is usually, "But it's not that simple," or "You just don't understand!"

The trick is in the meaning of the word "just".  When somebody says "just do it", they are trying to communicate that you should not do anything else.  It might better be phrased as, "Only do it, without thinking about anything, not even about what you're doing.  In fact, don't even do it, just watch yourself doing it, but don't actually try to do anything."

In other words, the real trick is to stop trying, and start actually doing.  But our language is vague, and doesn't easily express the fine shades of meaning here.  If you say to someone, "stop trying to do it, and start actually doing it", it just sounds like a vague complaint or maybe a "polite" way of saying that you're not trying hard enough!

But the truth is that it's not an accusation.  It's just a summary of the solution to your problem, rather than a description of how to practice the solution itself.  For the person giving the advice, it seems like a simple-enough summary of what they would do if they were you.  But you're not them, and a summary isn't sufficient to teach you how to do what they do, any more than saying "just pedal and keep your balance" will teach you how to ride a bike!

And thus, these bits of standard advice are pretty much useless, because the only people who can understand the words are the ones who already know what they mean.  And those people aren't the ones who really need to be told.  Meanwhile, for the rest of us, it's like trying to learn to ride a bike with someone standing next to you yelling, "Just pedal and keep your balance!"

Unfortunately, the self-help literature is full of this sort of well-meaning but essentially useless advice.  As a result, studies tend to show that one kind of self-help works pretty much as well as another.  Virtually any self-help book or program can get positive testimonials from a large enough audience, because some percentage of people will just happen to be ready to "get" what that author has to say at a given moment -- or at least to "get" something of value, whether or not it's what the author said!  (I'm often amazed by the cool things that people sometimes get from things I wrote, but which I never thought of myself or actually intended to say!)

The Problem With Being Perfect

Of course, it's good that some people are getting benefits, but what about all those people who just aren't ready to "get" something from a particular piece?  I've personally bought and read a couple hundred "self-help" books -- and I'm using a very narrow definition of "self-help" in that count!  I'm pretty sure I have several that focus specifically on the idea of "just doing it", but I'm only now able to actually do that.  But I'm sure if I now went back to those books, I would see that yes, they do in fact describe what I'm doing -- "just pedal and keep your balance".  Duh!  Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious.

So, I'm actually hoping to change the sorry state of self-help -- even if only a little -- with the Get Ready To Change course that I'm working on.  It's still a little early to talk much about it yet, but for now I'll just mention that I intend for it to tackle the "you can't get it until you get it" problem of self-help language in general, as well as the "just do it" problem in particular.  (I may actually break out a separate mini-course on "just doing it" and release it sooner, though, especially since it might help verify the effectiveness of the training techniques.)

But back to my story.  You would never guess -- well, I certainly didn't guess -- that figuring out how to "just do" things (and most importantly, putting it into regular practice!) would lead to problems of its own.

You see, the problem with everything being easy, was that my entire life was organized around how difficult things were!

Stop and think about that for a moment.  If everything you have to do feels like a pain, then your life will tend to self-organize around how much pain different things are.  You may be unhappy about not getting something done, but you will at least know which things you aren't doing and why!

When it started sinking in that everything is actually pretty easy if "you" don't do it, I started to panic.  It was like my life was coming apart at the seams.  What should I do next?  What do I not do?  How can I avoid doing anything, if everything is easy?!  When will I ever relax or enjoy myself if I have no reason to stop working?

The Dark Side of Change

It's a bit easier for me to laugh at some of those questions now, but I assure you I was not finding any of them funny at the time.  I was scared, and then depressed, and then paralyzed.  For almost a week I could hardly do anything.  I procrastinated like crazy, and for a while I even tried to forget what I now knew about doing things without "effort".  Now, a few weeks later, I'm finally flexing my wings again and starting to make use of the ability again, albeit cautiously, after having spent a fair amount of time sorting out the downsides, using a process that will be part of the Get Ready To Change course.

One of the biggest obstacles to making any change, is that well, you have to actually change.  Somehow, when we imagine a life without procrastination (for example), we don't imagine anything actually changing.  We're just focused on avoiding the specific problem or getting a specific benefit, and rarely stop to think about what the actual consequences of that change will be.  Even if we're tangentially aware that our current state offers us benefits that may be lost in the transition (like my choosing tasks based on their perceived effort), we often view these benefits as unworthy in some way.

