The Psychology of "Just Do It"

Many in psychology bemoan the phrase "Just Do It" but it can be beneficial.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

“Just do it” has been a popular saying since Nike brand began its ad campaign in 1988. It helped “turn a niche brand into a global multibillion-dollar giant” (Bella, T.). Since then, it’s been said in regard to nearly everything. Recently, I have heard several psychology experts lament the use of it therapeutically, and I would like to pose an alternative viewpoint. 

In The Happiness Lab’s “New Year 2020 Mini Season,” Dr. Laurie Santos interviews Katy Milkman, a professor at Wharton about “Fresh Starts.” During the episode the two experts say:

Dr. Santos: “When most people think about their self-control failures, “ah, I have to get to the gym,” or “I have to diet more,” I think people’s intuition is they need to suck it up and get some willpower and just do it. What is wrong with…

Dr. Milkman: Nike has really hurt us in this respect.

Dr. Santos: Yeah, “Just Do It.”

A few seconds later after some dialogue about self-control:

Dr. Santos: What’s wrong with this willpower approach?

Dr. Milkman: Well, the science suggests it’s really hard to “Just Do It.” 

I am not trying to bash either of these experts nor the episode. The episode is really good, and I think very highly of the podcast, recommending it regularly to students and clients alike. I do not even disagree with the science that says willpower alone is hard. Actually, I addressed how willpower fails in “How to Control Your Mind.” I just disagree with their perception of the usefulness of “Just Do It.” 

These two experts aren’t the only people who believe the “Just Do It” mentality is bad therapeutically. An article on the Scientific American website suggests that the mentality of radio and television “therapists” who take a no-nonsense, you can just stop (a version of “Just Do It”) approach lack empathy and fail the advice seeker in major ways (Arkowitz, H., Lilienfeld, S.O., 2010). There is also a parody video of Bob Newhart telling a patient to “Just Stop” (MADtv, 2014). (Though you’ve likely seen the video, you can watch the clip from the link in the references.) Yet, some of the comments on the same video on different sites suggest this is how therapy should be.

In 2015, Shia LaBeouf did a video as part of an art project that became an enormously popular meme. In the video, LaBeouf gives a motivational speech, shouting “Do it! Just do it!” as a repeated phrase. As the video was done on greenscreen and had creative commons license (meaning anyone could use it) it was transformed into many funny videos. Like the Newhart video, some see it as inspirational, others as parody. Not just comedy video watchers feel this way either; when I did a Google search for “Just Do It Therapy,” (expecting to find reasons the mindset is frowned upon) a therapy practice, chiropractic practice, and several articles (two from Psychology Today) that found merit in the mindset appeared.  

As Arkowitz and Lilienfeld point out, a “Just Do It” or “Just Stop It” treatment of any issue lacks many of the necessary ingredients of therapy: compassion, understanding, considering the client’s history, and potentially blaming the victim. This is largely true for what they are writing about, brief encounters where the “therapist” assumes they have pinpointed a stranger’s issue in mere minutes and can readily prescribe a solution. This does harm to the individuality of the client, it is unlikely the client feels understood, and, as The Happiness Lab pointed out, it overestimates the power of willpower. 

Like many things in life, whether something is good or bad has a lot to do with the context it is in. Though there are obvious pitfalls to the “Just Do It” mentality, there can be positive psychological outcomes with some understanding of the mind. What follows is an attempt to change the context surrounding “Just Do It” as an intervention. 

The mind’s job is to meet evolutionary needs. It seeks foods it finds rewarding. This is not necessarily healthy, as during ancestral times foods with fat and sugar were sparse and hard to come by, and therefore, when found, were highly rewarded in the brain. Now, these foods are abundant and overused. Yet our mind has not yet evolved to reduce or eliminate the reward. Another evolutionary need is to conserve energy in case it is needed to flee a predator (which happened a lot more regularly when we were tribal than it does in modern society). This is the modular theory of the mind discussed in other writing, and a theory I plan to use regularly as it makes sense and can help foster change. These modules (for fat and sugary food sources, for rest to flee predators) attempt to control the mind, and thereby when unchallenged, behavior. This is because at one time it enhanced survival. Simply, the brain utilizes outdated hardware and creates thoughts that support its goals

David Goggins, who according to Wikipedia, is an “ultramarathon runner, ultra-distance cyclist, triathlete, motivational speaker, and author” as well as retired special forces soldier, spends much of his book helping the reader understand that the mind sets limits the body can surpass. He uses his experiences to motivate the reader and demonstrate how the mind lies, and how you needn’t give thoughts so much weight. Of course, Goggins takes this beyond what anyone would recommend, as he causes his body harm and some of the signals from the mind are to get one to stop so as to prevent injury. But his example demonstrates how one can overcome the limits the mind sets. 

