One of the many, thoughtful and articulate readers of this blog, John in Leuven (Belgium), replied to my recent post The Power of Habit. He made an important point about slogans like “just say no to drugs” or “just get started.” The problem with these slogans, he argues, is not the “saying no” or “getting started.” These are the key actions to address problems of drug abuse or needless delay, respectively. It’s adding “just” to these expressions that is misleading, perhaps even plain wrong.

Here’s a key excerpt from his email (with his permission):

I was reading your blog post, where you mentioned that someone complained of your 'just get started' idea. The reviewer had compared it to the Nancy Reagan’s anti-drugs campaign, 'just say no'.

It reminds me of something from a book, Zen and the Art of Systems Analysis: Meditations on Computer Systems Development. I've dug out the book, but can't find the quote. The gist of it is something like “be very wary of the word ‘just’ in any specifications or document, normally it conceals a lot of difficulty,” as I imagine it does for serious procrastinators in your 'just get started' slogan. Getting started is the correct and wise thing to do, as is saying no to drugs. Adding 'just' before those seems to diminish the difficulty that quite a few people experience (emphasis added).

Some thoughts in reply
"Just" does seem to diminish the effort required in self-regulation, particularly for chronic procrastinators. I agree that it seems to make something that feels very difficult seem so simple. In that sense, “just” does an injustice to the sometimes challenging task of self-regulation.

It’s interesting that John drew on a book with a “Zen-like” tradition to make his point, because the origins of my slogan, “just get started” has both a basis in my research and my own earlier reading of Zen. As I explained in my second blog post (back in 2008), “just get started” was a conclusion I reached based on some early research that my students and I did. Our research showed that when we start a task, our attributions about the task change (i.e., the avoided task no longer seems as difficult or stressful); so getting started is a key strategy to changing our thinking (and it “primes the pump” for further action).

This slogan also has roots for me in a Zen story of a novice monk seeking enlightenment. This novice asked the master what to do to achieve enlightenment. The Master said, "Have you finished your rice?" The novice said "yes." The Master replied, "Then wash your bowl."

I think "just" could be in that last statement. In fact, I might argue that it is an ellipsis. The word was simply omitted from the sentence, but it's implied by its very nature—"just wash your bowl."

That said, as I remember the story, it doesn't include the "just"—so your point is taken. Perhaps part of the wisdom here is that “just” is not used. The focus is on the action, not anything else, particularly a word that implies judgment of any sort.

I suppose, I could shorten my own slogan to “get started” as John notes. Perhaps it’s the influence of pop-culture with Nike’s slogan (“just do it”) that influenced my choice of words. I’m not sure, but I do know that I admonish myself with this slogan when I face an aversive task that I’d rather avoid. “Ok, Tim, let’s just get started.”

In any case, John’s point is that including “just” does exactly what Patrick McDermoot warned in the book Zen and the Art of Systems Analysis: Meditations on Computer Systems Development—it conceals a lot of difficulty. The chronic procrastinator might think, “if I could ‘just get started,’ I wouldn’t have this problem!”

Yes, and no. I, like John, drew on the Zen tradition for the wisdom it holds. And, certainly paradox is not something new to Zen. I think part of the paradox here is that although what John notes is true, “just” can conceal difficulty; it is also true that the difficulty in the case of our procrastination is that “once we finish eating” we don’t simply “wash our bowl.” We think about. We question whether we feel like it. We balk at the task. Part of my point, is to just let go of all of that. I think this is part of effective self-regulation. It’s truly a moment of enlightenment to realize this in our lives. However, I’ll continue to think about John’s important comment about the use of “just” in my slogan. It may be an impediment for some, and perhaps it is an injustice to the effort and skill it often requires to “get started” on the more aversive tasks in our lives.

Closing thoughts belong to John
At the end of his email, John shared some other quotes from Patrick McDermott’s book that I thought you might enjoy, so I’ll end the post with them. Thanks again John for taking the time to write and sharing quotes from this book.

“When my students get stuck on a programming problem I usually tell them ‘You might not know how to solve the problem, but you do know something needed for the solution.’ In other words, start with something you know is necessary, even though you can't yet do the whole thing.”

“Over time, unpleasant tasks become more unpleasant, but difficult tasks become less difficult.”

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