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The “Do Something” Principle: Your Best Tool to Get Started and Keep Going

Stuck waiting for inspiration? Action itself might be your inspiration!

Photo by Namar on Pixabay

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

Most times, I enjoy writing. Most times, I enjoy taking a walk. Most times, I enjoy baking a pie. But then there are those times when, frankly, I’m just apathetic. I don’t feel like doing whatever it is. If you’ve ever been in that situation, maybe you feel tempted to wait until you feel like it.

But it doesn’t work that way. If you wait until you feel like it, that time or day may never come. In his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, psychologist Timothy Pychyl, PhD, explains that feelings do not precede actions. It’s the other way around. You must do something to get going.

So instead of waiting, try something proactive: do something!

How the “do something” principle works

A while ago, I heard Mark Manson talk about the “do something” principle. His basic message is that inertia gets us nowhere. From a physics standpoint, and from examples in my own life, I know this to be true. But as a goal setting and goal achievement coach, I liked how he explained it.

He posits that we all have inspiration, motivation, and action as related to our goals. But that process is not linear. It’s a loop.

Infographic by author

Visualizing this as a loop or cycle helped me to understand why people establish New Years’ resolutions and then fall off the wagon within about 10 days. Willpower doesn’t work. (There’s even a book by that title!) I’m thinking it looks like this:

  • People have an inspiration. A spark.
  • For one reason or another, people have motivation. The spark becomes a fire.
  • Action takes wind. In the environment, wind can either grow a fire or it can blow it out. What remains are ashes, embers, or a raging fire.

Let’s stop and look at each of those.

Inspiration (Spark)

As Suvathi Thiagarajan points out, inspiration comes from within. I’d guess that for many of us, it’s some sensory experience that provides a spark to action. Something we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell inspires us to take some kind of action.

Here’s an example from the personal side rather than the world of productivity. World-famous lyric soprano Renee Fleming recently returned to her native Rochester, NY, to sing at the Eastman theater. That same weekend, I was planning to attend my nursing class reunion in Rochester. I had a chance to buy concert tickets. But I didn’t act. I felt weighed down with family obligations, and said, oh, I just don’t feel like going.

A few weeks later, I did a search, and listened to Fleming sing O Mio Babbino Caro on YouTube. It was a rather lame action compared to attending the live concert, but nonetheless, my mind skipped back to decades ago when my friend Anne sang that aria for a college recital. I was inspired by that, and thought… oh, I wish I could revive some old friendships. I should give Anne a call. I did. Here’s the loop: Even the recorded version created an inspiration which turned into a motivation that led to an action. I called Anne, and we’re planning to go to lunch.

Motivation (Fire)

Motivation is often influenced by external conditions. I usually think of motivation as being attached to a reward or a consequence.

Here’s a real-life example. I’m currently up to my eyeballs with some family issues. Hence, I don’t particularly feel like writing today. But I parked myself in the front the keyboard and wrote the words; I did something. I did so in anticipation of gaining a subscriber, a follower, or some claps. And, as an Ennea #3, (Achiever), I’m motivated by the taste of success and the thirst for recognition.

Action (Wind)

Let’s look at how the wind can affect the fire.

Wikipedia tells us that “[e]mbers (hot coals) can exist within, remain after, or sometimes precede, a fire. Embers are, in some cases, as hot as the fire which created them.” Embers are smoldering lumps of solid fuel. If given more fuel, they can turn back into a roaring fire. If not, only the ashes will remain.

I’ve had some embers in my life, and you’ve probably had them, too. I admit, I’m still asking myself some questions to identify my own embers. I’m asking myself:

  • What did I do as a kid or as a young adult that gave me joy? Did I truly lose my interest in that, or did my circumstances shift so that I just put it on hold? Should I reignite that now?
  • What have I always been a little curious about, but never took action on? Might that be a low-glow ember that is still worth pursuing?
  • What stopped me from more fully pursuing something I’ve somewhat wimped out on? As I grow older, I ask myself… will this soon turn to ashes? As old age creeps up, I might not be able to do everything “later.”