A term I have found very helpful with clients and others making behavioral change is defusion, which comes from Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT). With this intervention, one becomes the observer of her thoughts but remains detached from believing or accepting them as facts or reality. Instead, thoughts and feelings are viewed as transient processes, that will come and go and in the grand scheme of things do not matter as much as they seem to. Armed with the knowledge above, that the mind is attempting to meet evolutionary and often outdated and exaggerated needs, one can more easily separate and challenge these thoughts. You do not have to know the evolutionary need the mind is trying to meet, just accept that the mind is using outdated hardware and many of your thoughts are irrelevant today. This, combined with another facet of ACT, commitment to valued behavior, one can disregard the thoughts and engage in a previously chosen behavior. At this time, a “Just Do It” mindset becomes helpful rather than damaging. 

I use this mindset both personally and professionally (with my clients and students). As I often use the example of working out (and as I used that in a post about six months ago), I will use a different example here. Those who are long-time readers might recall I have the goal of “Right Speech,” a Buddhist concept that attempts to eliminate unnecessary or hurtful speech (see, “Why Don’t I Just Shut-Up?"). However, I am talkative by nature. Additionally, there are evolutionary benefits to talking: it connects us to others, value signaling (“demonstrat[ing] one’s good character or moral correctness with the [implicit or explicit] intent of enhancing social standing") (Dwyer, 2017), shows our worth to the group (an evolutionary need), and reinforces ego and a sense of self. As such, there is almost always an impulse that arises to talk. Using the “Just Do It,” or perhaps in this case, the just don’t do it mindset, I can recognize my need to speak, evaluate it as unnecessary, and act in a way that reflects my value (Right Speech). Of course, this takes a lot of effort, and change is slow. I definitely talk less than I did when I wrote that post eight years ago. But I have not suddenly turned into a quiet person. Progress takes time and effort. As I mentioned earlier, I have had more success using it for exercise. 

One factor in context is whether someone is saying "Just Do It” to you, or if you are saying it to yourself. Being told “Just Do It” can be off-putting, and in some, can raise obstinance. But if you are using it to challenge your own thoughts and motivate yourself, it can have a different effect. It can help challenge the thinking that runs contrary to your goal, help you stop thinking, and just engage in the behavior.  

There are plenty of other examples of how this can work. I have clients who use it with depression, substance abuse, and anxiety. The idea is to decide what you value and the goals that coincide with those values. Then recognize thoughts and how their origin is likely outdated. One can then de-fuse from these thoughts, create separation, see them as just thoughts and not truths, and remove the weight they are given. This leads to an effective and productive use of “Just Do It.” Now that you know, well, decide to just do it!

Copyright William Berry, 2020

References

Arkowitz, H., Lilienfeld, S.O., 2010. The “Just Do It” trap: Why radio “Docs” help few. Scientific American Mind. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-just-do-it-trap

Bella, T. 2018. Just Do It: The surprising and morbid origin story of Nike’s slogan. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/09/04/from-lets-do-it-to-just-do-it-how-nike-adapted-gary-gilmores-last-words-before-execution/

Dwyer, C. 2017. Virtues, Values, and Moral Bullying. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201710/virtues-values-and-moral-bullying

Goggins, D. (2018). You Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds. Goggins Built Not Born, LLC. 

MADtv. 2001. Season Six, Episode 24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiELt6VhSaQ

Santos, L. 2020, Jan. 6th. The Happiness Lab. A New Hope. [Audio podcast] https://www.happinesslab.fm/2020-mini-season-episodes/new-year-new-you 14:06-14:32

Wikipedia. 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Goggins