My Mental Hack for Doing Things I Don't Want To Do

Sarah Rose

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
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If you're alive and breathing and living on planet Earth, you might have to do some stuff, sometimes, that you don't want to do. Go to work. Visit the dentist. Mow the lawn. Attend a family reunion. Write a paper. Do the laundry. Establish a will. Save money. Pay rent. Get your oil changed. Unclog the shower drain.

When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was read. At one point in middle school, I checked a new book out of the library every day and read it that night. But I always made a deal with myself; I had to finish my homework first. Something about delaying gratification made sinking my teeth into a new book that much more satisfying. I applied the same logic to running and racing; if I suffer a bit now, the payoff will be that much sweeter.

My hack is this: think about tomorrow, or an hour from now, or ten minutes from now if you have to.

Last fall I ran the Mogollon Monster, a very tough 100 mile race out near Pine, AZ. At mile 60, I sat at an aid station, staring down the long barrel of a dark and lonely nighttime. I didn't want to run into the night, and I tried to think my way out of my mental funk. I signed up for this, I told myself, I paid money to run through the night. In a lot of ways, I was lucky to even be there, contemplating how much pain I still had to face. But thinking that I was lucky didn't make me feel lucky, so I thought about the next day. In half a day, I told myself, I would be done. I would be relaxing with my boyfriend and my cat. In half a day, all of the pain I was feeling would recede into memory and eventually fade, as pain always does.

Nothing painful or annoying or uncomfortable lasts forever, and when I'm uncomfortable or in physical pain, it helps to think about how it will inevitably end. The dentist appointment will be over. The presentation will end. The laundry will be done and folded and put away.

For my job, I have to call people all day, some who I've never spoken to before. Over time, I've gotten used to navigating these conversations, and I don't even mind when people hang up the phone or occasionally use colorful language. Repetition makes anything more comfortable. When I first started in sales I was a business development representative for a company nobody knows or cares about. My job was essentially to book meetings for our sales rep, who was then supposed to close the deal. It was a terrible job, because I was trying to sell a terrible product. So before each day, I told myself, this will be over in a few hours. Sometimes before a phone call I was dreading, I would tell myself, this will be over in 5 minutes. Eventually, I grew comfortable calling anyone so I didn't have to rely on mind games to get through my days.

If you're at the dentist and you hate it, remind yourself that it will be over in an hour. If you're set to give a presentation and you're nervous as hell, tell yourself it will be over in 30 minutes. If you had a really shit day and you can't stop wallowing in your own despair, know that it will be over soon and you can start again tomorrow. Knowing that a bad thing will end is the essential nature of hope; once the bad thing is over, we can believe that things will start getting better.

Learning to delay gratification is a useful skill that's highly correlated with success. Thinking about the timeline of your delayed gratification can help; whether you have to wait a day, an hour, a week, or a few years. Richard G. Scott, who has two first names and was a scientist and religious leader in the Church of the Ladder Day Saints said, "Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.”

P.S. Read about delayed gratification and the Marshmallow Experiment here, read about developing mental toughness here, or learn some exercises to help you improve your ability to delay gratification here.


Sarah Rose

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