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Tiffany Matthé

The Art of Not Thinking

Productivity5 min read

After years of feeling guilty about not wanting to do everything, I realized I don't need motivation to get things done. Below, I describe how I use the concept of not thinking instead.

It took me five years to get in the habit of exercising. I just didn't want to do it. I followed Youtube workouts, hopeful that the energetic trainer on the screen would help me get fitter. I swam laps in my pool. I followed my brother on 3K runs. And afterwards, I felt great! On top of the world. And then the next day came, and I remembered I had to do it all over again. I had to be sweaty, push through the pain, and breathe like I had an asthma attack.

So every morning, I woke up and inevitably started dreading my exercise. It would slink around in my thoughts, casting a dark mood until I got it done. At one point, I would dread exercising enough to stop, and a wave of relief would wash over me. This feeling of calm usually lasted a few months, and then my disappointment in my poor levels of fitness would take over. And the cycle would restart.

Everyone has things they don't want to do. It's not limited to exercising. It can be anything from studying everyday for the entire school year to vacuuming the floor. Unless you can avoid that activity with no guilt or regrets, you usually have to do it. You know it will help in the long run, to study to prepare for finals and to have clean floors, but even with that in mind, it can still be incredibly hard to do those activities.

I realized that the hardest part of doing things I don't want to do is usually not the activity itself, but getting started. Once I get started, I get into a flow and rationalize that since I'm already doing it, I might as well finish.

How much motivation do we need?

I like to describe the amount of energy I need for a task I don't want to do as an exothermic reaction. In this reaction, the reactants (me) need a minimum activation energy (motivation) for the reaction (task) to occur. After the reaction is complete, the products then settle down into a lower energy state (since no more energy is needed to do the task or worry about it).

Motivation Energy Reaction

So how can we get this minimum activation energy? Well, if we don't want to do the activity, it is nearly impossible to gain enough motivation to do it. The good news is that we can avoid the need for such a high activation energy.

How is this possible? A simple answer: don't try to find motivation.

When you look for motivation, you usually start by reminding yourself about the advantages of getting the task done. But your brain is a stubborn toddler. If you strongly drag it towards one direction, it will fiercely pull you to the other side. The brain thinks there's a choice, and thus a possibility to argue. It will start pointing out all the disadvantages and instant gratification alternatives.

Since humans instinctively reach for easier things, now you have not only dredged up all the negative points about your task, but also discovered easier alternatives that require an additional amount of energy to resist. In short, you have increased the minimum activation energy required to start the task.

You will also remember this awful internal debate, and associate these negative feelings with the task itself. Naturally, this does not bode well in the long run.

On the other hand, if you don't think about the task, you can avoid the entire process of arguing with yourself and making decisions that you will feel guilty about. Instead, just do it. Become a mindless robot and don't think twice1.

This is, of course, easy to say and a bit more difficult to do. It's hard to think about not thinking, because you'll inadvertently wonder what it is you were trying to not think about, and bam, you've failed. Not thinking is a process, and just like any other skill you learn, it improves with time and practice. Here are a few tips.

Make the decision in advance

If you are temporally removed from the thing you don't want to do, it's easier to make a rational decision. By making the decision beforehand, you remove the effort needed to choose before doing your task. This reduces friction and removes one factor that could have led you to think about your task when you start it.

There are a few ways of making decisions in advance. There's the two-minute rule, where you decide that for anything that takes less than two minutes, you do it. No thinking, no arguing, just swift action. For example, you see a pile of clothes on your bed. It takes less than two minutes to organize then in your drawer, so you do it. Here, you just avoided the trap of thinking about your clothes, feeling unmotivated to put them in order, and giving yourself the terrible alternative of doing it later.

Another method is planning out your days in advance. This does not always work, but it's a good idea to try it out. The night before, you plan out all of your activities to the minute. And, of course, as you're temporally distanced from these activities, you make rational decisions. Then when the morning comes, you can mindlessly follow the schedule you have made for yourself.

Do a small part first

Quickly pick a random small part of the activity you were dreading. And commit to only doing that one part. This helps you avoid overthinking by giving your brain a smaller task to easily execute2.

For example, if you need to complete a scholarship application and hate writing about yourself, tell yourself to just write bullet points of topics you might include in the application. Most of the time, after you have invested those first five minutes into the activity, you enter a flow and continue working.

After implementing these strategies, where I tell myself that I have to exercise every other day for a mere 5 minutes, I now consistently exercise for at least 15 minutes without overthinking it.

So next time you find yourself not wanting to do something, make yourself a clear rule of when to do it and do the easiest part first. That way, you can avoid making too many decisions and associating the internal turmoil that stems from that process to the activity itself.

Note, not thinking works wonderfully if your sole purpose is doing an activity you don't want to do. However, unless you don't have any goals to pursue, this is not the best way to go about everything in life. Make sure to take the time to reflect on the overall purpose of the activity and if it brings you closer to where you want to be. If the answer is yes, then feel free to become a mindless robot for any activities that have passed the reflection stage.

At the small risk of being sued by Nike, just do it.

  1. This applies to doing things you don't want to do after you have had one internal debate about whether this is worthwhile to you. You can have revised thoughts every once in a while, but doing it before each task is counterproductive.
  2. It was brought to my attention that identifying the easiest part of a task might lead to thinking too much and finding ways to escape the task. That's true. I have changed the text to just doing a small part. This removes the process of having to analyse the task and find the easiest part.
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