Stop Trying And Start Doing: A How To Guide

Despite Yoda’s famous quote “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” being known by a lot of people, trying is still commonplace. The problem with ‘trying’ to do something is that it creates a weak mindset; trying to do something implies that it is OK to fail, which is precisely the option you need to rule out, especially if you are working on a hard goal.

It is rare for me to give my all and do my best when I am only trying to do something. Being lazy or even quitting is simply too easy. I believe you might have the same problem, which is why I want to propose one way for you to stop trying and start doing.

Usually when you just try to do something, it is because you would like to achieve that goal but either lack desire for it or believe you are not capable of doing it. Or it could be that you desire the outcome and know that you could achieve it but lack the self-discipline it would take to accomplish it. Otherwise you would simply decide to do it and then do it.

So how can you take the things you have been ‘trying’ to do and transform them into things you will actually do? I think the first step is to turn your ‘I’ll try’ into an ‘I want’. “I’ll try to lose some weight,” then becomes “I want to lose some weight.”

At first glance it seems you are taking even more power away from your previous statement. If you are trying to do something, it is implicit that you want it, but wanting something does not mean that you will do anything to accomplish it. However, this modification is important since it releases you from too big an attachment to the outcome and allows you to better focus on the specific steps you need to take.

The next step is to specify your goal. You do not need to do this with every goal, since some are already specific enough from the start. After specification, our weight-loss goal would be stated as follows: “I want to lose [insert desired number, e.g. 20] pounds.”  This way you can compare your progress to the end goal. Making the goal more specific also helps you focus and makes the goal more concrete.

I don’t believe specifying a desired time for accomplishing the goal to be helpful, since it puts you under unnecessary stress. However, you might want to do this in some cases where you find the date important.

These first steps are important for both smaller and bigger goals, but from there on there are a few slight differences between the two that are worth exploring a little closer.

For Smaller Goals

By smaller goals I am referring not only to goals that are faster to achieve, but also that are straightforward. An example would be to want to find something you have recently lost. If your goal is “I want to find my wallet,” you already pretty much know what you have to do. Still, I suggest you break down the goal and state it like this: “I want to find my wallet, so I will look for it in all of my jacket pockets.” Once you have done that, and if you still haven’t found your wallet, think of the next most common place it should be, and focus on searching for it there.

The point is that you are not busy thinking about how hard it will be to search the whole house but are focusing on the specific part of the house you are searching.

Another example would be a goal like cleaning your room. Right now, I have to go through every piece of clothing, every book, every piece of paper (basically, everything) in my room in order to decide what I will take with me to college and what I will give or throw away. If I think about it like that, the goal looks pretty impossible. Not because I think I wouldn’t be able to do it, but because I’m scared by the amount of work my mind is telling me it will be. So, I think of it in smaller terms. A few days ago, for instance, I went through the clothes in two of my drawers. Next I might do the third drawer, then my desk, etc.

I like to picture this process as seeing only the next 100 meters in front of you, not because you are blind, but because you know better than to look beyond them and instead prefer to focus on what is happening right now.

For smaller goals like the ones of the examples, it is enough to simply divide them in your head. If you’re looking for your car keys, it might not be very useful to write all of the steps on a piece of paper, since you are likely to already know them by heart. It is, however, important to have this division in mind and learn to focus only on the next or current step towards your goal, since focusing elsewhere drains your energy.

For Bigger Goals

These are the goals we usually ‘try’ to accomplish and at which we usually fail, because they demand that we change something about ourselves in the process of achieving them. The biggest example would be “I want to lose X pounds.” Most people believe that if they just follow a certain diet or exercise program they will easily succeed, but the problem is that this type of change doesn’t last if it is not accompanied by some form of personal growth. You may lose the pounds while on the diet, but once you get back to being ‘yourself’, you’ll just gain them back.

In order to lose weight, you have to become a healthier person and not just have healthy habits for a month. If you want to become financially independent, you not only have to work hard, but you have to learn how to manage money, feel comfortable having a lot of money and raise your ability (both psychologically and physically) to give value and receive money.

Very often when you set such a goal, you are not entirely sure of how you will accomplish it, and that is OK. The problem is that most people are afraid to want something they don’t know how to accomplish, which is why they can remain in a state of ‘trying’ to lose weight for years. In order to face this problem head on, set a ‘sub-goal’ that will get you closer to what you want and which you know you can achieve. An example for a health sub-goal could be “I am going to inform myself about health as much as I can for the next two months.” You then buy a few books such as Perfect Health Diet and The Primal Blueprint and others and take a look at my post on the science behind a grain-free diet. For two months, all you need to do is read those books and otherwise absorb as much information about health as you can. (Not all goals need a date, but it is important to set a date for how long you will inform yourself in order to avoid analysis paralysis.)

