Why We Act

Y, but X

I develop ideas for things I’d like to do, and then — like a counterpoint to a melody — reasons not to do them: a concern, an anticipated roadblock, a potential downside, a doubt. Last month, I forgot my umbrella at a restaurant, and I convinced myself not to go back for it because I had left a good tip and I wanted the waiters to remember me as the good tip guy and not the forgot his umbrella guy. On the whiteboard in my head, this generalizes to:


And then I focus on the doubt. I wonder how big the problem might be, I curse my luck, I picture the negative outcome materializing and destroying whatever (surely pitiful) effort I put in, and how frustrating that would be. I *think* my monkey logic assumes that fixating on the doubt might somehow unravel the tangle, like thread. But as my iPhone earbuds can attest, my worrying only amplifies the disaster.

I recently learned a trick (credit to /r/lifeprotips) that I’ve found extraordinarily effective at cutting through this cognitive gridlock: rearrange the statement “X, but Y” in my head to “Y, but X”:


With this simple change, you fixate on your goal, rather than the obstacle. Within the statement, you remind yourself of what it is that you want, you envision having it, and you imply that you will take action to achieve it.

“I want to hang out with my friends, but it’s a long drive.”
“It’s a long drive, but I want to hang out with my friends.”

“I want to see my abs this summer, but sticking to a nutrition plan is hard.”
“Sticking to a nutrition plan is hard, but I want to see my abs this summer.”

“I want to raise an army of intelligent penguins to do my bidding, but I’m concerned about security at the zoo.”
“I’m concerned about security at the zoo, but I want to raise an army of intelligent penguins to do my bidding.”

“Y, but X” clarifies, energizes, and empowers. It reminds you that the doubt isn’t a wall, but an aging, faded door, the type you see fronting decrepit San Francisco studios or cheap motels. A door with a key. A door with a lock you can pick, or hinges you can kick, or maybe, if you just ask, someone on the other side to welcome you in.

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