For example, one benefit to procrastinating is that it helps a person to avoid responsibility.  That's an actual benefit, but it sounds like an accusation, and certainly not something we want to own up to.  So when we try to change the procrastination, we ignore these "hidden" benefits and pretend they don't exists.  If we didn't, we'd feel the shame of our own self-judgment.

So this is where the common self-help idea comes from, that "until you accept your faults, you can't change them."  It's not because there's some mystical power in acceptance, but because not accepting who you are cuts you off from critical information you need to create effective change.  It divides your mind in an unhealthy way, since you now have a "weak" or "evil" you that has been assigned the task of obtaining your secret desires, while you disavow any knowledge or control of its activities.

How Inner Conflicts Are Born

And so, this is how you create the experience of inner conflict, and of feeling compelled to do things that you "don't want to".  Trust me, if you're doing it, it's because you want to!  All that's happening is that you've redefined "you" so it doesn't include the stuff you don't want to admit you want.  You have simply "redistricted" yourself, drawing an arbitrary dividing line across your soul to separate the "good" neighborhood from the "bad" one.

But drawing this line only means that you are now a victim of your "inability" to "control yourself".  You have simply redefined that which you do not like, as that which you do not control.  Since it is "not you", by definition "you" do not control it.  The only way to end this illusion is to face the truth, owning up to your wants and actions.

(This subject is a big part of what the Get Ready To Change course will be about: not just finding what stuff you've cut yourself off from, but also how to resolve the actual inner conflicts, and to design changes that will still get you what you need.)

For example, since feelings of effort were serving as an organizing principle for me, I had to find another organizing principle to replace it.  Since they were a way I ensured that I got a certain amount of recreation, I needed a way to replace that, too.  Even avoiding responsibility was something that required a suitable replacement!  (Not by avoiding responsibility, mind you, but by addressing the underlying need that the avoidance served.)

When people don't make provisions for needs like these, their changes fail.  It's like they climb into an airtight box and insist that they'll be fine, because breathing is something that only evil and weak people need!  Then, a short time later, they find themselves "compelled" to leap out of the box and gasp for breath, and curse their weak-willed nature for letting them down again...  surely next time, they will succeed in making that change!

Of course, if you've read Time And Awareness (the bonus essay in You, Version 2.0), then you'll probably recognize an echo of some of its ideas here.  The same principle that the essay applies to changing your beliefs or personality, I'm applying here to behavioral changes.  Your whole self has to accept a change, not just the small part of you that you prefer to identify with!

Do Less (At a Time), Live More

Now, I wish I could say that it was my keen insight into these issues that got me out of the hell-hole I was in, after I lost the "compass" that my sense of effort gave me.  Granted, the ideas that I'd already been working on for Get Ready To Change took me a long way.  In particular, I was able to figure out what things I needed in order to be able to move forward.  It's just that one of the more important solutions for how to get those things, came to me by lucky accident.

For now, however, I'm going to save that story for another article.  One of the other things I've been learning lately is the importance of being able to do less, more often.  For example, if you have a problem keeping your dishes clean, it's important to learn to run the dishwasher half-empty!  If you have to wait until the dishwasher gets full, you will have more dishes dirty, more of the time.

Oddly enough, it can often be the search for efficiency in the use of one's tools or time or money that leads directly to life problems like these.  Wanting to run an efficient load of laundry or dishes, or to tackle the task of "cleaning house" all in one go, makes it impossible to live with clean dishes, clean laundry, or a clean home.  Just like wanting to "pay off all the bills" produces debt problems, and crash diets produce weight problems.  The solutions that we try over and over again, are usually themselves the sources of the problems!

The scientific approach to dealing with these problems is described in something called the Theory of Constraints, or ToC, and it is typically applied to business problems like sizing batches for production runs in factories.  However, it can also be applied to finances (personal or otherwise) and household tasks.  ToC also provides some interesting conflict resolution tools that can actually be adapted to resolve inner conflicts as well, and this adaptation is another part of what I plan to include in Get Ready To Change.

In the meantime, though, if you're interested in this "do less, live more" concept, you might want to revisit Falling Behind, Rising Above, which is one of the essays in You, Version 2.0. It goes into a little more detail about the cycle of "falling behind" and "catching up" that happens when you try to do too much, like trying to clean an entire house you haven't cleaned in years, instead of learning to pick up one thing every day for the rest of your life.

And as with everything else, you have to be able to forgive and accept before you can move on... just like I had to forgive myself for not writing any articles this last month, accept that I didn't know where to start or what I was going to write, and then actually write this article.

But now it's your turn. What are you going to forgive, accept, and move forward on?

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