Just Do It

Lots of us want to change our behavior in one manner or another, whether for reasons of health, happiness or improved relationships with others. My fellow mental health professionals and I claim great expertise in facilitating such changes, but sometimes we make the process more complicated and harder than it needs to be.

I refer specifically to the psychotherapeutic legend that to change our behavior, we must first develop insight (e.g. “Why don’t I tell my children I love them more often?”) and then gradually build up motivation (e.g., “Let me review some ways I would benefit from telling my children I love them more often.”) until, finally, all these internal psychological forces culminate in new behavior: “Son, I don’t tell you this often enough, but I want you to know that I love you”.

Do human beings really change behavior in that orderly and considered fashion? Sometimes, yes. But the funny thing about the lizard/horse/monkey brain between our ears is that our feelings, thoughts and motivations can just as easily follow a change of behavior as drive it. Would-be behavior changers should thus take seriously the Nike slogan: “Just do it”.

For example, in the smoking cessation field, the clinical lore holds that some people are in the “pre-contemplation” or “early contemplation” stage of change about giving up cigarettes, so they can’t yet succeed in actually changing their behavior. Instead of focusing on behavior, the stages of change theory claims, the therapist should work to change internal psychological processes that move the smoker to a stage of intense contemplation. At that point, having thought about why they want to change in great detail, the smoker will be able to make a serious stab at stubbing out squares for good.

Stuff and nonsense, argues my friend Professor Robert West. When people are ambivalent about quitting, the best thing may indeed be for them to try it anyway immediately. Some of them it turns out succeed in quitting, their lack of prior contemplation notwithstanding. Even more interesting, some of those who try and fail become more committed to trying again than they were before. As odd as this may sound, our observations of our own behavior seem to influence our perceptions of our own wants. In other words, if we are trying hard to engage in a new behavior, our mind becomes more convinced that we must want to change.

So, if you have slacked off at the gym, the best thing may not be to speculate as to why, wait for the moment when you feel really ready or spend hours kicking yourself for not going. Rather, just go to the gym whether you feel like it or not, right now if possible. There is a good chance that the next time your gym day rolls around you will be more interested in going and much more likely to indeed follow through with the behavior.

My most memorable experience of this phenomenon as a psychotherapist happened with a nice, if tightly wrapped, young married couple who were dissatisfied with how often they had sex (viz. never). Margo and Geoff loved each other and were attracted to each other but they had demanding jobs and three kids and there never seemed to be the time for sex, and then when there was one of them wasn’t in the mood, or the atmosphere wasn’t right etc.

They spent the entire first hour of therapy talking about all the reasons they didn’t have sex and how much they missed having sex. Oscar-winning method actors spent less time speculating about their motivation for sex than did this abstinent couple. I gave the obvious homework assignment: Have sex before our next appointment.

At the next appointment, they still hadn’t made the beast with two backs. They had intended to but then Geoff had a crisis at work and didn’t feel like it, and then a few days later when he wanted to, Margo was stressed about a problem with one of the kids and couldn’t even think about having sex, and and and.

At the end of the second session, I was not as frustrated as they were, but I was getting there. I asked if they spent much time at home talking and complaining about their lack of sex. Yes, they said, quite a bit. So I tried a new tactic:

“We have spent two hours discussing why you don’t have sex. You seem to have spent at least that much time in the past few weeks complaining at home about your lack of sex and wondering why you have no sex. So I don’t want to see you again until you have sex. Use all the time you have been complaining about, analyzing and discussing your lack of sex to have sex. And if that doesn’t work, don’t come here to see me next week. Instead, use the hour you have set aside for therapy to have sex instead”.

I wondered if they would appear next week. They did. They sat down quietly. I thought “Dammit, here we go again” and asked, with probably a less even tone than was completely kind, “Well?”.

Margo looked up sheepishly and said “I guess we will have to talk about something else this week”.

And then we all laughed so hard and so long that a clinician down the hall banged on the door and asked if we were all right.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Just Do It”

  1. Human brains are weird.

    A personal observation:

    I do not enjoy exercise, but of course need to exercise for my health, as I lead a fairly sedentary life. If I wake up in the morning and say, “I will go to the gym today,” I don’t go. There’s always an excuse. OTOH, if I say, “I will go to the gym at 4:00 PM,” I end up going. I stop what I’m doing, as if I had an important appointment, and go.

    I find this strange.

    1. Interesting. May I ask, who do you say it to? And do you write it down anywhere, or just remember it?

    2. When I’m putting off doing something, I’ll decide I need to do it at a certain time and set an alarm to go off at that time.

  2. Much good advice here. I recall (vaguely) that C.S. Lewis in one of his religious books said that to pray, you should just do it – pray, not worry about whether you believe enough or have particular thoughts or the right formula or the appropriate setting. He didn’t say ‘just do it’ but he certainly meant it. And belief will come with the action.

    One of my earliest memories is of a question in about first grade, when the teacher pointed at a picture in a book and asked ‘why is Tommy happy?’ The answer she gave was ‘because he is smiling’. For decades that answer has bothered me because it seems to be the wrong way around: surely he is smiling because he is happy – the mood comes first, the expression afterwards. However, Keith’s thesis here might give some support to my grade 1 teacher (no doubt long since gone to her reward .. .whether smiling or not!)

    1. The act of smiling stimulates the the nervous system to generate endorphins that make us feel “happy”. Your teacher was right. Try it now.:-)

  3. It’s struck me in the Gospel healing stories that the sufferer (unless comatose or supposed dead) is usually required by Jesus to do something: go and bathe in a pool, or just get up. That little step seems to be an essential buy-in to the healing. I suppose that’s how placebos work, and nasty-tasting ones work better.

    1. God helps those who help themselves (and Zeus too, according to Aesop). Buckley’s Mixture too, I’m told.

  4. So, there are four stages in behavior modification? I. No Change; II. Awareness; III. Questioning/Analysis; IV. Progress. Why does all this sound remarkably familiar? Would it be because it’s yet another offshoot from the behaviorism/structuralism tension that produced so many other stadial hypotheses in the field?

    The problem is, all stadial hypotheses are descriptive in nature. They offer no mechanism of change–they simply note the conditions under which you have arrived at each stage. They don’t even suggest, most of the time, whether the transition is/ought to be gradual or sudden. There is simply a description.

    This is where crazy assumptions come in. For example, one of the more ridiculous developments in Piagetian theory has been the idea that stages are hard wired to specific ages and that they have, more or less, fixed duration. This claptrap puts food on the table for families of a few developmental psychologists and education researchers, but, for the most part, it has absolutely no bearing on learning outcomes of actual students/learners. The same applies to all other stage theories, including this one.

    Just let go of the descriptive aspect. That’s all you have to do.

Comments are closed.