And the cure for what really ails you can be found in an advertising slogan you’ve heard before
I don’t know you, but I know this: You have internet access, and enough time to spend some of it reading.
It sounds obvious, but this tells me two more important things about you: One, you’re in the top half of humanity’s wealth distribution, because the other half of the world’s population isn’t even online yet. And two, since you’re here, you’re likely fighting a very modern human fight. You’ve probably already got the basics covered — food, a roof over your head. For you, the obstacles to a better, happier life aren’t all concrete. You’re trying to defeat more abstract enemies: laziness, boredom, self-doubt, procrastination.
Here’s the thing: All these concepts are one and the same. And there’s only one way to deal with them.
You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. You’re not unmotivated. What you are — what all of us are — is afraid. And the best advice for overcoming fear is the bland three-word sentence Nike turned into the most successful marketing slogan of all time (after slightly tweaking a serial killer’s last words): Just do it.
“I’m not motivated” is never a true statement. Not motivated to do what? Work? In that case, aren’t you motivated to avoid it? Every action human beings ever take is driven by some kind of incentive, whether it’s money, or happiness, or peace, or satisfying your conscience. Your motivation may not always be obvious, but it’s always there.
If you hate every second of the workday, you’re not unmotivated to change your job. But you haven’t, which means there’s something holding you back. For some reason, it feels like you can’t make the change. It’s too hard, requires too much effort, makes you too vulnerable to rejection. So you don’t even try. But that’s entirely different from not being motivated, and it’s only a sign that it’s time to dig into this feeling.
I once struck up a chat on Tinder with a woman who was a scrum master and a physiologist. She was in business school, but, really, she wanted to study fashion and launch her own creative company. In short, she was a fascinating person.
When I asked her why she even used the app, she spoke the most common lie in the world: “I’m bored.”
How do I know it was a lie? Because no one is ever bored anymore. There’s no reason to be. Most of us don’t even choose to try. We’re 100% connected, 100% of the time.
We just pretend to be bored so we can keep filling our days with meaningless distractions, like small talk on Tinder, because we know what lies beneath the stillness: existential dread. Go through the door of boredom, and that’s what you’ll find.
The great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” You’re not bored. You’re terrified of being alone with yourself in your own head.
Laziness is the scapegoat of everyone who’s trying to capitalize on your claim of “being bored.” “You’re not bored — you’re boring!” is what they’ll tell you. You need a hobby, or a calling, or a $250 fitness program with a personalized meal plan.
This, too, is nonsense. Laziness, like boredom, doesn’t exist. As psychology professor Devon Price has explained on Medium: “No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details.” What looks like laziness or self-sabotage, he wrote, is almost always something else — a lack of confidence, an unmet need.
Once again, it’s not a lack of motivation, an inexplicable unwillingness to act, that obstructs your path to success and happiness. It’s the invisible boundaries in your head that you’re tripping over — sometimes without ever moving at all.
Laziness, boredom, procrastination — all of these are symptoms of the same disease.
My dad once told me this story: A colleague was driving to an appointment with a customer. As he was overtaking a truck, the truck moved into his lane. Seeing his car get crushed from the passenger side and compressing towards him, his animal instincts kicked in. Unleashing an ancient roar at the top of his lungs, he ripped out the gear lever of his automatic gearbox with one hand.
This is an automatic gearbox:
Clearly, we’re not talking about breaking off a knob on your radio. It’s a heavy, difficult-to-break piece of machinery. That’s the power of fear. It can make you do unimaginable things.
Now imagine turning this same power not onto your physical environment, but against your own mind. That’s what we tend to do when faced with a struggle — we take this unbelievable source of raw power and turn it on ourselves. We do it by self-medicating, by concocting and treating powerful symptoms, like laziness and boredom. Instead of seeing everyone rip their gear levers out of their cars, we see them staring at their phones on the subway, or procrastinating on a deadline by bingeing TV, or getting dragged into dumb fights on social media. We’re all afraid of something; we just choose to medicate that fear differently.
The number of things you can be afraid of is endless.
You’re afraid of dying early from a plane crash or an armed robbery or a natural disaster or a newly discovered parasite, even though the odds strongly suggest you won’t. You’re afraid of being alone because of existential dread, but also because it looks weird and gets weird looks, and if your parents haven’t asked why you’re still single yet, your friends most certainly have.
