There’s something liberating about being told what to do. It lets you focus on the doing.
This is another one of those countless truths that I sensed but never articulated until a real-life example made it clear.
Historically, my relationship to the fitness “wagon” has been spotty. Many times in my adult life, I strung together a stretch of regular workouts for a couple of months, and made progress, but it always felt like I was close to falling off.
It was always the same thing that unseated me. I would begin to doubt whether my chosen regimen was sensible, and that made it hard to throw myself into it physically. I’d wonder whether I was doing too little and not really getting anywhere, or the opposite — setting the pace so high that I would inevitably start compromising. At some point, I’d always begin to wonder whether I should make an adjustment to my targets or my number of sets or rest times or something. Soon it would be impossible to stick to the program, because I no longer know what the program was.
Until recently, the intermittence of my workout habits was never a big problem because my job had been physical enough to keep me in shape. Now I work from home, which can become an extremely sedentary lifestyle if you don’t deliberately include daily physical activity. I went from walking miles a day, with equipment on my shoulder, to a twenty-five-foot indoor commute.
For the first time, I’m doing a regular workout that I don’t have to fight myself over. I have almost no resistance to it. My success has something to do with the fact that this time I’m taking orders from a computer program.
Going with the principle of “The best workout is the one you can stick to,” I decided to begin with the arbitrary but attractive goal of a hundred pushups in one session, using a much-downloaded “100 pushups” app on my phone. You start with an initial test, type in your results, and then it prescribes how many reps to do each set, and counts the rest time down for you. It charts your progress in a graph.
It’s not high fitness science and I understand that. I’m fully aware there may be better programs, but any doubt in my regimen is trumped by the undeniable fact that it is working — my reps-per-day graph is snaking steadily upward, I’m looking and feeling better, and I’m never tempted to miss a workout. I’ve never experienced this kind of consistency and confidence in my workout routine. Now that I’ve established this consistency I can scale up the volume. I’m going to start doing kettlebell squats in the same way.
The doubt that normally sinks my fitness efforts is absent this time because it’s always clear what to do. Press the “Begin” button. Shoot for the targets it tells you. Keep your form good. Enter your results. Repeat the workout if you have to. The wondering is gone, and that removes a certain shakiness from my muscles.
Where doubt comes from
This kind of clarity is beautiful and powerful, and I want to have it in every aspect of my life. As generally defiant of authority as I am, it turns out I love being told what to do if what I’m being told to do is something that works. It doesn’t even have to be the most efficient or helpful path to my goal as long as it moves me toward it without the constant backpedaling. It’s a very empowering position — to be in a place where you know that all you have to do is do.
Doubt is the real work-stopper, and that happens when you’re deciding what to do, not when you’re doing it. If doubt seems to hinder you while you’re working, it’s because you either haven’t decided what to do yet, or you’re letting yourself reconsider your decision while you’re supposed to be carrying it out.
When it comes to actually getting something done, it makes all the difference in the world to have the decision of what to do already made, whether it was your decision or someone else’s. In the case of my return to fitness, what a relief it is to know I’m almost guaranteed to move steadily toward my goal if I just follow the program. It’s like a yellow brick road. There’s no more trickiness or ambivalence about it, just pushups.
With all of my goals, I want the doing aspect to be as separate as possible from the question of what I should be doing. They’re both essential parts of getting something done, but they need to be done at different times.
Decision points are momentum killers. They’re the moments where high-level doubt about your actions can establish itself. In thirty seconds you can go from doing, to wondering whether you should be doing something else instead, to wondering where this particular plan went wrong, to wondering where your life went wrong. Being uncertain of what to do right now often means you won’t do anything right now, and years can go by that way.
It makes sense, then, to keep your decision-making time separate from your doing time whenever possible, as a rule. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of simply asking myself whether I am, at this moment, 1) making decisions, or 2) acting on decisions I’ve already made. It’s easy to slip into a stuttering kind of mode where you’re trying to do both, which feels about as comfortable and efficient as tying your shoes while you’re running.
Making a yellow brick road
This insight is the reason Getting Things Done, David Allen’s wildly popular workflow system, finally clicked this year after about five years of missing the point. Deciding and doing are two totally different modes of work. But nobody teaches us to distinguish them, and so all the stuff we have to do seems so complicated and fraught with uncertainty that the actual doing itself seems hard — when in fact all work consists of single actions that can be dispatched fairly quickly once the deciding has been done.
Ideally, when you’re at your desk, you’re either defining your work, or you’re doing work you’ve defined already. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, you’re probably treading water.
Questions requiring a decision do pop up in the middle of “doing” sessions all the time. But most of them can wait. I write them on an index card and drop them in my inbox and get back to what I was doing. Every day or two, I consciously switch modes and look at the stuff in my box, and decide what to do about it. There is a time to wonder and doubt and consider changing approaches, but it’s not allowed to marble itself into my “doing time” any more.
My silly phone app represents an ideal level of clarity for getting to a goal. The doing is totally defined already and I can see that I’ll get there. The only decision I had to make was whether to go with the program or not.
For more complex goals (say, switching careers) a phone app isn’t going to spell everything out. But you can still use heuristics that prescribe you a sensible-enough response to most things that come up, until you can sit down and have a dedicated decision-making session. The word heuristic can mean a lot of things, but in this context I’m talking about a rule of thumb for keeping moving when something you hadn’t planned for comes up.
Here’s Steve Pavlina’s example of a heuristic for climbing a mountain:
Head directly towards the peak until you reach an obstacle you can’t cross. Whenever you reach such an obstacle, follow it around to the right until you’re able to head towards the peak once again.
It may not be the most efficient path, but it will get you to the top. Or at least, keep you moving confidently toward the top until you can take a break from climbing and do some more detailed planning. That is the most powerful part — separating decisionmaking from doing removes the doubt and fear from the actual work itself. The goal is there if you want it.
I half-understood this concept until my experience with the pushup app brought it into focus. With anything, the work itself usually isn’t the hard part, it’s the emotional unsteadiness you feel when your doing is interspersed with moments of choosing. So isolate that choosing. Keep it away from your doing, because on a mental level doing is a much more zoomed-in activity than choosing. When you’re doing, you don’t want to be minding general trends and life goals, you want to be minding handholds and penstrokes.
Doing a pushup isn’t that hard, and with a fully defined program, once I’ve decided to go with it, a pushup is all I ever have to do. Push the floor away, and I will get there. On the action level that’s all I need to be thinking about. Trying to do a pushup while you’re simultaneously deciding whether it’s worthwhile is about ten times harder than just lifting your body off the floor.