Now you have a specific sub-goal that will get you closer to your main weight-loss goal and have no other worries because you set out to do something which is within your reach. You are no longer “trying to lose weight,” you are “informing yourself about health, because you want to lose weight.”

After you have completed your sub-goal, it is time to set another sub-goal that will get you even closer to your main goal but which is still within your reach. When the bigger goal involves change, it is important to evaluate what you have learned from the previous sub-goal in order to be better able to define the next one. It is likely that you will get too much information and won’t be able to apply all of it at once, so make sure you filter the information and choose something you are not too uncomfortable with (change is often uncomfortable, so that’s unavoidable).

For instance, you could eliminate sweets from your diet for a month or maybe jog for 10 minutes every morning for a month, in order to later turn those changes into habits. In any case, you want to identify the next thing you could do to get closer to your objective and do it. It is likely that some of the sub-goals you set will not be purely mechanical but will rather involve some inner change on your part. This is good.

But be careful on how hard you make those sub-goals: too easy and they might demotivate you for not creating enough results, too hard and you won’t stick to the changes. When in doubt, make the goal easy, so that you know you can achieve it. Since you’ll probably be wanting to create a habit, one pushup per day is better than thirty pushups the first day and zero the rest.

However, if there is a step you feel would be very beneficial in your journey but for which you might need some extra help, there are processes you can use like burning the ships and making a bet to stay accountable. I’m currently using both, each with a different purpose.

Burning the ships

Right now I am working on a collaboration with Jack Peterson from which involves me doing some interviews for his podcast. Jack has given me a lot of liberty on this, so I get to choose whom I interview and what I ask them. I’m very excited about the project, especially since I have never interviewed anyone before.

Intellectually, I know that I can pull this off and create some great interviews, but I am also becoming aware of insecurities regarding the interviews. One of them is that, while I can think of many people I’d like to talk to, I can’t seem to find the right questions for them. For some people this might seem silly, but it is a very real problem for me.

So I decided to ‘burn the ships’ by first asking for an interview and setting the date and only then worrying about the questions. That way I will put myself under pressure to create good questions, and I know that I usually work better if I am under some kind of external pressure.

If your next task is one that you could put off indefinitely (and most likely would, due to some kind of insecurity or fear), then find a way to ‘burn the ships’ and make a commitment which will increase your desire to accomplish the task.

Making a bet

I have also decided to, during the month of May, always wake up at 6:30 (even though I don’t have to anymore) and follow a strict paleo diet. These are things I know I can do, since I have done them before, but which I didn’t stick to in the past when I have tried them. They are pretty ordinary to me, so I feel like I need an extra push to actually commit to them.

Luckily I found some people who also wanted help for their goals, so we created a group to keep each other accountable. On that group I told everyone that I had made a bet to myself: every time I don’t wake up at 6:30 I have to take $20 and for each non-paleo food item I eat I have to take $10 and at the end of the month I will then send a letter to Monsanto Corporation* thanking them for their service to humanity and giving them the money. If I complete the challenge, I will have the pleasure of burning the letter and shall buy myself a pair of XeroShoes.

You’ve probably noticed that this process is a specific adaptation of the previous one. I like to use this when there would otherwise be no one to keep me accountable. (In the case of the interviews, the interviewee would act as that person since they would be the first to notice I hadn’t really prepared.)


Here is the whole process in steps with a different example in brackets:

  1. Turn your ‘try’ into a ‘want’. (I’ll try to get a good grade on my oral exam -> I want to have a grade of X or higher in my oral exam)
  2. Create small steps that you know you can accomplish that will get you closer to your goal (I am going to summarize everything I need to know about topic 1; I am going to summarize everything I need to know about topic 2; I am going to ask my teacher for previous exams, work on the answers and ask for the corrections so I can know what I still need to study; etc.)
  3. Only focus on one step at the time. Give that step your full dedication before moving on to the next one.
  4. To help with bigger change
    1. Burn the ships
    2. Make a bet and have accountability-partners

*If you don’t know why I hate Monsanto from the depths of my being and you are into finding out what is wrong with the world, a quick (or long) Google search should give you all the information you need.

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