Do what makes you feel proud

It seems that most of us spend our entire lives searching for a framework within which to make decisions. What is my purpose? What is the meaning of life? What are my values? What are my goals? Once we’ve settled on answers to those questions we feel as if we can use those as foundational pillars to make decisions moving forward.

Except most of those things are fluid. Your purpose may change many times as you age. There is no inherent meaning of life, other than the meaning you choose give it. Values will change with time as you gather experience, knowledge, and exposure to outside influences. Goals are ephemeral and come and go as they are met or forgotten. Making decisions with these things as your foundation will always be a moving target. It will cause confusion and anxiety.

I settled on a simple heuristic to solve this problem.

Decision: {insert any decision you need to make}

Thought: if I look back at my life at some point in the future, what decision would make me feel proud of my past self?

Action:  Do that.



Doing that leads to thinking

It’s not enough to just do. In order to lead a more fulfilling life you have to do things that keep your mind engaged and require conscious effort. Doing that is mindless will inevitably lead you back into your head into a world of thinking.

Take walking for instance. Getting out and walking can be good for your physical and mental health. I’ve walked literally thousands of miles and as much as I enjoy it I have to be very careful not to allow my body to put one foot in front of the other sub-consciously. When that happens it’s very easy for your mind to take over and start thinking yourself into the abyss. I combat this by trying to walk on hiking trails (requires consciously focusing on the path so as not to trip and bust your ass) or on new trails with interesting scenery and wildlife to process. Walking familiar sidewalks and paths usually doesn’t provide me with what I need to clear my mind and simply do.

Here are some things that you should be careful about:

  • Watching a TV show or movie – can lead to thinking or fantasizing about your life being “different” without actually taking action towards that.
  • Reading non-fiction and allowing thoughts about one book to generate connections and thoughts about other books – this can lead to believing that reading and thinking are a replacement for actual action. Self help books are the worst in this regard.
  • Any activity that you can do without much conscious effort – though tasks like these are necessary you must be careful to be mindful when doing them. Washing dishes, folding laundry, or taking out the trash are all things we do mindlessly. With a little effort and focus you can turn those mundane tasks into smalls wins. Challenge yourself to do those things more efficiently, try Kaizen.

Thinking and Importance

In the words of Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman:

“Nothing is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it, so the mere act of thinking about something makes it more important than it’s going to be. So you’re thinking, “How much happier would I be living in California?” Well no, you won’t be a lot happier. “How much happier would I be if my income increased by 30%,” you think a lot. No, it wouldn’t. So just about everything that people think about, they exaggerate its importance.

Now, Mr. Kahneman made a name for himself in the fields of judgment and decision making and behavioral economics so he knows a thing or two about thinking.

This artificial level of importance placed on something by virtue of thinking about it is one more reason why you should do more and think less. The things you think about are never quite as important as you believe them to be. How many times have you done something that you had anxiety about and said, “ah, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be”? The doing wasn’t the bad part, it was the thinking that created the anxiety.

Related Book: Thinking, Fast and Slow


Learning can be a crutch that enables inaction

I love golf. If you’ve never played golf you may not realize just how difficult it is to swing a golf club consistently and strike the ball consistently over time. Sometimes you can go an entire round and not feel like you swung the same way twice. It can be maddening. Mastering the sport takes as much mental energy as physical athleticism.

Learning about the golf swing is relatively easy. There are millions of online articles, illustrations, and videos to show you everything there is to know about the perfect golf swing. The problem is that this type of learning is thinking and not doing. Watching golf videos makes you feel like your making progress towards a better golf swing but you’re not. Reading about the perfect grip or take away conjures up images in your head that you can be that guy that dominates your local muni course. But those are simply thoughts, some might even say delusions. You will never become an excellent golfer, or excellent anything for that matter, by only thinking about it.

Visualization is okay. Simply thinking is not. Thinking and thinking and thinking about being a better golfer without getting out on the range and doing focused, deliberate practice is going to lead to more misery. So learn what you can from all that stuff but be damn sure you get out into the physical world and start doing it. Don’t let the plethora of information out there about what you want to accomplish assist you in thinking your way to inaction.

The Golden Rule says “Do” unto others

DO unto others as you would have them DO unto you.

It really doesn’t get much simpler than that. It doesn’t say “think” about others the way you would want them to “think” about you. If it did we’d all be in a world of hurt (all you sicko pervs out there take note). It matters not what you think, it matters how you act.

I realize the golden rule is written about 1000 different ways depending upon the culture, religion, or language being used but the essence is always the same: the ethic of reciprocity is such that you should treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

Actions speak louder than thoughts.

Thinking about Thinking vs. Thinking about Doing

If only I could follow my own advice…I sometimes wax philosophical about thinking less. How is that even possible? I mean, don’t you have to think in order to do? Yes.

