Do The Thing


Stop pretending to do stuff, and actually do it. It is so easy to invent tasks which feel like they're helping you achieve your goals but are in fact totally useless. Learning how to notice and avoid that is extremely valuable.

In my final year of university our professors gave us a special talk on their best advice for how to do well. They had two excellent tips, which I think I can condense into just one. The first was that good revision had to involve actually grappling with the material: you couldn't just re-read notes and hope you absorbed it, you needed to think through the arguments, form your own opinions, follow up on critiques, and actually learn it.

The second was that the difference between a good essay and a great essay was a level of nuance that showed you were really engaging with the question. Of course the exam would hit certain topics that we'd studied, but we needed to resist the temptation to simply recognise a topic area and rehash an essay on that area that we'd already written, adjusting the wording slightly to match the question.

So dire is the situation that if you want to get credit from the examiners, you need to be conspicuous about the fact that you're actually answering the question, because otherwise they might quite reasonably assume that you haven't bothered to do the one thing you've been asked to do. Put the answer in the first paragraph, start every other paragraph by directly stating what that paragraph will be about, then show how it's actually relevant to what you're arguing.

I used to hate that kind of advice because it felt so artless, so bland. But now I think even if you don't want to do it, you should try doing it at least once, just to prove you really can. I think this because I did try, and it was harder than I expected. But then I kept trying and I got good at it.


If I were to condense those two tips into one very angry sentence it would be "Stop pretending to do your degree and actually do it". Stop pretending to revise by staring at old notes, and actually try to understand the topics you're going to be examined on. Stop pretending to answer the question by writing an essay on the same topic, and actually answer the question. Stop pretending to do the thing and actually do the thing.

You'll notice that I already said that at the top. I'm going to keep saying it. It's pretty simple. The subtleties of how and where you pretend are, well, subtle. But they also sort of don't matter.

What I mean is, one way to approach the deep life philosophy of 'stop pretending to do the thing and actually do the thing' (SPTDTTAADTT) is to think really hard about how you might be pretending to do things you care about, and analyse the relationship between your actions and your behaviour, so that you can stop pretending to do the thing. The other (usually better) approach is to actually do the thing.

It would be wrong of me not to now point out that you, reader, are also currently just reading this. It might feel like you're learning something, and for all I know you are, but reading about how to do things is not the same as doing things. The most valuable thing you could get out of reading this is to actually do something. So let me invite you:

Take 1 minute to actually serious reflect on where in your life you're not actually achieving your goals, enacting your values, or doing what it is that you want to do. Seriously, set a countdown. Write down what's stopping you. The rest of this post can wait.


Now that you've either spent a minute thinking or immediately dismissively scrolled on, I can reveal that that was a nasty nasty trap. Because if you've been reading carefully, and unquestioningly accepting everything I say, you'll understand by now that if you want to do a thing, thinking about why you're not doing it is probably not as helpful as actually doing the thing.

So now I invite you to spend a minute doing something actually useful. If you can spend a minute thinking, you've proven that the issue is not that you're too busy. And if you skipped over the minute of reflection, congratulations, you won, but you still haven't actually done anything, and you're still just reading this.

That room you want to tidy? Go put one thing away. That essay/novel/poem you're "writing"? One sentence, just write one sentence. Or just a word. Do a pressup. Get yourself another glass of water. Pick somebody you love, somebody you've been meaning to reconnect with, and just send them a message saying 'hey, we should catch up some time'. Just do the thing. I promise it will take you under a minute. And here's another timer link.

How was that? Did you actually do it? (Did you think about doing it, and decide you'd maybe do it later?)


The infinitely quotable Scroobius Pip quipped many years ago, "I see so many kids that love being writers more than they love writing." It can be hard to notice when what you want isn't actually to do something, but to feel like you're doing it. Self-deception can be so comforting.

But when it comes to achieving your goals, I think you should be honest. If you don't love writing, you probably shouldn't be a writer. And if you do love writing, but you're busy or self-conscious or not sure what to write about or whatever else, don't hide the problem by downloading lots of new kinds of writing software or buying yourself a nice keyboard or a tweed blazer or whatever it is writers these days are meant to do.

You gotta own these things.

I could keep ranting about how badly I've seen people screw up writing by not actually trying to write, and at some point I probably will, but right now I'm going to stop here, because I think cherrypicking more examples of times all those dang people were wrong and my big theory was right might not actually help. For now.


I'll finish with this: I've been working on this blog for weeks now. And by 'working on' I mean rewriting drafts, tweaking the site styling, hand-coding things that other people have already coded, and telling people that I'm totally definitely going to start a blog. But, as I write this, the blog is distinctly lacking in actual posts. All the same, I have believed for a long time that writing things out and thinking through them can actually be pretty helpful, especially if the problem is something to do with internal alignment.

For me at least, that stage where you actually connect it to the world is crucial: I have to actually write out my thoughts somewhere, or talk to someone. But when I do, sometimes I just work stuff out. This is partly me trying to work out how to write a blog post. And if you're reading this, it worked!

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