Trying Versus Doing

Identifying the next action is key to overcoming the inertia of procrastination.

Posted Dec 21, 2018

A few years ago, I was part of a local event where I presented and ran a workshop in the morning focused on procrastination, and Patch Adams spoke in the afternoon. As you may know, Patch Adams is a medical doctor whose belief that joy and laughter are integral to the healing process was made popular by Robin Williams in the movie Patch Adams.  As you can read at patchadams.org, “Patch Adams is best known for his work as a medical doctor and a clown, but he is also a social activist who has devoted over 40 years of his life to changing America’s healthcare system. He believes that laughter, joy and creativity are an integral part of the healing process and, with the help of friends, he founded the Gesundheit Institute in 1971 in order to address all the problems of health care in one model.”

I was keen to meet Patch that day, and I enjoyed his talk. During the Q&A session that followed his presentation, I asked Patch about my own research interest – procrastination. His reaction was direct and to the point. He said (at least as I recall it now), “Procrastination? That’s bull$h*t . . . Did you try to put on your pants this morning or did you put on your pants?” Of course, we all laughed, but long after the laughter subsided and the group had dispersed, in fact years after the event itself, I have been reflecting on this statement.

At first, it seemed an oversimplification. Putting our pants on isn’t like so many of the tasks that we actually procrastinate on like writing a report, cleaning out the basement or exercising. There’s not only a well ingrained habit to get dressed, there is also strong social pressures to do so. I can’t imagine leaving the house without my pants on (although I’ve had strange dreams where that is the case ;-), but I can imagine needlessly delaying some of my work this week.

I don’t think Patch was being facetious. I don’t think he was simply going for a laugh. In fact, I think he was right.

What Patch was identifying is the notion of trying to put our pants on versus simply doing – carrying out the action, because it’s the “right action.” It’s the thing we “ought” to do whether that be because it’s socially required or because it’s simply a necessary part of staying warm. It’s time to get dressed.

In my own research and thinking about procrastination, I’ve come to a similar point of emphasis (as regular readers of this blog may know). To overcome the inertia of “not doing,” I emphasize the focus on the next action. What is the next ACTION I need to take? Once I identify the action, it’s not about trying to do that, it’s about doing it.

To be successful at this, I need to keep the action as concrete as possible. Our minds seem to tag tasks that are framed concretely (as opposed to abstractly) as something that needs to be done today, urgent even. As well, when a task is conceptualized concretely and as a next small step, the threshold for engagement is low. It’s easier to move forward. Of course, any movement forward on a goal through this action fuels well-being. Motivation follows. We prime the pump to engagement in our lives.

As we approach the end of 2018 and look ahead with hope to our goals for 2019, it’s important that we articulate the actions we intend to take, not just our broad goals. We’re not going to “try” to get fit or try to quit a bad habit or try to eat better or try to save money in 2019. We’re going to do these things by doing the actions associated with the goal itself.

It’s not time to make a list of resolutions. It’s time to make a list of actions. What are you going to be “doing” in 2019 that will make it the year you hope it will be?