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Make the Power Move

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In serious chess games, every move is written down. That way, every choice made by either player can be analyzed, by anyone, even centuries later.

The notation itself is very concise. Bh4. Nxd5. The Bishop moves here. The Knight captures the pawn there. A whole game can be reduced to a paragraph the size of a newspaper classified ad.

In chess books, analysts will sometimes annotate certain moves with praise or criticism. To indicate an exceptionally good move, they add an exclamation mark. Nxg6!

To a chess nerd, the “!” is very exciting. It means the move wasn’t just good, but that it gained more for its player than seemed available at that moment.

The exclamation mark signals a hint of genius — a moment in which a player sees through the position’s usual pitfalls and predictable struggles, and puts them behind him with the single push of a pawn. Boom! With a sudden punch out of nowhere, the game has changed.

On many occasions, I’ve witnessed people do things in real life that seemed clever and unexpected enough to deserve a “!” -– simple, right-to-the-bone power moves that cut through the struggles and stalemates one might have expected.

When I was a basement-dwelling preteen in the 1990s, my friend’s dad had a power-move way of getting us off the Nintendo to go play outside. Rather than attempting the usual interventions — calling repeatedly from upstairs, or negotiating a stopping time that would later be argued about — he would come downstairs, stand directly in front of the TV, and ask us mundane questions, like what were our favorite insects, or what bands we listened to these days.

A kettlebell instructor once taught me how to get past any hesitation about starting the next set, even when your arms are burning and no part of you feels ready. When you notice you’re hesitating, you grasp the kettlebell’s handle and pull it like a ripcord, swinging it back forcefully, even while your mind is still saying, “Let’s wait a second, I’m not quite ready.” By the moment the weight is in motion, the set has already begun, and such inner negotiations are irrelevant.

If life were annotated like chess, these moves would deserve a “!”. They’re elegant and clever, and they immediately change the game, by punching right through a predictable point of struggle.

I’ve begun to identify some of my own game-altering power moves, for frequently encountered sticking points in my life.

When I find myself habitually doom-scrolling on Twitter, half-negotiating with myself about getting back to work, sometimes the chess genius in me identifies the moment’s killer move, and my body does it: punch the Home button with my thumb, making Twitter disappear in mid-negotiation. This instantly breaks the spell, and makes it unnecessary to convince myself to stop.

On cold mornings, when I’m hesitating to get out of bed, the power move is to throw my legs sideways, in one sudden movement, over the edge of the bed, and get my feet onto the floor. Boom! Game changed. Negotiations over. Moments later I’m dressing and getting on with the day, having slain an age-old struggle with a single thrust of the legs.

In such a moment, the psychological distance traversed by flinging one’s feet across eighteen inches of physical space is tremendous. Such simple moves can bypass long, labyrinthine river systems of self-negotiation, in which you’re trying to convince an irrational, stubborn mind to do the rational thing.

The Power Move is always a simple bodily movement that punches through any psychological resistance. It is the body acting while the mind carries on hesitating, delivering you immediately into a new moment, where there’s nothing to hesitate over.

If you can identify moments that contain predictable sticking points, perhaps you can identify a simple bodily move that would end negotiations and deposit you on the other side of the usual struggle. Once you learn the move, practice doing it without hesitation.

You’re dawdling at work. Slam that MS Word icon in your taskbar (!) and your work once again engulfs the screen, disappearing the fourteen open browser tabs from which you’d been struggling to extricate yourself. You have work to do, of course, but you’re no longer playing the dark game of “Okay just a few more minutes…”

Hesitating on a phone call? That’s your cue to swipe the green “call” arrow, and already it’s ringing. Boom. The hesitation game and its familiar pain are over, and life is moving on. That deserves an exclamation mark.


I Can Teach You To Relax

If you’re feeling uptight these days, there’s good news. I’m about to hold the second-ever session of Mindfulness for Relaxation (a.k.a. Camp Calm Relax).

Over a series of short audio lessons, you’ll learn a mindfulness technique for cultivating relaxation and ease in any posture, wherever you happen to be.

As you can probably guess, this is a very useful skill to have in 2020 A.D.

[Get the details]


Chess photo by Jacek Pobłocki

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Tim September 22, 2020 at 2:39 am

Thank! You!

DiscoveredJoys September 22, 2020 at 2:54 am

I have a general purpose power move… whenever I start thinking about some negative past event I immediately smile! It’s got to the point where I smile! automatically. It switches me out thinking about the social faux pas, the reactions of others and the ‘I am not worthy’ story into a ‘it was what it was, but that was back then and doesn’t affect me anymore’ story. The smile! cuts off rehearsing bad things at a stroke, using only the muscles of your face.

