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Just do it: insight, motivation and action

Dr. Paula Bloom Bio

Dr. Bloom is a practicing psychologist, speaker, and frequent CNN contributor.

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Just do it: insight, motivation and action

Dr. Paula Bloom


As I write this my father is in the ICU. He is very sick with a multitude of issues and struggling to breathe. I feel so sad and powerless and am resisting the urge to do something to get rid of these very healthy, normal feelings. These feelings are so uncomfortable and no amount of analyzing is going to change that.

I have been postponing writing this post, which I committed to having done yesterday. I have a doctoral degree in this and talk, write and think about this stuff everyday and yet, I am just as vulnerable to the wide range of feelings as anyone. I know this truth is obvious, being human and all, but many of us think that having a lot of insight about ourselves will make us happy, protect us from pain and make us motivated to make positive changes.

So often clients walk into my office, plop themselves down and say “I hate that I do this thing and want to understand why I do it.” I usually ask “Do you think that knowledge will change your behavior?”  As the conversation progresses it comes out that they know exactly why they do it. “Oh, I push men away because I am scared. I have abandonment issues from when my dad left.” “I can’t stop interrupting people because I get nervous that I won’t be heard if I wait.” “I don’t meditate because I can’t sit still.”  “I don’t exercise because everyone else’s needs in the family are more important.” “I can’t say no because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

In this self-help kind of culture, many of us know exactly what we do, and even maybe why we do it. Have you known someone who has been in therapy for years and is still miserable and hasn’t made any significant changes in their life? This may not be the best thing to say, being a shrink and all, but if you have been in therapy for years and haven’t made changes in your life or become happier why keep doing it? (Yes, I know, not the best business model for myself as a psychologist in practice.)

Why doesn’t insight always translate into action? It can, sometimes. But in my practice I see that action is often more likely to yield insight. The “just do it” mentality, when it comes to facing our fears and changing our behavior can be powerful and effective. I think we need to break through the idea that the only path to action is motivation. Action often precedes motivation.

If many of us waited to feel inspired to exercise  we might wait a lifetime. Once you actually exercise, you feel better and think “and why did I resist working out? I know I always feel better afterwards.” So, here is the key. Our thoughts. With exercise, it may not be wanting to do it but telling yourself you will feel better afterwards. Don’t confuse wanting to do something with being willing to do it.

I began this post by talking about my sadness and helplessness about my dad’s health and end it by talking about willingness. Knowing why I didn’t want to write, didn’t get me to write. Asking myself if I willing to, now that did.

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