The Secret to Doing Anything Is Wanting It Bad Enough
They said my generation had been so desensitized by PornHub and Grand Theft Auto that all we watched online anymore was snuff films and fetish porn. They said our attention spans had been so decimated by TikTok and Twitter that we couldn’t even have a Frasier rerun on without simultaneously double-fisting our phones and our iPads. And yet there we were, gathered en masse to watch… a livestream of a construction crew repairing a highway.
And not even a full highway. Just a tiny section of it, a bridge on a span of I-95 in northern Philly. On the first day, God made Gritty; on the second, He made that guy who ate 40 rotisserie chickens in 40 days; and on His final day, before He rested, He made this: hot, steamy, 24/7, real-time highway repair. From his grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, Robert Moses smiled.
Every little kid knows that it’s fun to watch things fall down. It’s usually not as fun to watch them get put back together again. So how did this municipal construction project capture the hearts and minds of the American people? The same way the early-career Beatles played eight-hour sets at the Cavern Club: speed.
When the bridge crumbled last month, everyone assumed it would take many months to fix—which would have been, by the standards of American infrastructure, actually pretty fast. More pessimistic pundits—having seen the glacial pace of the Second Avenue subway, the continual shrinking of California’s high-speed rail dreams, and the perpetually under-construction SF Transbay Transit Center, among so many other examples—expected it to take much longer.
Yet this time, the doubters and haters were wrong. Defying even the most optimistic takes, the bridge was repaired enough to re-open to traffic in twelve days. The governor gloated. Livestream watchers around the world burst into applause, then switched over to another tab to watch Mukbang videos.
For the policy wonks who write columns about why America can’t build anymore, the I-95 fix was a wet dream brought to life. In Bloomberg and Vox they spun tales of the technical factors that helped this repair avoid the fate of the typical American infrastructure project. They sung of the official declaration of disaster from the state and the matching federal funds; of the crews who, in an exception to the normal policy, worked 24/7; of the expedited approval process that skipped the usual environmental review and citizen comment period. If only we could apply these lessons to our other infrastructure projects, they said, perhaps we’d be able to build like we used to.
Sure. Maybe! These policy changes are probably good ideas. But they’re all downstream from another, simpler factor: we repaired I-95 so quickly because pretty much everyone really, really wanted it fixed.
People like highways. And status quo bias means they’re always more open to fixing an existing thing that broke than building something new. So this repair lacked the small contingent of doggedly opposed citizens who hold up most other infrastructure projects.
That means that its lessons probably aren’t that relevant to most other infrastructure projects. But they are relevant, if you will, to our personal infrastructure.
It’s a productivity “trick” that’s almost tautological: get more done by doing the stuff you genuinely want to do. But I’m convinced that this—simply not wanting to do something—is the root cause of most procrastination.
Sometimes we choose the wrong thing to do unknowingly—usually because it’s something we think you should want instead of something we actually want. Other times we choose the right thing to do, but there’s a fear or anxiety—usually an unconscious one—getting in the way.
This is why the only truly effective anti-procrastination strategies are 1) changing your goal and/or 2) paying extremely close attention to your emotional landscape such that you can resolve, or at least alleviate, those underlying anxieties. Everything else—Pomodoro timers, forcing yourself to work sequentially through a to-do list, promising yourself a reward at the end—is a Band-Aid.
Just as pain can be a valuable signal unhelpfully obscured by a painkiller, so too can procrastination have something important to teach us. I’ve noticed that when I procrastinate at work, it’s often because I have doubts about the importance or efficacy of whatever it is I’m putting off. Sometimes, when I tune into the underlying emotions deeply enough to recognize these doubts, I can change what I’m doing and get better results. (Of course, sometimes you just have to do the dumb thing anyway, because someone else is making you do it. I have yet to find any foolproof anti-procrastination techniques in those situations.)
When you truly want to do something, and you aren’t overly anxious about it or afraid of it, you almost never procrastinate. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is a stupid saying—if work was that fun, they wouldn’t pay you to do it. But if you’re doing what you love, you’re at least less likely to put it off.
This same mantra, I think, applies to personal growth. The secret, inasmuch as there is one, is genuinely wanting to change. Twelve-step programs get this: it’s why AA has the saying “You’ve got to want it for yourself,” and why people who are forced into rehab by their families or by the courts don’t have outcomes nearly as good as those who choose it on their own.
Often we think we genuinely want to change, but actually, we don’t. A small example: for years, I tried and failed to stop biting my nails, because respectable people aren’t supposed to bite their nails. Then, shortly after I turned thirty, I woke up one day and just stopped. I hadn’t discovered some groundbreaking new anti-nailbiting technique. I just actually wanted to stop, for the first time, instead of merely thinking I should.
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Of course, we usually have multiple, conflicting desires, and any reference to the one thing we genuinely want is a shorthand that can obscure more than it reveals. Let’s say you’ve recognized that while part of you wants to make a change, you’re blocked by another, deeper part of you that doesn’t. What do you do?
The only option, I think, is acceptance. Trying to force the change ends up like a tug of war: pulling harder on one end only causes the other one to pull back just as hard. The trick, to the extent there is one, is gentleness. Let go of the urgent need for change and accept that it has to happen gradually, and that if it doesn’t, the way you are now is okay too. When you do, you often find that the change you were seeking has a way of happening on its own.
As an obnoxiously achievement-oriented person, this has been a tough lesson for me to learn: that in the mysterious and paradoxical realms of the psyche, less effort can often bring better results.
And speaking of being obnoxious: whenever I write something like this, a part of me worries that’s what I’m being.
Am I like Ivan Ivanovich, the protagonist of Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries,” lecturing his companions about the senselessness of telling others how to live while loudly doing just that1? Or, worse, am I like some of the most | annoying people on Twitter, who act like a few lucky angel investments and a two-week meditation course have made them enlightened?
So let me be explicit that I write about this stuff not because I think I’m better at it than other people, but because I am, or at least was, worse. The best advice about anything always comes from people who once sucked at it, since the effortlessly gifted rarely understand the source of their own talents. That’s why the best startup advice comes from people who founded a failed company before one that made it, and why the best relationship advice comes from people who fucked up a few before finding one that worked.
This very piece, in fact, is an example of what I’ve been talking about. It was originally about a completely different topic, but I kept putting that piece off, and eventually I realized it was because deep down, I knew it wasn’t working. When I finally switched topics, this piece came out much faster. It took me around six days—roughly half the time it takes to fix a highway.
If you liked this piece, one thing you definitely shouldn’t put off is hitting the little heart button below—it helps more people discover my writing (and makes me feel good about myself).