I lie in bed, barely conscious, on that blissful edge of slumber, an interstitial zone where time slows and stillness reigns.
It would be easy to drift back into sleep, carried by dreams back into oblivion.
But I know I need to break the reverie and get up.
Thoughts begin to arise, pleading to remain in the warm embrace of bed where it’s comfortable and safe.
Then the deception starts.
Complex justifications I tell myself to delay the discomfort of waking up.
Given air, these thoughts spread like wildfire, creating perfectly plausible reasons why I deserve an extra hour of rest.
Finally, I force myself to stop thinking and take action, waking up to face the day.
What’s stopping me from starting?
This is just a mini example of how our we’re often our own worst enemies, self-sabotaging constructive action.
Despite best-laid plans and admirable intentions, in the moment of truth, our resolve collapses as we buy into distracting, diverting and ultimately, undermining thoughts.
It happens on repeat.
Not only every morning when waking up to start these articles before work, but for all short-term pain, long-term gain activities.
The thoughts become more pernicious in two common cases:
- When trying something new
- When trying something difficult
We’ve all been there, having consciously decided to implement a new habit and finding that at the appointed hour, we can’t follow through.
- Perhaps you want to lose weight and exercise in the morning before work
- Maybe you’ve been meaning to polish your CV and apply for new jobs
- Your taxes might be sitting in a dusty digital folder awaiting your attention
Even though we know that actioning these items is beneficial, we just can’t get going.
So why the hell can’t we stop thinking and take action?
Reasons for procrastination
Thoughts are often just a form of delay.
We tell ourselves they’re a necessary part of the process even when the decision’s already been made.
So why continue with these unhelpful patterns? Two reasons:
Evolving, our survival was predicated on fearing new and dangerous activities.
A useful mental heuristic in prehistoric days perhaps, but not when all we want is a quick jog.
Although most of the habits we desire are completely safe, our neurological development hasn’t kept pace with societal change.
Therefore, even benign activities create fear, overthinking and inaction.
Humans hate discomfort.
Again, it’s an inbuilt survival mechanism.
In times of uncertain resources, expending the least amount of energy for the maximum reward was prudent, mainly regarding meeting our basic needs.
Most of us have warm homes and fridges which are overflowing with food.
So the lizard brain intervenes, questioning why we want to willingly endure short-term discomfort when shelter and energy are abundant, even if the long term rewards are apparent.
Stop thinking and take action
So how can we act in spite of our evolutionary conditioning?
Here are some suggestions which have helped me:
Amplify your desire
Changing embedded behaviours or persisting with new habits is difficult without a strong reason to do so.
If you don’t really want to make a change, your resolve will invariably falter.
Write down your reasons for taking action and decide whether they’re strong enough to endure the expected discomfort.
Even if our desire isn’t strong enough, we can reframe our reasons for acting to make them more appealing.
In moments of overthinking and indecision, rather than obsessing over the task, I imagine the behaviour is intrinsically tied to my identity, making it a matter of personal honour to stay true to my word.
In this way, even in the absence of motivation, I view taking responsibility as a personal growth experience.
Get organised ahead of time, knowing exactly what you need to do and in what order.
Inaction thrives on indecision.
Review the next day the night before and make the necessary preparations.
If that means placing workout gear next to your bed, so be it.
Or if scheduling it in the diary is required, do it.
I always try to have a list of articles on standby and decide before bed which one I want to write the following day.
Then when I wake up, I start scribbling.
Less thinking = more action.
Thinking vs doing
The techniques above are great, but there’s just no substitute for reducing the activation time between impulse and action.
Simply do not give yourself any time to think.
Ready, fire, aim
When your alarm clock goes off, get up immediately.
Don’t give thought any space to percolate.
Your attention must be funnelled straight into constructive action and invariably, any potential thought will wither away as you become absorbed in your task.
The power of not thinking
This article is both a personal and public call to arms.
Unnecessary thought has derailed too many positive intentions and must be stopped if we’re ever to make meaningful progress.
Decide what you want to achieve, act first and leave the thinking for later.