- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Unpopular Opinion: Don’t Just Get Started

“Just get started,” is the default mantra for all self-help, business books and anyone telling you how to improve your life.

Yet, this is actually a piece of advice I think is more often wrong than right. Contrary to this bromide, I think preparing more is good. Most people actually start projects without much planning, and as a result, sabotage themselves before they even begin.

This idea is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that even when I’ve tried to argue the opposite (that more preparation helps) I’ve had people try to “reiterate” my point by saying that “just getting started” is really what I meant.

Why I’m Against Starting Immediately for Difficult Goals

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It seems weird to say that it should be counter-intuitive that preparing for a goal makes success more likely, and yet here I am.

The reasons preparation helps are fairly obvious:

1. Preparing makes your plans better. Better plans are more likely to succeed.

Yes, it’s true that plans often need to change. But you know which plans are even more likely to be changed almost immediately? Bad ones. And you know which plans are bad? The ones that the creators didn’t put more than two seconds of thought into.

2. Preparation is like packing a suitcase. Yes you can buy stuff on the road, but it sucks if you have to buy everything on the road.

Plans will always fail to meet reality. But the more you think about what will be required of you, the more you can avoid common pitfalls:

  1. Are there events in your calendar that will conflict with your plan?
  2. Going on vacation that will make a new gym habit harder? Plan around it.
  3. Are you going to need certain resources? Books, money, materials, access? Planning for some of that will reduce delays and obstacles when they aren’t there when you need them.

3. Finally, preparation is psychological.

Athletes commonly use visualization to prepare themselves for upcoming competitions. There’s tremendous power in imagining something before you have to face it, because then you can be ready to face it rather than panic.

I’ll give a quick personal example. For my 30th birthday I went bungee jumping with friends. Except that, since a child, I’ve always been afraid of heights. As the date approached, I worried that I might freeze when it was my time to jump.

However, I managed to visualize the act of jumping enough times so that when the moment came, I didn’t panic at all.

Side note: while I had visualized the jumping part, I hadn’t imagined the falling part, so that was the moment that was really scary!

You may not be going bungee jumping but life is going to throw hard obstacles at you. Are you mentally prepared for them, or are you going to panic under pressure?

Why People Seem to Be Against Preparation

Listing it out, it seems to make sense that preparation and research are helpful, not harmful for your success. However, if this is obviously true, then why do so many people believe the opposite and put my opinion in the contrarian minority?

The reason, I think is twofold:

  1. People confuse delaying and daydreaming with preparation.
  2. People procrastinate even once their preparations are finished.

Let’s look at each of these issues.

1. Daydreaming ≠ Preparation

The reason the “just get started” advice is appropriate for some is that most people don’t actually prepare for anything. Instead they daydream about it for months or years. Fantasizing what it would be like, or telling themselves they might do something someday.

This isn’t actually preparation though. If you’re preparing it means you’ve actually got a piece of paper in front of you and you’re writing things down. You’re looking into your calendar to fit it into your schedule. You’re doing research online and writing down methods, ideas and strategies.

Actually, when you think of it this way, preparation looks a lot more like doing than daydreaming.

2. Analysis Paralysis

The second problem is that preparation can sometimes feel more comfortable or safer than starting. This can create a risk for when you approach the starting point, hear the pistol fire and completely freeze.

I’ve written about analysis paralysis [1] before here and how you can overcome it. Sometimes the key is to exposure yourself to lower level dosages of the thing you’re afraid of, so you can reduce the fear enough to get started.

Ironically, however, sometimes the key to overcoming this kind of fear is simply to prepare more. If somebody told you to start a new business today the confusion and difficulty might overwhelm you. If you had instead spent a couple weeks putting together a complete business plan and prepared more, the task would feel a lot more doable.

Creating a plan in your calendar, allocating time and mentally rehearsing the act of doing it is often the antidote to procrastination, rather than the cause of it.

How I’ve Applied This Advice in My Life

The MIT Challenge [2] started only after six months of part-time research. For the year without English [3], it was more like nine months of preparation. Even my shorter projects usually had at least a week of scheduling and preparing before pulling the trigger.

And, yes, sometimes you’ll go through the preparation process and not go forward. But that’s usually because there was a good reason for not going forward. Maybe, once you wrote it all down on your calendar, you realized you weren’t really committed enough to put in the amount of work? Or maybe the goal that seemed super compelling in your mind excited you a lot less when you contemplated the work required?

These are good things to find out early! It’s good to know that you aren’t going to make it before you start, because then you can redirect your energies to something you can accomplish.

How You Can Apply This Lesson

Is there something you’ve been thinking about for awhile but never taken action? Instead of “just getting started” why not actually sit down a little bit and prepare to do something about it?

Write down what you want to do. Look ahead into your calendar and note obstacles and conflicts. Figure out how much effort you can invest, what resources, tools and people you need.

If you find yourself still procrastinating, set a starting date, telling yourself you’ll start on that time, even if your research isn’t complete. And, if you still can’t start even then, go back and prepare a goal that’s a little more manageable to begin with.