Become a person who Actually Does Things

by Neel Nanda3 min read25th Jul 202017 comments

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MotivationsPracticalRationality
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(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at neelnanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who actually do things, and people who don’t.

Now I’ve got the unnecessarily provocative opening line out of the way, what do I actually mean by this? To achieve a goal, this breaks down into two parts: figure out what needs to be done, and actually do it.

As stated, this sounds completely trivial. But I think there’s a really important and non-obvious point in here. Some part of is convinced that the main bottleneck for achieving my goals is being smart, coming up with the best plan, getting all of the necessarily information. And this is true! It doesn’t matter how good you are at doing things, if what you’re doing is crap. But it also doesn’t matter how good my plan is if I never act upon it.

And it’s really easy to miss this point. It’s easy to always think “I can do this tomorrow” or “this is not a priority” or “this would never work”. And it’s hard, because sometimes those thoughts are correct. But I find that, unless I put in active effort, I’m the kind of person who’ll always have those thoughts. I’ll never actually act upon my goals, change things about my life.

One of the main symptoms of this is that I’m always aware of problems in my life, and will often be aware of them for a very long. I’ll notice that I don’t exercise enough, that I’m not enjoying the courses I’m studying, that I really dislike being single, that I don’t have enough time to do what I find most fulfilling. But there won’t be a connection in my mind from “this is a problem” to “what am I going to do about it”. It’s not that I think through the problem, and conclude that I can’t do anything, it’s that it never feels like there’s a question to be asked in the first place! And I think this is a problem that extends far beyond me - I notice some amount of this in most of my friends, and I think it’s incredibly widespread. There seems to be a mental block between “things are not as I want them to be” and “I can actually do something about this”.

I think this really sucks, and can be one of the biggest meta-problems holding you back. But the reason I’m writing this post is not to complain about how much it sucks, it’s because I think this is a solvable problem. Being the kind of person who does things, an agent, is a skill, and I think it is a trainable skill. And this is hard, and won’t work perfectly, but there’s a lot of room for progress. And this is one of the most valuable skills I’ve ever tried developing.

The main symptom is that, in the moment, acting upon your desires never feels urgent. It never feels important, and can be put off. Or it never feels possible, the problem just feels like a fact of life. And so a solution must center on solving the problem in the moment. And the solution that worked for me, is to make it part of your identity to be an agent. Make it a point of principle to do things, not because the thing is necessarily the perfect action, but because I choose the life where I do things, over the life where I always wait for the perfect opportunity.

Notice the small problems, and fix them. Notice when everyone isn’t enjoying what they’re doing, and be the first person to voice this. Notice when the jug of water is empty, and be the one to fill it. Notice when you say “oh, I can do this tomorrow” and do it today. Notice when you think “I should get round to this some time” or “I’ve always wanted to learn juggling” and actually do it. Notice when something is inefficient, notice the thing nobody is doing, and be the person who does it!

The point of this, is that I avoid the paralysing perfectionism and uncertainty by changing the question I am answering. It doesn’t matter if I’m not doing the right thing, because what I’m doing isn’t that important. I can close off the paralysing thoughts, not by answering them on their own terms, but by realising that the choices I make today affect the kind of person I’ll be for the rest of my life. And that that’s far more important than whatever trivial bullshit is going in my life today. And thus, I train the habit of actually doing things. Figuring out the right thing to do is also a vital skill, but can come second. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And it doesn’t even matter if I do make the wrong or imperfect choice in all of the day-to-day mundanity. What matters is that, when that one golden opportunity comes along, I am the kind of person who will take it. A thousand tiny losses are nothing against the big win that really counts.

If there’s one thing you take from this post, let it be this: notice the next time you agonise over a choice, or pass up an opportunity. And ask yourself not “what is the right decision” but rather “which decision will get me closer to the kind of person I want to be”.

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