The power move has spread into reactions to good past events too. Win a competition? Have a great exercise session? Births and marriages? Smile! The power move celebrates the good events of the past but snips off the dangers of reliving the past to the detriment of the present.

Marian September 22, 2020 at 6:03 am

Love this idea. Thankyou for sharing.

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 9:20 am

Wow you’re right — that’s a great example. Smiling in response to an impending snowball of negative thinking is a scientifically supported way to arrest the momentum. I’m going to train myself to do it.

woollyprimate October 1, 2020 at 5:37 pm

THAT is an awesome idea! I love it!

clay September 22, 2020 at 4:52 am

One of my greatest accomplishments of my youth was beating my computer chess game at the hardest difficulty. This was around the time of the deep blue vs. Kasparov event. Great article. Been following for a while and this is top 5

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 9:23 am

Thanks Clay. There is something that feels so good about winning in chess. It’s like proof that you can indeed think something through carefully.

I urge you to try the hardest computer engines now, though! The best ones are unbeatable, even by grandmasters.

Nicola September 22, 2020 at 5:43 am

Mind. Blown!

Marian September 22, 2020 at 6:01 am

Good one David!

Delfina September 22, 2020 at 6:34 am

You truly make sweet, sweet, love to words, David. Thank you for your brilliance.

Daniehl September 22, 2020 at 6:41 am

The sudden move has been my forte without my feeling super good about it – you know of course it sometimes is premature. I’ve always thought of my baseball coach’s prompting: jump when the ball is hit. Even if you’re moving in the wrong direction it’s easier to change direction than to start from zero. Thanks for the reminder.

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 9:26 am

I see what you mean. I’m thinking of this mostly in situations that repeat themselves, in which you keep getting caught in the same quagmires. The power move is always the one that bypasses the predictable bog, and it’s always the same. I don’t know enough about baseball to say what the power moves are :)

Brenda September 22, 2020 at 11:46 am

These words are very timely for me! I do the power move but not often enough. Or I should say that with certain situations like social media, the need to do the power move happens multiple times a day whereas with other situations it’s once and done. Maybe the real power move in this case is just shutting down social media completely.

Rob Mackenzie September 22, 2020 at 9:26 am

Loved this. When I was a kid attending boarding school, one of the seniors I looked up to had a power move he used as a tactic to clear out the dining hall at breakfast. Students tended to linger, and it was his job to clear the room before the morning assembly.

Instead of pleading, he would walk over to recalcitrant dawdlers, look them in the eye, and casually put his fingers into their food while repeating the instructions to clear out.

Remarkably effective.

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 9:27 am

Hahaha yes that sort of move is exactly what I’m talking about

Tiago September 22, 2020 at 9:50 am

Reading this instantly reminded me of the first time I jumped in a frozen lake. Before heading out of the hot sauna I knew to run and jump in like a fearless 8 year old, and that I couldn’t stop or hesitate. Doing so has made it easier to get into cold water, but I refer to that memory every time I need to convince myself to do something that appears difficult but I know is worthwhile. I jump in cold water fairly regularly to remind myself that the refreshing feeling is worth the initial shock.
Similarly Chris Hadfield has a great TED talk on forcing yourself to walk through spider’s webs (poor spiders) to overcome the fear of a space walk.
I guess these are power moves like you described, except the real benefit comes in different situations to the one you’re forcing yourself to do.
Thanks for another great article!

David September 22, 2020 at 10:06 am

Jumping in cold water is definitely a good example. If you leave it up to the mind to “psych yourself up” it only empowers the hesitation to continue forever. If the body makes the right move, the hesitation becomes irrelevant a moment later.

Paola September 22, 2020 at 11:41 am

David, I always think I never thanked you for all you’ve helped me all this time. And I always think that I could never thank you enough…

THANK YOU *bowing*

David September 22, 2020 at 12:13 pm


Alissa September 22, 2020 at 11:54 am

This is great, and really works. It’s the premise of the book 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins, have you read that? Basically what you are saying, when you know what needs to be done, count backwards from 5, then do it, which “closes the gap between thinking about what needs to be done and actually doing it.”

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 12:21 pm

Yes, some of the comments reminded me of that. I really appreciated her insight about the “emergency brake” effect that can happen when you hesitate.

Diane I. Young September 22, 2020 at 12:04 pm

I’m going to try to do this. I worked hard to lose 90 pounds and I’ve kept it off for 5 years but lately it’s been sneaking back. I snack between meals even when I know it’s not hunger driving me. So I need to find a “don’t do it” move. Hmmmm…..

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 12:27 pm

Best of luck. In my experience, hunger is rarely the reason we eat. I’ve had some success in the move of shutting the fridge/pantry when I notice I’m looming there.

JB September 22, 2020 at 1:09 pm

Great insight, David! I like the idea of pivoting to a new moment where hesitation becomes a non-factor.

