MY WAY OR THE HARD WAY (OR: Why I Pick The Hard Way)

Yesterday, it happened again. There was a deadline: a friend’s birthday party. And I still had too much to do before I left.

So I did the only logical, sensible thing to do in this situation: I PANICKED THE FRICK OUT.

This situation — too much to do, not enough time to do it — is a trigger for me, a deeply ingrained habit I’m working hard to let go. Fortunately, I wised up. And just recognizing the trigger helped me let it go.

I decided to recover what was left of the day, and spend the next 2 hours figuring out how to let go of my expectations, prioritize what I needed to get done, and let go of the anxiety.

There was only one problem: it only took me about 5 minutes to do those thing.

WHY THIS IS A PROBLEM

Because it felt like it should be harder work.

Here I had spent 4 hours slowly growing more anxious about all the stuff I had to get done,  had a big ‘aha!’ moments, and alloted myself 2 hours to figure out what to do next and do it.

And it only took 5 minutes to relax and replan. Because it only took me 5 minutes, it seemed too easy.  And easy work doesn’t seem like, uhm, good enough.

THE PROBLEM: MY SENSE OF PROGRESS

My sense of progress is based off of feeling like I’m working hard. More specifically, too hard. If I’m not a little bloody and bruised at the end of the day, I’ll catch myself thinking: well, I still coulda (shoulda) pushed myself harder.

Because progress is hard work for me, I’ve found myself working hard and getting nothing done. Or something done, but taking 5 hours when 2 would do. Because getting my task accomplished is second to working hard. And doing things the simple way — well, it doesn’t feel good, because it wasn’t hard enough.

This is ridiculous but I often pick the hard way over the way that best serves me — the way I want to do it.

CHOOSING MY WAY (THE SMARTER, EASIER WAY)

It happened again today as I was preparing food for work: I felt anxious because I don’t have the money to spend on lunch out until Wednesday so I needed to brown bag it.

But I didn’t want to spend Sunday evening toiling in the kitchen — and that’s what it felt like: I needed to work hard to get this thing done, because it was the right thing to do even though I didn’t want to do it.

I caught myself again. And this time I looked at my goal: Bring food for tomorrow (not make a gourmet 3 course meal. )

This raised a few questions:

  • Was there anything that I had pre-made? Sure, some lentils and mashed potatoes from last night. (1 meal)
  • Did I have any snacks I could bring? Yeah, I had some cheese that’d serve for a quick bite. (2 meals)
  • Did I have 1-2 or 2 ingredients I could throw together? Baked beans — check, toast — check. (3 meals)
  • And while I don’t have the money to eat out, don’t I have about a pound in change on my desk? I can buy a can of soup with that. (4 meals)

And I was done.

And it was uncomfortable, because it didn’t feel like enough work. I still felt apprehensive. I’d been gearing up for the virtuous slog, and instead I’d found an easy way to accomplish my goal.

I counted up my meals.  I had more than enough food for tomorrow and some for Tuesday. Took about 5 minutes and I didn’t have to do a lick of cooking.

THE MORAL

Letting go of working hard to feel good will take me a long time.  Key to recognizing this trigger is acknowledging the following:

  • My goal: What am I really trying to accomplish?
  • My motivation: Am I motivated to do this out of anxiety? Do I really want to be doing this?
  • My options: What’s the easiest, most pleasurable way to get there?
  • The finish line: How will I know when I’m done? (For the example above, counting my meals when I was done preparing them.)

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

How do you know when you’re making progress?

What are you working hard on right now? Do you need to be working as hard as you are, or is there a better way?

Write on.
Chris

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5 Comments to “MY WAY OR THE HARD WAY (OR: Why I Pick The Hard Way)”

  1. I love this. It reminds me of all that I’ve been reading about the primal/paleo style eating. Increasing research is showing that Really Hard workouts, sweaty exhausting cardio workouts, etc are actually not helpful for fitness or losing weight. I’ve actually been losing weight and getting stronger and leaner by doing 10 push ups here. A set of dips on the bath tub before getting in the shower. A few jump squats with the boy when he’s hyper. Eating no wheat but a ton more bacon than normal. It’s crazy easy.

    But I find conventional wisdom so ingrained. Working out should be hard! I should dread it and feel exhausted afterward if it’s to do me any good! And that mentality is in *everything* – as you’re showing us. My new exercise regime is opening space in my life to see that hard does not equal best.

    • I love the exercise analogy. This is the case for me as well. I’ve lost about 25+ pound in the past 6 months. A big part of that – 20m of yoga/day. 10m of running here and there. Eating less.

      Clearly, less can be much, much more.

  2. What you’re talking about manifests for me in resting. I spent today, Sunday, mostly just sitting around doing what I wanted to do: watching cartoons with my son, drawing, watching basketball.

    As the evening approached I got that familiar anxiety in the center of my chest: the weekend was drawing to a close and I had nothing to show for it (I’m getting the feeling now as I write about it). Coming away from oodles of free time that I “wasted” just lazing around, resting and enjoying myself, isn’t good enough for my inner critic. My name will never be carved into the tablets of history by just sitting around!

    For me, my ego wants desperately to be recognized and feels like it’s dying when I don’t accomplish something that I can show others and receive praise and validation for. Merely resting and trusting in myself leaves me feeling afraid and panicked. So for me, when there’s nothing to measure, I freak out.

  3. I agree that if it doesn’t feel hard then I don’t feel like I actually accomplished it. On the flip side of the coin if it’s not easy I may not do it. The closest I’ve gotten to a healthy routine was this Spring when I was exercising more and eating better and reading and listening to podcasts, etc. I was able to do that because it fit in easily to my routine. Right now eating healthy and exercising and reading are not fitting into my routine at all. It’s how I move in my neighborhood, when I get to certain places, what transportation I take, etc and it limits my ability to make those healthy things a part of my life so I just don’t do them. Do I need to work as hard? No. Exercise to me is hiking a mountain. But can’t I just do a few sit-ups? Eating healthy doesn’t have to mean changing my entire diet, it can mean buying a banana instead of a cookie. Reading can be one article at lunch instead of Moby Dick. Why is it that I want to be doing the absolute best at everything. It often ends up leading me to doing worse at most things.

    • Right. If effort = worth, than things that are effortless aren’t accomplishments, but that doesn’t stop hard tasks from being daunting. And if effort = worth, than small, easily repeated tasks, aren’t enough to satisfy the craving to have made solid steps in a direction (eg your example of hiking a mountain vs situps.) One of the big changes in my life this year has been implementing small habits slowly over time. It’s not always satisfying, but the habits stick.

      What can your (let’s day exercise) routine be now that is effortless and fits in with your schedule? What’s something that would take the smallest amount of effort possible but that could be built upon?

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