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Going through the motions

4 min read

How can we build good habits like exercising?

Ever since lockdown began in Malaysia, I've often been jogging as they're the only allowed form of exercise around here. I prefer doing my exercises indoors, or at the gym, so home workouts are a big no. Before this, I've been exercising regularly thanks to tennis. Because of how fun it is, I never have trouble showing up and putting up the work in the court every single day.

But what if I'm building a tedious habit like jogging? I don't find it fun, which is why I can never make it stick. Despite listening to audiobooks to try and make it a more pleasant activity, I find it tedious. Most times, I don't feel like putting my body through the wringer.

However, I still manage to jog every day. Most of the time, when I can't be bothered to jog, I just tell myself that I'll put my shoes on and go for a walk. I don't necessarily have to go for a jog. I call this going through the motions. Every time I do that, I always go for the jog anyway.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport mentions deep work is essential to create meaningful work. Deep work is the ultimate pinnacle of productivity, and everyone who's read that book seeks to find it.

I did.

But sometimes, I feel like deep work is holding me back at times. I keep telling myself that the conditions have to be perfect. I need zero distractions. I need no one around me. I need to be in a room where I can hear a pin drop. As a result, I end up being paralyzed by this and end up on the couch watching Netflix.

However, the conditions will never be perfect. Worse still, there will be some days where you can't be arsed to sit down and get work done. No matter how much scheduling, time blocking you did, there will be times where you just can't beat the resistance and sit down.

I've been trying out an alternative recently. Instead of optimising deep work, I'm focusing on showing up. When the time comes to get some work done, I don't care if the conditions are imperfect. I just tell myself that I'll go through the motions and see where that leads me. If I can't focus, more often than not, I'll get into flow within a few minutes, and I get more deep work done when flow hits. Before this, I used to be paralyzed by conditions and not act at all.

Not so deep work, eh.

Sometimes, we're all too enamoured with efficiency and perfection that it paralyzes us from what's really important: taking action.

I don't think I'm alone on this. Mark Manson calls this The Do Something Principle.

The Do Something Principle basically says that if you want to do something — anything — then you just start with the simplest component of that task.

I was procrastinating writing this article, so I just told myself that I’d open up a blank document and write the first sentence. Strangely, once you bring yourself to write one sentence, the next 40 get quite easy.

James Clear also has something similar called the 2-minute rule.

One of my favorite ways to make habits easier is to use The 2-Minute Rule, which states, “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” The idea is to make it as easy as possible to get started and then trust that momentum will carry you further into the task after you begin. Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it. The 2–Minute Rule overcomes procrastination and laziness by making it so easy to start taking action that you can’t say no.

I find writing to be similar to going through the motions. If you want to write more consistently, you need to go through the motions and write a shitty first draft. Trust that once you've gone through the motions, inspiration will hit you. Julian Shapiro calls this the Creativity Faucet.

At the beginning of a writing session, you must write out every bad idea that reflexively comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting these bad ideas, you must openly accept them.

Once the bad ideas are emptied, strong ideas begin to arrive.

When you take action, no matter how small, it inspires us to do more. If you don't feel like doing your tasks, simply go through the motions and do something. The motivation to act will come later. In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg mentions:

Your actions create further emotional reactions and inspirations and move on to motivate your future actions. Taking advantage of this knowledge, we can actually re-orient our mindset in the following way:

Action → Inspiration → Motivation

The conclusion is that if you lack the motivation to make an important change in your life, then do something, anything really, and then harness the reaction to that action as a way to begin motivating yourself.

Doing this feels more natural and less nerve-wracking for me. The motivation to act is natural, and it's pleasant because I'm not forcing myself to get the work done. I'm forcing myself to go through the motions and use the positive feelings I get from taking action to propel me forward.

From now on, whenever I set a time block to get some work done, but I procrastinate, I just tell myself this:

Let's just open something and see where it goes from there. No need to set deadlines. Go through the motions.

  • If I want to go for a jog but can't be bothered, go for a walk instead.
  • If I want to do flashcards but can't be bothered to answer them, just skim through some.
  • If I want to write, I'll just write an outline or some random sentences.

Do what's easy and wait for the subsequent inspiration.

Once you've got the inspiration, doing more work feels effortless. It's easier for you to get into flow. Most of the time, our problem is not focusing or being efficient. It's starting the work that's the problem.

Long ago, Newton discovered the First Law of Motion: an object at rest will stay at rest. An object in motion will stay in motion. Funny how physics can explain human behaviour too.

To be in motion, go through the motions.



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