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December 14, 2021

3 ways to make yourself 'do hard things,' according to Harvard Business Review

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 2, 2022.

    Humans are naturally wired to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable—especially when we are tired or stressed—so how can "we do hard things when our brains are constantly telling us to avoid effort?" Writing for the Harvard Business Review, David Rock, cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, offers three tips to help tackle difficult tasks.

    Infographic: How to be a less-stressed leader

    Why your brain tells you to avoid effort

    According to Rock, when people feel tired or stressed, our brains will try to conserve mental energy "by directing our focus to the most readily available, recallable information to help us make decisions quickly." This often results in a "best guess" or "gut" decision called expediency bias.

    With expediency bias, Rock writes, we do whatever feels right, or rush to judgement, "without properly considering all the variables … because it's much easier for [our brains] to process existing ideas than new ones." As a result of this psychological principle, called fluency, many of us are naturally inclined to do simply do whatever feels right or familiar, Rock writes.

    In addition, the "Hedonic principle," under which people are "wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable," causes our brains to identify effort as negative because it's hard work, Rock writes. Accordingly, "when we're traveling a new and challenging path—regardless of what that path is—our wheels default back to the worn-in grooves."

    3 ways to convince yourself to do hard things

    So how can people "do hard things when our brains are constantly telling us to avoid effort?" Rock outlines three ways to get yourself to engage in challenging tasks:

    1. Tackle difficult tasks when you're in a good mood

    In a 2016 study, researchers found that people were less likely to try to accomplish difficult things when they were upset, Rick writes—but if participants were in a good mood, they were more likely to tackle "hard-but-essential tasks that ultimately make life better."

    According to Rock, one method people can use to change their mindset is called "reappraisal," which alters the way the brain perceives a task. It can be "incredibly effective when we choose one simple, sticky work or phrase that labels where we want to be," he writes. For instance, saying, "I'm going to feel better once I get this new process down on paper," could be enough to pull the brain out of an unproductive loop, Rock writes.

    2. Give your brain the right amount of autonomy

    When faced with a choice, our brains often want to default to the easiest option. However, Rock writes, this can be mitigated if we provide incentives and challenge ourselves to be innovative.

    For example, rather than debating whether you will eat a healthy lunch, Rock suggests asking 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?"

    3. Practice a growth mindset 

    Rock suggests garnering the support of others to challenge patterns or systems that prevent new habits from forming by "sharing stories of trying, in a setting where attempts are prized as much as the results."

    For instance, Rock cites as an example a team of executives who tried to rid their mornings of meetings so they could complete their important work during those hours. According to Rock, while some thrived under this model, others preferred to do their "deep thinking" later in the day.

    After experimenting with their schedule, the team concluded that the new structure wasn't working well because of their conflicting time zones. Instead, the team chose a different tactic: only having Monday mornings 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," Rock writes.

    "Doing things that feel uncomfortable and like hard work can seem counterintuitive," Rock writes. "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." (Rock, Harvard Business Review, 12/7)

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