Everything else

An Easy Way To Do Hard Things

Our brains. Our big powerful marvelous brains. Such magnificent organisms uniquely dedicated to prolonging our very survival while simultaneously managing to sabotage us every step of the way.

Our brains. Our big powerful marvelous brains. Such magnificent organisms uniquely dedicated to prolonging our very survival while simultaneously managing to sabotage us every step of the way.

Ever since our smooth-brained early human ancestors roamed the earth hundreds of thousands of years ago, the human nervous system has had one unwavering persistent goal - reduce surprise and optimize actions. Evolution brought us the ability to conceptualize and plan ahead giving past and modern day humans an enormous survival advantage. We didn’t have to be stronger or faster than the hungry predator to stay alive, we could just plan the best ways to avoid it and share that knowledge with our people.

Today’s societies and modern day human lives have evolved at such a fast pace that our sophisticated nervous systems haven’t really had time to catch up. We’re navigating through in today’s world with these incredibly complex warning systems that trigger the same survival instincts as it did for our evolutionary forefathers. We’re out here just fighting or flighting whether the threat is big, small, real, imagined, hypothetical, actual, good or bad. HBR put it best:

“You can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists contend, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.”

So, what does any of this have to do with the price of fish I hear you ponder in confusion and impatience.

Well, I’ve learned that when you understand the purpose and evolution of your brain’s warning system, you can start recognizing when and why it has been activated. This is the first step to doing the hard thing.

The second step is to unpack the warnings your brain is giving you. Fear of the unknown is not unique to any one of us. It’s (perhaps unhelpfully) a key guiding principle our brains use to determine what is and isn’t a threat. Our brains love certainty, how much so depends on where you sit on the infamous (linked) “Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale”.

When we’re faced with a task/situation/decision/challenge/leap that our brain hasn’t encountered before, it freaks out because it doesn’t immediately know the right way to do its job of keeping you safe, alive, and free from discomfort in this situation. Alarm bells start ringing and the message it sends us is “run away, save us!”. Obviously if you’re in actual real life danger then of course run like the hotel breakfast buffet is about to close. BUT if the “danger” is a presentation you have to give or a new project you want to start or a tricky conversation you’re about to have, then giving your brain some reassurance will help. That’s the third step in the “do hard things” guide.

This is the thought I use to try to give my brain some reassurance - you can experiment with your own and see what works for you:

Say “Thank you brain for doing your job, we will figure this out like we always do.”

Step 4 is to breathe deeply and repeat the thought until the panic goes away. Step 5 is for when the panic returns, just start from step 1 and repeat the process.

This works for me for a couple of reasons. It points my focus back to past examples of situations where I completed something I’d originally thought would be impossible. It’s like saying this isn’t unknown, see? We’ve had this feeling before and we figured it out in the end. Linking this current hard thing to past hard things removes the bulk of that uncertainty and gets my mind past the panic and closer to action. And secondly, breathing is usually the first thing to go in times of stress so bringing it back is just helpful in general. Give it a go and see if it helps you.

You’ll know you’ve found the right combination of words for you when you can feel the physical sensations of dread and fear subside in your body as you say them to yourself.

So the next time you find yourself at the precipice of a seemingly impossible yet (and I cannot stress this highly enough) non-life threatening task:

1. Remember that the fear of the unknown is a sign that your brain is doing what it was designed to do,
2. Take a pause to actually listen to what your mind is telling you. Why does the situation at hand not feel comfortable? Break it all the way down,
3. Reassure your brain by thanking it for the warning and reaffirming that this is not in fact life or death and that you are in fact safe (Or whatever collection of phrases you want to try out).
4. Breathe deeply and start the thing,
5. Breath deeply again and repeat.

Being able to change the way we speak to ourselves is a pretty powerful tool to have in your toolkit. It’s certainly changed big aspects of my life and I’ll be sharing how in future posts.

If you’re still stuck and you don’t know where to start then head to the "Coaching" tab, I can definitely help.

No pressure, no commitment.

Just 20 minutes to share what’s on your mind

I sat down about an hour ago to write this week’s post on motivation (LOL) and in that hour, I’ve customised a PAX wardrobe on the IKEA website.

Book your free session