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 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.

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.

Convenience is the Enemy of Doing

You will not find an electric can opener in my home. It’s not because I have a particular hatred of electric can openers. It’s because that small gesture is a constant reminder that doing the work of life is not a bad thing.

I am not against technology or improvements in productivity or modern advancements. I do believe, however, that the trajectory of most innovation in the world is towards more thinking and less doing. While in and of itself this is not a bad thing, it is a dangerous thing.

The basic goal of almost all advancement in convenience is to save us time. The question is really what are we going to do with more time? Are we going to use it to do more or think more? Sometimes I feel as if every new development is taking away the doing and allowing more time for thinking. Convenience has become the enemy of doing.

I have to remind myself everyday that mindfully doing the small everyday tasks of life are more beneficial to my mental health than taking the convenience route and getting them over with so I can think more about everything else.