It is okay to think about doing. If you are going to clean out the glove box of your car it is okay to “think” about bringing a trash can with you, “think” about the type of cleaner and paper towels you will need to complete the job, and “think” about anything else related to the doing of that task. Thinking as it relates to the physical realm and the act of doing is perfectly acceptable.

It is not okay to think about the thinking. You cannot think about whether or not the task is meaningful. You cannot think about your existential crisis and how your search for meaning is set back by completing the task. You cannot think about whether or not you’re capable of doing the task up to some mythical public standard. In short, you cannot let your thoughts beget other thoughts about thoughts. You have to get out of your head. If your thought is not about something that can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted then you are thinking about thinking. Stop.

Talk Less. Do More.

Talking is usually the spewing forth of thoughts. Most of the time when we are talking we are trying to make sense of some thought or idea. Because we’ve been unable to make sense of this inside our own heads we begin pulling other people into the mix by talking about it. While this can be mildly therapeutic if done sensibly it frequently leads to more thinking and “co-rumination”.

Co-rumination is when your thoughts have led to your own personal rumination and you’ve drawn your friends or family into the rumination with you by talking about it incessantly. Now all of you are ruminating and possibly creating a negative feedback loop where negative thoughts lead to more negative thoughts lead to confirmation bias and blah blah blah, more misery.

Many people will probably think I am an idiot for saying not to talk about your problems. After all talking is supposed to make us feel better. The problem is that many times it does not. If you’re going to talk you need to talk to someone who will be forceful with you in getting you out of your head (a good friend) and not someone who will exacerbate the issues by just agreeing with you all the time, “I know right?”

The next time you get the urge to talk to someone about some painful thought of yours just stop, and instead, ask them if they’d like to play a game or take a walk or something else in the physical world. Talk less. Do more.

The Paradox of Doing

The act of doing more leads to a simple problem. The more you do the less there is to do. If you do all the little things, the work of life, then what you find after a while is that your world becomes a little more organized, a little cleaner, and a little less chaotic. If your toolbox is tidy and organized then the next time you need to fix something you will be able to find exactly what you need in less time than you did before. So it’s not just that you have less to do but the remaining things you will do could become more efficient and less time consuming.

The act of doing will become a little more difficult over time once you’ve knocked out the low hanging fruit. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can become a little more creative in your pursuits. You can take on projects that require a bit more time. You can learn new skills with trial and error. You can try new hobbies. You can simply walk.

When you first set out to make a list of all the things you can/will do it can be overwhelming. You may even have some anxiety about it. There will come a time, however, when you’ve done so much you become bored and perhaps even a little unmotivated. These are the times when sliding back into a world of thinking is the easiest. Boredom leads to thinking and thinking is not the goal here. Do the dishes, take out the trash, wash a load of laundry, sharpen a box of pencils.

When you’re done doing for now you have a choice; more thinking or more doing. What’s it gonna be?

Think less. Do more.

It’s just that simple. You think too much. You think about thinking, you ruminate, you worry, you obsess, and then you repeat. In it’s lightest form this just results in mild anxiety. For some of us, however, this cycle leads to painful bouts with depression and more serious mental health issues.

You’ve probably found this site because you were thinking. You were asking yourself questions. You were seeking answers. You clicked one link and then another. You typed a question into a Google search box. When it didn’t give you the answers you were looking for you rephrased the question and then submitted it again. You’ve done this over and over and over until you are ridiculously tired of searching. You are now wondering when the searching will stop and the living will start.

Well, I am here to tell you that thinking your way out of a problem you thought your way into is not really the best solution. The best solution is just to DO. Do something, do anything. It’s best to start with smaller things but what you do is really irrelevant. Just the act of doing, of getting out of your head, is more than enough to sweep away your mental demons.

It is my belief, though I am not always capable of following my own advice, that your self help woes can be mostly cured by just doing and doing and more doing. You don’t have to stop thinking (we need to do that after all). You just have to slow down the thinking about thinking and change that to thinking about doing.

Now. I want you to stop reading, turn off your screen, take a few deep breaths, look around the room, bend your knees, stretch your arms, and then come back and read whenever you’ve done that.

Doing is just that easy.

Is suffering our Default mode?


This article from the NY Mag Science of Us summarizes a nice selection of scientific research concerning what our brain likes to default to when it’s host is not engaged in doing something.

From Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer?

When you don’t give its human anything to do, brain areas related to processing emotions, recalling memory, and thinking about what’s to come become quietly active. These self-referential streams of thought are so pervasive that in a formative paper Marcus Raichle, a Washington University neurologist who helped found the field, declared it to be the “the default mode of brain function,” and the constellation of brain areas that carry it out are the default mode network, or DMN. Because when given nothing else to do, the brain defaults to thinking about the person it’s embedded in.

If you’ve ever experienced excessive rumination about the past or future or found yourself spiraling down a hole of thought for some other reason, odds are it’s because your mind is not engaged with doing anything else. It’s default mode of operation is to start thinking of all the ways it needs to plan and protect you and control your future by analyzing your past experience.