Take the plunge and tackle that hard task
Get good at moving from comfort to discomfort. The skill you need to develop is transitioning. Follow these three steps to get there
Think about something you’re having a hard time getting started on, something important to you. Maybe it’s a particular kind of work—like writing a proposal or crafting a particularly delicate email. Maybe it’s an important conversation you know you need to have with someone that you haven’t had. Maybe it’s speaking up in a meeting to say something you’re a little scared to say.
Perhaps you never get to that important but hard thing, accomplishing all sorts of smaller tasks but avoiding this one. Or perhaps you’re simply sluggish getting to it, wasting valuable time in the process.
The most productive people I know move right through these moments, wasting little time and getting to their most important work and conversations quickly, without hesitation.
Recently—in the most unlikely of ways—I figured out how they do it.
I was at Esalen, a stunning retreat centre, perched on cliffs overhanging the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, teaching a leadership coach training. Every morning before breakfast, I submitted myself to the same ritual: get warm and comfortable in the hot springs, then plunge into the freezing cold tub, staying in as long as I could, then repeat. Three times. I was doing these hot/cold plunges because, apparently, they’re healthy for circulation and they’re energizing. My unexpected discovery is that the secret to getting into the cold tub is the same secret that helps successful people get hard stuff done.
Our minds and bodies have an incredible capacity to adapt to just about anything. The hard part is rarely being in the new normal, it’s adjusting to the new normal.
The hard part is the transition.
Now bring to mind that thing you are having a hard time getting started on. I’m willing to bet that your greatest struggle isn’t actually doing the thing, it’s getting started on doing the thing.
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, completing transactional conversations) to doing something uncomfortable (a cold bath, starting that proposal, initiating that hard conversation, facing a blank page).
We tend to think that getting traction on our most important work requires that we be skilled and proficient at that work—but that’s not quite right. The real thing we need to be skilled and proficient in is moving through the moment before the work.
Once we make the shift, then doing the work itself, consistently and over time, will make us proficient at the work.
Which means that the skill we really need to develop—and it is a skill—is transitioning.
Enter the baths. Moving between the hot and cold, multiple times a day, trained me to move through the transition between comfort and discomfort. It’s not just a metaphor, it actually increased my comfort with the changeover.
I discovered three steps that build competence at making transitions during my week of plunging:
Start with willpower. A lot has been written about not relying on willpower since it’s unreliable. But here’s something important I found: willpower in a moment is much more reliable than willpower over long stretches of time. It’s why alcoholics who are successful at not drinking take it “one day at a time”. In some cases you just need to force yourself through a moment to get to the other side. Since, at first, there was no way to make the plunge easier, I simply had to use sheer will and discipline—pure courage—to get myself in.
Commit to repetition. As the week—and my plunging—progressed, it became easier. Both because I got used to it and because my expectation, habit, and commitment solidified. In effect, I had pre-decided that I was going to do it, taking the uncertainty and deliberation, and therefore the hesitation, out of it. And when my mind did, briefly, protest, I simply ignored it and kept moving.
Benefit from adaptability. By the end of the week, my body had, literally, physically changed. I stayed in the cold tub 60 times longer and I hardly felt cold at all. The mental and physical challenge so diminished that I no longer experienced the transition as pain. And my experience in the tub transformed too; what was, previously, extreme discomfort, became refreshing.
I know that getting in a cold bath is not the same as having a hard conversation or writing a proposal or listening to criticism. The bath is a physical challenge while the others are intellectual and emotional challenges. And, for some people, the bath challenge will be easy while the work challenge feels more complicated.
But, really, they’re all one big psychological challenge. It’s often not more complicated—that’s just the story your mind tells you to encourage procrastination. The principle—and the solution—is the same: Get good at moving from comfort to discomfort.
Let’s apply this to that thing you’re having a hard time getting started on:
■ Identify something important to you that you want to move ahead with but have had a hard time getting traction on.
■ Identify the transition point to working on it. Ask a question and then stop talking (for receiving feedback).
■ Make the decision—set a time and place where you will get started (transition).
■ Prime your emotional courage. Starting something hard will bring up feelings of discomfort and you will need to be prepared to feel things—what I call emotional courage—to move through it without stopping. Some of the things you may feel in the transition: discomfort, fear (will this end?), sabotage (I should check email), and insecurity (I can’t do this).
■ Follow through. You can’t control the noise your thinking makes, but you can keep moving through it to do what you need to do.
Remember that the transition is short lived. It is not the new normal—it’s the movement to the new normal.
Now, in the spirit of quick transitions (and to develop your skill in them), even if you only have a single minute, do something, right now. Even as your mind continues to come up with excuses, take the plunge.
This article (https://hbrascend.org/topics/how-to-actually-start-the-task-youve-been-avoiding/) was first published on Hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.
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