Winds can fan flames that cause us to begin and persist in taking action. Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he succeeded in making the lightbulb, but he continued taking action, and his actions literally lit up society. Others give up when the smallest wind comes along, and only the embers remain. If you do that, you’ll never find out if those embers could have turned back into a flame.

Edison also reminds us that action is critical:

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”

In short: do something! The progression from inspiration to motivation to action is a cycle, not a line. Any action, whether a success or a failure, can turn into the inspiration for something else if you only let it.

Put the “do something” principle to work for you

I hear you thinking, okay, action is a cycle with a nice metaphor. But how can I use it? I’m supposed to “do something” — how do I choose what that “something” will be?

First, think about what stage you’re getting stuck at. Are you at a loss for ideas, stuck staring at a blank page, feeling like you have no direction? You need a spark. Do you know what you want to do but can’t seem to get going? You need the motivation to make your spark a flame. Have you done some of the work but don’t know how to proceed? You need to think about wind.

Find your inspiration (spark)

Yes, we can find sparks through our senses. Absolutely. But what if some actions are masquerading as sparks? Is it really an inspiration, or just an activity?

Years ago, I read a great tip when I was faced with a publishing deadline but waiting to “feel like” writing. Do something. Anything. Pick up a pencil!

I always thought the phrasing was silly — I haven’t written with a pencil since the 3rd grade! But whether you’d like to grab a pencil, a pen, or a computer keyboard, the message is the same: if you want to write, start writing.

One day, when I felt stuck, I picked up a pen (i.e., took an action) and started writing a brain dump of my thoughts about the subject at hand, and I wrote something intelligent. Certainly not epic. But I started, finished, and published! (And not every publication has to be epic!)

Find your motivation (fire)

Try to identify your passion. We all have a love or a burning desire to do something. Ask yourself, what fills me up? What drains my tank?

For example, I’m passionate about getting other people unstuck. Whether I’m the nurse for a laboring mother, or I’m prepping another nurse to pass a tough certification exam, or encountering a stranger in a hotel lobby who can’t figure out how to knit the heel of a sock, my juices are flowing. I want to get that person unstuck.

Having a little trouble figuring out what your passion is? Take a look at BetterUp’s list of 10 steps for finding your passion.

Find your action (wind)

Very often, we can identify a seemingly good reason for not doing something. Business coach extraordinaire Jim Rohn said:

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.

It’s hard to fan the flames when all you have are embers. Embers feel negative. Remember, feelings don’t fuel actions. It’s the other way around.

I suspect that we often procrastinate and/or find excuses because we’re putting off two uncomfortable feelings that are closely linked to each other. Both are achievement killers every time.

  • Fear of failure (which is closely related to belief in oneself)
  • Fear of pain

How can we overcome that? Consider Susan Jeffers’ book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. If those fears and/or excuses extinguish our dreams and goals, we need to find a way to fan those embers into a roaring fire again. When we “do something” — even a small action like picking up a pencil or pen, lacing up our running shoes, or shopping for apples to bake that pie — it can jump-start us into action.

Resolve to use mistakes or setbacks as learning opportunities. If you encounter tall peaks or tiny speedbumps, find a way to walk around, jump over, tunnel under, or push past. Believe that you’ve got this!

Tips for Getting it Done

Mark Manson (despite his wretched potty mouth) has some insightful suggestions about how to get in sync with all of this: (1) rituals, (2) cutting out distractions, (3) reasons for lack of motivation.

  1. Develop a ritual.
  2. Cut out your distractions (and here, I’m talking about any human or environmental distraction, including digital stuff).
  3. Uncover your real reasons for lack of motivation. Be honest with yourself.

Though your feelings are an important part of the equation, you’ll never reach lofty goals if you wait until you “feel like” doing the work. Feelings don’t produce actions; actions stimulate feelings. Take the actions today that are going to leave you feeling energized, accomplished, and actualized in the future!

What’s the one “something” you could do today to take action on what you’ve been putting off?

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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