If you want to get in shape, don’t buy running shoes. Instead, go out and run. There is genuine work and all the activities that feel, smell and taste like work but accomplish nothing. Worse than accomplishing nothing, these feel-good tasks reduce your motivation to do something useful.
Contrary to a lot of self-help wisdom, a study proclaims that telling people about your goals makes you less likely to accomplish them. The reason? Telling people about your goals feels productive. That feeling of productivity reduces the motivation to do something genuinely productive.
Feel-Good Tasks and the Real Thing
Ramit has a similar idea with personal finance he calls the difference between being sexy and being rich. Being sexy is watching your portfolio every day, looking for the best stocks and flopping between six bank accounts to earn an extra three dollars. Being rich is putting your money in an index fund and then waiting 30 or 50 years.
The difference here is the same as before. Eyeballing your portfolio feels like a mental checkmark in the personal finance column. If you give yourself enough checkmarks, then you feel satisfied with your effort–even if nothing was done.
If you want to be fit/productive/rich/in a happy relationship, the best way to start is by avoiding all feel-good tasks. If a task:
- isn’t necessary to get started, OR
- doesn’t directly contribute to your success
…don’t waste your time on it. You can worry about getting the fancier running shoes after you’ve been running every day for a month.
Instead of Counting Omega-3s, Start By Not Eating So Much
Always do the big things first. Because if you start with the little things, you might never get around to what actually matters.
I hate listening to someone with horrible eating habits making purchasing decisions on whether a food item is low-carb, Omega-3 rich or contains pomegranate juice. The problem isn’t whether the cream cheese you ate with your bagel had Omega-3s, but that you ate four of them.
When you get caught up in minutia, the really important stuff gets left undone. Often simply because in buying the low-carb salad dressing, you give yourself a mental checkmark in the “healthy eating” column and proceed to violate the truly important issues.
Identify Your Feel-Good Tasks
The problem with feel-good tasks is that they often appear productive. It’s only when you really examine them that you realize they aren’t either necessary or directly helpful to your goal.
When I first moved to Winnipeg, I had to completely build a new social circle. After reading a few interesting and helpful articles for improving my social life, I subscribed to a couple blogs and read many articles on the topic. At the time, I felt all the knowledge intake would help me build the kinds of friendships and relationships I wanted.
After a few months I realized that all of the reading was simply a feel-good task. Not only was some of the advice bad, but it held me back from going outside my room and meeting real people. So, at the time, I canceled almost all my subscriptions and stopped reading articles on the topic.
I won’t say universally that articles are always a feel-good task (otherwise why would I bother updating this site?). It really just depends on your personality, and whether you’re using reading as an excuse instead of an enabler.
If you’re serious about any goal, I would create a list of all the activities you do that you associate with that goal. Then go through each item on that list and ask if it is either necessary or directly helpful. If it isn’t, either leave it altogether, or make sure that you only do it after accomplishing the truly necessary and useful work.
Shut Up or Put Up
If you follow the advice of the study I mentioned previously, then telling other people your goals is a bad idea. Instead of telling your friends about your plans to travel the world, start saving quietly for a plane ticket. Instead of telling your friends about how you want to lose weight/get in a relationship/have a better job, start doing some actual work towards it.
I don’t believe talking about your goals is bad, only when it’s done before actually doing the work. Feel-good tasks aren’t harmful if you do them after working hard on all the real work. When I started writing this blog, I read tons of resources on how to make a successful online business. But it didn’t matter because I was actually writing nearly every day.
Leave the running shoes in the store, at least until you’ve put some miles in on your own.