I have a similar idea but I could never articulate it as well as you. I have what I call the Knockout Punch. It’s my one opportunity to win the inner fight immediately instead of a long-drawn out battle that saps my power. Unlike The Power Move, my Knockout Punch is all mental. I have one affirmation that deeply resonates with me to counter a specific unhealthy craving. For example, for mindless phone browsing my affirmation is “I am a man on a mission, not a lab rat.” The specific affirmations give the clarity and strength needed to stay on track. I know that my Knockout Punch is the only way I can win the fight, and for that reason I give it everything. Over time, the Knockout Punch gets stronger and automatic. I imagine myself as a boxer that is a one-trick pony, whose one trick happens to be a finishing punch.

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Ah that’s great. I hadn’t thought of this applying to mental moves as well but it does seem to be largely the same thing. The only difference I can see is that the physical move is often irreversible in some sense — once I get my feet on the floor, the mind has no rebuttal, as its chance to has been eliminated by moving the body.

I will work on my mental knockout punches. I guess human beings have a long history of them, in the form of affirmations, mottoes, inner refrains intended to shut down unfruitful paths. Thanks for the idea.

Nina September 22, 2020 at 1:13 pm

I need to learn how to do this! Both to snap back into focus at work, and to eject myself from my next YouTube session before it stretches to multiple hours…

For cutting off YouTube, one method might be to suddenly close the laptop as soon as part of me recognizes that I’m not getting any real enjoyment from what I’m doing. Assuming I’ve adjusted my power settings, doing this will cause the laptop to shut down, and then it will just be too much trouble to boot it up again — much easier to get up and get ready for bed, or at least switch to a book. Wish me luck!

David Cain September 22, 2020 at 4:23 pm

Closing the laptop is a good example. It feels good and you know it works. I would argue that it doesn’t need to be a lot of trouble to boot it up again, because the closing of the laptop puts you into a new moment (sitting in front of a closed computer rather than a youtube video) in which it’s far easier to get up and do what you’re supposed to be doing.

Nina September 23, 2020 at 12:25 pm

That makes sense — the important/effective thing is to “break the spell”.

Nina September 23, 2020 at 12:29 pm

I just remembered that for a while, a few years ago, I had configured my laptop to shut itself off automatically at a certain time each night. It worked at first, but soon, I got into the habit of just turning it back on right afterwards! I guess you can’t delegate your power moves.

David Cain September 23, 2020 at 1:05 pm

Yes. You can even feel the spell breaking if you pay attention.

MattD September 22, 2020 at 7:48 pm

The timing of this post is remarkable. Just a few nights ago as I was getting ready for bed, I told my 15yo I was about to do my Power Move. Which is going to bed at 10pm. I’ve finally figured out that I’m almost powerless to control my bad habits after this time. I’ll have another bourbon, I’ll inevitable make a sandwich, and I’ll probably stay up to 11.30. The result – not enough sleep, drinking too much, and eating too much. And all along all I needed to do was go to bed at 10!!

David Cain September 23, 2020 at 1:07 pm

I believe it. All of our behaviors are so interconnected that often you just move one lever and a number of other things fall into place.

Katrina September 23, 2020 at 11:25 am

You’re a gifted writer and I’m now subscribed which is something I don’t normally do. I have trouble finding courage to act on my ideas and your post makes me think of the time I suddenly called six friends over to my house while I led a paint and sip. It was a very spontaneous idea and I knew if I analyzed the amount of prep it would take and my own feelings of self doubt, it all never would have happened. It was such a simple thing but truly memorable and everyone loved it.

David Cain September 23, 2020 at 1:09 pm

Thanks Katrina, and welcome. I have also been reticent most of my life with initiating group plans, for that reason — I tend to think about what could go wrong, and it doesn’t take many thoughts before you decide it’s better not to bother.

Those of us who know we’re prone to overanalysis can benefit the most from power moves.

Gunnar Pedersen October 2, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Hi David and thank you.
This post and its comments kept getting better and sinking in deeper the longer I read and when I reached your “prone to overanalysis”, those words sealed it. The more I analyze an outcome of whatever action, the higher I tend to set the bar and therefore lessen my chances of passing over it. I read recently that disappointment is your response to what outcome you HAVE, versus the outcome you WANTED. When acting spontaneous, there is little or no time to set a bar at all, thus rendering greater satisfaction from commiting to the act alone, rather on what effect it actually had. Power moves. I’m giving this a real go.

David Cain October 5, 2020 at 10:12 am

That’s the strength of it, yes. The mind is very powerful, but it tends to complicate things, especially when you have some sort of conflict about it. That can lead to paralysis. Moving the body puts you past those moments of analysis where paralysis can happen.

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