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Do the Real Thing

Mike Donghia

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It's fine to plan and prepare, but only doing the actual thing will tell you what you need to know

We all have things we want to accomplish and values that we want to live out. But many things can get in our way: busyness, laziness, fear of failure, you name it.

I want to share with you a simple phrase that has really helped me to make progress toward my goals and made my life simpler in the process.

If your goals are unrealistic or you aren’t willing to put in any effort, I’m afraid you won’t find what you’re looking for in what comes below.

But, if you’re looking for a much simpler approach to making progress—one that works almost 100 percent of the time, I have one phrase for you:

Do the real thing.

That’s it.

Stop reading about the topic, researching options, making complicated plans, or anything else you might be doing to prepare yourself and just do the real thing.

The Garage

My wife recently asked me to build a set of shelves for our basement. Instead of getting started that weekend, I created a mental list of all the things that “needed” to be done first.

My garage was a mess—so, of course, that would need to be cleaned.

But upon cleaning, I realized the real problem wasn’t the mess, but too much stuff. I would need to do a massive purge.

But some of this stuff couldn’t be thrown away, we simply had too many things with wheels—strollers, bikes, mowers, and more. I thought about hanging more of it on the walls. I schemed about storing some of it outside. I researched sheds.

I did just about everything one could imagine besides the job my wife asked me to do.

Several weeks later, swimming in a sea of options (with a still messy garage), I remembered: Do the real thing.

Yes, I had forgotten a far simpler way of living. Look at the thing in front of me, and go straight at it. The real thing in this scenario was embarrassingly easy to see—just build the shelves, and deal with all those other decisions later.

I grabbed my saw, measured my cuts, and built the shelves in a total of four hours!

Tips for Doing the Real Thing

Act before you feel ready.

What if you started with the assumption that you would never feel ready? This might be a stretch, but it’s probably closer to the truth than we’d like to imagine. You will never feel completely ready to invite the new neighbor over for dinner. You won’t ever feel ready to hit publish on your less-than-perfect idea. You won’t ever feel ready for your perfect plan to meet messy reality. But who says this has to be a bad thing?

Instead of seeing uncertainty as something to be avoided, we could choose to see it as an adventure. Embrace the idea of acting before you feel ready and watch new opportunities emerge before you.

Reduce upfront planning.

In most areas of life, detailed planning is merely a way to procrastinate, or assume we know a lot more about the world than we really do. A simpler, humbler approach is to start right where you are with just the amount of knowledge that you have right now. It sounds scary, but you will probably surprise yourself with how much progress you can make. Once you have made progress, you will have the kind of real-world feedback that allows you to plan the next leg of your journey with ease.

Learn as you go.

Upfront learning is another temptation. We want to cram as many facts into our brain as possible to prepare for any and every need that might arise. This feels like real work, but it’s much safer because it lacks the risk of failure. It also doesn’t provide any real-world feedback that helps us to learn and grow.

For example, when I started learning to invest in stocks, I knew I needed to read a few books to create a framework for my decision-making, but I soon went far beyond that. I kept reading and reading, but I wasn’t investing. Theories make the world seem so simple, but they lack the tensions and trade-offs that are present in the real world. The longer I waited to do the real thing, the more I was delaying the real education that took place when I started weighing real choices with real money.

Don’t wait for motivation.

It’s not uncommon for me to be generally motivated about doing something, but not particularly motivated about doing it right now. Instead of writing an article, which I generally enjoy once I get going, I’ll do some supporting work instead—like outlining my next article idea, looking for a quote to use, or reading a few blogs on the same topic. If I relied completely on motivation to get me writing, I would probably end up as the world’s best article outliner.

But thankfully, confidence in a simple truth has enabled me to get real work done. The truth is this—if I do the real thing, motivation will follow. All I have to do is decide to start and stick with it for 10 minutes. Once I started writing this, I felt a growing desire to finish the job. I couldn’t have manufactured that feeling if I had tried, but because I knew it would arrive, I was able to push through those initial moments of uncertainty.

Don’t calculate the odds.

There is a time and place to face the odds, but I don’t think it should be until you have spent plenty of time doing the real thing. From the vantage point of abstract plans and general theories, we really have little idea of what will work and what won’t. We don’t even know what parts we’ll enjoy and which we’ll be good at. We certainly don’t know enough to throw in the towel.

As my wife and I are starting a blog, we have no idea what it will become. We can’t be certain if we’ll love blogging, or just the idea of blogging. We’re not sure if we’re any good at it, or if people will feel that we deliver value compared to all the other great blogs already out there. But one thing we decided amid that uncertainty is that we didn’t know enough to say it wouldn’t work, and we were up for the adventure. We committed to publishing content and working on our craft for a full year before deciding on the future.

Do It Today

It doesn’t matter if you’re learning a new skill, striving toward a goal, or trying to grow as a person—doing the real thing is the simplest and most reliable way to begin.

If you long for simplicity in your life, this is a wonderful place to start.

Decide what is important to you.

Acknowledge the self-doubt and uncertainty you feel.

Choose to do the real thing.

Watch as new possibilities emerge through action.