When I started studying self-improvement I often thought about a few of the little catchphrases I have heard throughout life.
I thought about well, how kinda stupid they were.
How self-help catchphrases like “Just be more confident, man!” or “Just be yourself” were pretty worthless pieces of advice.
And I thought about Nike's old catchphrase – “Just do it!” – that seems to pop up from time to time too. I thought: “Well, that's easy to say, but it's not so easy to just do”. So I concluded that it was just another catchphrase that people throw out because well, they have to say something.
Now I can see that there is actually some really useful advice in that catchphrase. So what changed? Well, I guess I figured out that you can't really sit and think yourself out of something. And I figured out that I was thinking way too much. And that I identified closely with what I thought and felt.
Over thinking is quite a nifty trick that you can play on yourself. It tricks you into believing that you are on your way to solve your problem. It keeps you protected against perceived dangers out there in the world like failure, rejection and embarrassment by keeping your actions to a minimum. It feeds your ego and tells you that you know more than others, that you are a clever person that has things figured out.
I still think you should make a plan or at least have some thoughts about what you are about to do before you do it. But then, “Just do it!” becomes pretty useful. To me it's a reminder to just go. To disregard what my thoughts are babbling about, how my emotions are trying to hold me back and just go and do what I need to do. It's a reminder to focus on the present moment and forget about the rest.
Just do it and you'll change your mind
Just doing it is for instance useful when you don't feel like working out. Sometimes you don't feel like going to the gym and can find 27 reasons not to. Then it's useful to disregard your thoughts and just go. The same goes for writing posts for your blog. You can find a lot of reasons to watch TV and slack off instead. But in both cases I have found that if I just get started and focus on what I am doing I flip around mentally. What felt like a drag before I got started instead turns into positive feelings about what I'm doing.
Even if you want to do something, your mind will often find reasons not to. And your emotions may become negative in some way. Maybe you'll feel nervous or lazy or bored. So you may think about it and do something to relieve your nervousness or pump up your motivation.
And maybe that works and helps you to take action. And sometimes it probably doesn't. You still get wrapped up in the thoughts and emotions that are holding you back. So you think a bit more, perhaps to find a solution, perhaps to wallow in your thoughts and feelings. And often get nowhere.
What you are not
Just doing it is still not always easy to pull off. But I've found a few insights that makes it a whole lot easier than it once was.
You are not your thoughts.
Yeah, I thought this perspective sounded a bit weird when I first heard about it from Eckhart Tolle. But what I have realised is that I am not really my thoughts. I'm the one observing my thoughts. The thoughts are just something that moves through my mind. But it is not me. And when this close identification with your thoughts starts to break up you realize that they are often just ramblings that spin around and around most of the day.
You are not your emotions.
Not listening to your thoughts too much gets easier after a while. It can be harder not to listen to your emotions. But when the identification with your thoughts starts to loosen I have also felt how I'm less tied up in my emotions.
And the thing is, a million movies and TV-shows may tell you that you should follow your emotions. But your feelings aren't really as reliable as pop-culture can make us think. Sometimes they just come from some outdated habitual thoughts that we established 10 years ago. Sometimes they come from how we act and move (since emotions work backward too).
And I guess you can put a whole lot of trust in your emotions once you have recalibrated them and weeded out most of your irrational fears, anger, not-so-useful social programming and negative habits of thought. Until then you may not want to have too much belief in what your emotions are telling you. And as I wrote above, after you just go and get started you often find that your emotions can change quickly and drastically.
This is not to say that your thoughts or emotions are worthless. But sometimes – and you can often tell when – they are mostly just holding you back. And if you are less identified with them and less wrapped up in them it becomes easier to act in spite of what they are suggesting that you should do.
This can be helpful if you want to establish a new habit. You'll improve faster and stick to your new habit until it sticks to you if you don't fold as quickly as your mind gets over the initial enthusiasm and starts to invent reasons for you to give up, excuses for you to fail (since success can be scary) or starts producing all kinds of negative and/or protective emotions.
And the fun thing about this is that it's kinda liberating. You realise that you don't have to obey or act in accordance with your thought loops or emotions. It's not the police, your mom and dad or teacher. You can just move and go do it. And so you take control of your thoughts and emotions instead of other way around.