You Can’t Not Do Things, You Can Only Do Them
17 May 2017
Sometimes it seems as if the solution to a problem is to NOT do something.
For example, if we’re experiencing a problem like “I can’t stop thinking about this person” it might seem that the solution would be to stop thinking about them.
No. Actually, that’s impossible.
“Stopping thinking about somebody” isn’t an action you can do. It’s an absence of an action, not an action itself.
So when we try, we are doomed to fail. We focus on the one thing we can’t do, and end up doing it.
(The classic example of this is: ‘don’t think about orange elephants’. If you really manage it, you’re not actually paying attention to the instruction.)
Instead, we have to reframe the plan as an action you CAN do.
For example, “stop thinking about this person” becomes “think about something else”, which IS an action.
Instead of focusing on NOT thinking about this person, we consciously put our minds somewhere else (perhaps by getting absorbed in a film or a book or a conversation or exercise or whatever).
This works for all kinds of negative actions.
If you’re ever trying to STOP doing something, remember you can never NOT do something… but you CAN do something else.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.