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. Or, when you’ve had similar conversations in the past, you spent 10 minutes talking around what you wanted to say instead of just saying it. 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.
Last week - 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 energising. 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.
Here’s what happened: The first time I took the plunge, I spent 20 minutes in the hot springs deliberating before welling up the courage to even try. That first time, I was only able to stay in the cold for five seconds before leaping out, shivering, dashing back to the hot springs.
By the end of the week though, I plunged without hesitation and relaxed in the cold for over five minutes, feeling cool and refreshed, without shivering at all.
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, 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).
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 (some of it by me) 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. (I remember one morning, as I emerged from the hot and headed to the cold, my mind was screaming are you really sure you want to do this? Stay in this comfortable warm tub! while my body just kept moving into the cold).
Benefit from adaptability. By the end of the week, my body had, literally, physically changed. I stayed in the cold tub sixty 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. Examples of transition points are: Pick up the phone and dial (for a conversation); sit in a chair and write the first word (for any kind of writing); 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. Are you willing to stay in that feeling long enough to get to the other side? That’s a critical skill - and it is a developable skill - for getting traction on anything. Some of the things you may feel in the transition: discomfort, fear (will this ever end?), sabotage (I should probably check email), and insecurity (I can’t do this).
- Follow through without questioning. You can’t control the noise your thinking makes, but you can keep moving through it to do what you need to do.
- Repeat this every day.
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, that moves you forward in that thing.
And if you feel hesitation, notice what you’re thinking - where your mind goes (I don’t have time, this is dumb, one minute won’t help, etc.). Even as your mind continues to come up with excuses, keep moving. Take the plunge.
This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.