You’re afraid of writing the first chapter of your book, because who thinks that’ll ever work out? But you’re also afraid of wasting 10 more hours watching Game of Thrones, especially now that you’ve already seen the whole thing twice. You’re afraid of never being rich, but not nearly as much as you’re afraid of losing whatever you already have.
I could keep going all day. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking stupid, fear of losing something or someone, fear of fear, fear of wasting time, fear of not being good enough, smart enough, attractive enough.
In order to deal with all these fears, you could buy a new book from a new guru each week, collect a stunning array of probably-placebo supplements on your shelf, churn through organizational systems and mantras and resolutions. Or, you could wake up and realize that all these fears are the same thing. Fear is the same dark creature that’s always plagued us, and it will continue to invent new tricks till kingdom come. You have to find a way to live in spite of it.
That dog is going to keep chasing you until you die. And some days, it will get to you. But you have to keep moving. Forever. The day you run into the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I want you to look back and give the finger to that dog trailing behind.
I’m no more qualified to talk about fear that any random guy you’d meet on the street. I don’t have a degree in psychology, or even formal training as a writer. But, like you, I have lived with fear my whole life. And, somehow, I’ve still arrived in a place where I have a job I love, lots of time to spend how I want, and a general sense of happiness. I have my own issues to resolve, but I feel okay taking life one day at a time. And that’s what it’s about. Beat the dog again and again. And again.
And the one thing that has helped me show up consistently in spite of fear is some version of Nike’s annoyingly obvious slogan: Just Do It.
Because besides being annoyingly obvious, it’s also universally, inescapably true. “Just Do It” isn’t an elegant solution. It’s not dismissive or snobby, but empowering and humble. It’s motivation. Inspiration. Action. Energy.
People don’t realize how deep this slogan is. “If it were that easy, don’t you think everybody would ‘just do it?’” No, no, no. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about something Marcus Aurelius told himself 2,000 years ago: “You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible — and no one can keep you from this.” If all we did was focus on the task right in front of us, we’d accomplish 99% of our goals and then some. Sure, we’d still have to pause and reflect on occasion, and not all goals would turn out to be worth chasing in the first place, but we’d get there.
This is everything. The whole strategy. You don’t have time for big picture concerns when you’re doing. And I don’t mean running around all day like a rat in a maze. I mean steadily engaging and re-focusing on the task at hand.
“Just Do It” as a strategy
A strategy is a long-term approach to getting what you want. It’s a set of behaviors you’re committed to, a line of principles you’re unwilling to compromise.
Using “Just Do It” as the strategy, the operating system of your life, means committing to figuring it out on your own. You chase your goals based on what you believe in. If you think art should be free, then make art for free and get sponsors or donors. If you don’t believe in remote work, rent an office and hire locally.
“Just Do It” is the best advice because it’s the only advice that works.
When I started writing, I gave lots of specific tips in my articles: how to set goals, have a morning routine, be productive. But specifics are full of hindsight bias. I’m only giving you the final 10% that worked, and that worked for me in particular. The messy 90% of the journey that led me there? I left that out completely.
And my specific advice is only going to work for a tiny fraction of people who happen to be in the right place at the right time and for whom it will click immediately. Everyone else who still needs to go through the random 90% in their journey will be left out in the cold. Still feeling alone, still stuck with their fears. Except now, they’re disappointed too.
“Just Do It” may not be perfect, but at least it clears the air from the start: Yes, you are alone, but you also have everything you could ever need to figure things out. You will make many mistakes, but since no one on this planet can give you the perfect answers to the questions created by your own unique circumstances, choosing for yourself and continuing to move forward is not just the best thing you can do, it’s also the only thing.
“Just Do It” as a tactic
A tactic is a short- to medium-term course of action that helps you live up to your strategy. “Just Do It” as a tactic is refusing to let everyday hurdles get to you, while relentlessly focusing on the next, smallest action you can control.
Your boss didn’t like the presentation? Fine, do it over and show her again. You’ve run out of clients and your freelance business never really got off the ground? Fine, shut it down and start from scratch. Ghosted on Tinder? Fine, delete the app and try another way of meeting people. The faster you can re-center after completing something or get rattled, the better.
Again, this isn’t to say you should never rest, or that you’ll never have moments where the dog creeps back around the corner and stares at you with unblinking eyes. It’s to say that, with this focus on moving forward, you’ll feel more confident in handling it when it does.
Make a promise to yourself
You’re not unmotivated. You’re not lazy. You’re not bored. You are afraid. We are all afraid. And yet, we are still here. So every day, choose to be here, moving forward.