When we’re tired or stressed, our brains want to save mental energy and help us make decisions quickly. We’re wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable. Our brains tag effort as bad, because it’s hard work, and we’re more likely to “go with our gut” instead of carefully considering all the available information. So how do we do hard things when our brains are constantly telling us to avoid effort? The author offers three tips.
Ask anyone how they’re feeling these days and chances are they’ll reply with some version of “exhausted.” We’re tired of operating amid uncertainty. We’re tired of balancing childcare with work. We’re tired of staffing shortages and supply chain problems.
When we feel like this, our brains want to save mental energy by directing our focus to the most readily available, recallable information to help us make decisions quickly. We often do this by going with our gut and making our best guess.
This is called expediency bias: doing the thing that feels right, or rushing to judgement, without properly considering all the variables. The brain does this because it’s much easier to process existing ideas than new ones, a principle in psychology called fluency. It’s the reason why if you speak Spanish, it’s much easier to learn Italian than Japanese. It’s also why, as explained by marketing professor Adam Alter, many people think two single dollar bills are more valuable than a single two-dollar bill.
The result is that many of us are naturally inclined to do what simply feels right — be that asking people to come back to the office because our brains can picture it or making an assumption that everyone wants a four-day work week. The Hedonic principle also comes into play: We are wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable. Our brains tag effort as bad because it’s hard work. They default to what feels “normal” — the networks that tell us where and how to travel through our daily existence. Those networks are so deep in our thinking that when we’re traveling a new and challenging path — regardless of what that path is — our wheels default back to the worn-in grooves.
And yet, we know hard actions can have tremendous benefits — ones that may not be visible for some time. Think about starting a new exercise routine. Maybe we have an insight — “If I can run a mile, I’ll have more energy to play with my young kids” — that generates an impetus for action. Or maybe a doctor told us it’s a requirement for a lifestyle change or an incentive pops up to spur us on.
But a funny thing can happen. When we go for that initial run, it doesn’t feel good. Neither does the next run, or the run after that. Our muscles hurt. The money we’ve spent on the new hobby causes friction in our household. The schedule keeps us from the quality time we used to spend catching up with friends. It compounds, continuing to signal all the reasons we should go back to the way it was before — when our muscles didn’t hurt, when we grabbed drinks with our friends, when we didn’t fight with our partners over spending $100 a month on a gym membership.
So, how do we do hard things when our brains are constantly telling us to avoid effort?
First, tackle them when we’re in a good mood. A 2016 study found that when people are upset, they’re less likely to try to do hard things. When they’re feeling upbeat, however, they’re more likely to take on the hard-but-essential tasks that ultimately make life better. One way we can get ourselves in the right mindset is to do what’s called “reappraisal,” in which we create a shift in our brain of how we perceive a task. Reappraisal can be incredibly effective when we choose one simple, sticky word or phrase that labels where we want to be. For example, literally saying to yourself, “I’m going to feel better once I get this new process down on paper,” might be enough to get your brain out of an unproductive loop.
Second, we must give our brains the right amount of autonomy. When we have a choice, our brains often want to default to something easy. But we can mitigate that response by challenging ourselves to be innovative and provide incentives. For example, instead of debating whether to make a healthy choice at lunch, ask yourself: Do I want this fresh salad that’s going to give me energy or this donut that I felt sick after eating last time and made me sleepy? Put into a work context: Do I want to experiment with a new project management tool that might make things easier for my team next week, or do I want to stick with the same spreadsheet that a former employee established that none of us feel great about anyway?
Finally, we can accomplish hard things by practicing the habits of a growth mindset and notice when we revert to old ways of thinking and behaving. To challenge patterns or systems that enable or inhibit new habits from taking hold, it’s helpful to have the support of others. One way to do that is by sharing stories of trying, in a setting where attempts are prized as much as the results. For example, a team of executives recently tried to block off their mornings from meetings to get their best work done. Some individuals thrived, while others preferred to do their deep thinking in the afternoon. A month after experimenting with the scheduling, the team decided it wasn’t working well because of conflicting time zones and opted for a different tactic: only making Monday morning free of meetings. By acknowledging the progress made by trying a new habit, the team was able to continue experimenting, instead of just reverting back to old ways.
Doing things that feel uncomfortable and like hard work can seem counterintuitive. But by understanding what’s going on in your brain, instead of in your gut, you can work toward accomplishing hard things and manage your fears better.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.