I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. — Leonardo da Vinci
The greatest struggle may not lie in doing the thing. It may lie in starting the thing. The fight we have in our head is not in actually doing the work. It lies in simply getting going on it.
The urgency of starting. Stop thinking. Start starting.
For me, as a runner, this is a common feeling. When I wake up on a cold winter morning, the hardest thing atthat moment is where I have to persuade myself to choose discomfort, to convince myself that it’s a good idea to go from a comfortable (warm bed, cozy kitchen, cup of coffee) state to an uncomfortable (cold outdoors, frozen fingers, tired legs) one. Once I am out the door, shoes laced up, even in the thick of winter, I forget all this and I run, anyway. After a few minutes of being outside, I find my joy in the flow of running.
The dangerous moment, though, is that moment of decision. My brain rebels at the thought that I am deliberately doing something that is going to bring acute discomfort. My brain, that clever little thing, is stacked with a long play-list of appealing excuses and visions of doom, and has some really good ones waiting (I might slip on some ice, my fingers might get frostbite, I should wait until it warms up). My brain gives me feel-good, I-care-about-you reasons to stay indoors and not go for a run. My brain then kicks into high gear with negotiating tactics, doling out happier, easier alternatives (that pile of laundry is growing, I really should send that email) that lull my conscience into thinking I am being useful instead of being out there for a run. All the while, the body is itching to go outside, knowing that it will be suddenly uncomfortable but that it will get better after. At this point, the only thing that gets me out the door is if I silence my brain.
Photo by @ Langston on Unsplash
Stop thinking, start moving.
We lose a million battles before we start. If the task is difficult, we’ve already talked ourselves out of it before we start. We make our fears our facts. We tell ourselves we will fail, and we find consolation in knocking out smaller unimportant things to boost our self-worth. We start doing laundry (convincing ourselves it’s a worthy unselfish endeavor that benefits the whole family) instead of going for a run (an endeavor that only benefits me). Choosing laundry over a run has my brain all aglow with the spirit of unselfishness so that I feel happy and stay indoors.
Our brains are trying to find us happiness in the next moment and they know how to. My brain knows what gives me quick hits of happiness for the next 5 minutes— a cup of coffee, a hot shower, a pastry. And, whenever I contemplate something that is uncomfortable or difficult, my brain switches into let-me-make-you-feel-happy mode.
Each of us knows the exact moment a task needs to be started, in order to have a shot at finishing it. We are afraid of starting the task, because we are afraid it’s going to be difficult or distasteful, we are afraid of the effort it will take out of us, we are afraid of not finishing, and we are afraid of failure. We put off that exact moment of starting, waiting for the ideal conditions to arise before we feel emboldened or guilt-tripped enough to start. And, by the time we start, we are often late. Which means we don’t end up finishing on time. We validate our original fears of not finishing the thing. This creates a self-defeating, grim satisfaction, a cycle of “I told you so” failures that our brain conjures up for the next difficult decision.
Excuses create their own inertia. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. “Later” is where dreams to go to die. — Shane Parrish
Willpower is needed most to make that transition from comfortable to uncomfortable.
Willpower is needed to silence the inner protests, the inner doubts, and to go ahead and simply commit at that transition. You have to develop the ability to plunge in, without thinking. In fact, you want to stop thinking at that dangerous moment of transition. Your brain wants you to feel happy in that moment, and will think up all kinds of easy things to help you feel you spent time well. Your brain knows you, your brain likes to see you happy, and it knows what instant gratification means, and what it does for your happiness.
Developing your willpower allows you to control your brain to make a choice towards temporary discomfort. You have to be able to silence your brain at that vulnerable point of transition. You have to train yourself to embrace and relish the transition from comfortable to uncomfortable. If you start to find happiness in that transition — the act of starting something uncomfortable and difficult — you will start re-wiring your brain to welcome it.
The biggest challenge to moving forward on anything is the transition to working on it. It almost always represents a shift from doing something comfortable (a warm bath, sending simple emails, knocking straightforward tasks off a to-do list, completing transactional conversations) to doing something uncomfortable (a cold bath, starting that proposal, initiating that hard conversation, facing a blank page). — Peter Bregman, How to Actually Start the Task You’ve Been Avoiding.
When you choose discomfort over comfort, difficult over easy, delayed gratification over instant gratification, your self-respect grows. You can feel that you are building up, and tapping into, inner reserves of strength. You can feel your mental endurance grow. It’s the same feeling as a runner finding out that they can go physically past their previous longest distance. The runner feels spent, but content. With increased self-respect, you can silence your brain faster when it tempts you with its “Let Me Make You Happy” hits.
There is no easy way other to than to force your brain to like it, and to force the adaptation to enjoy difficult over easy. Adaptation happens through repetition. The more often your choose difficult over easy, the more easily your brain automatically starts to make that choice for you over time.
Starting things on time, not completing them on time, defines work ethic.
Life’s victories happen at the starting line, and not the finish line.