Are You Really Going to Wait Until It Hurts?

by Oct 8, 2014Creative Thinking2 comments

What I was trying to do should have been simple.

I was attempting to hold a small stack of books with my left arm, where my hand cupped one edge and my elbow cradled the other. But I couldn’t do it.

I had noticed my wrist getting weaker for a couple of years. And thanks to some back pain issues, it had become clear my office set-up was probably the source of my problem.

But I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t see a doctor. I didn’t look for a new desk. I didn’t even take the simple step of ordering a wrist brace online.

The questions is: why did I wait until I had nearly debilitating pain before I decided to act?

The answer might surprise you.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll share with you the solution I found that almost instantly allowed my wrist to start healing. I can now hold that stack of books with my left arm and write for hours on end without issue. It’s not rocket science, but I’m rather proud of what I came up with (better late than never).

But today, I want to explore this idea of waiting until it hurts. Because it’s not just me that does this. I see how this strange decision-making process trips up my clients and my friends too.

As I recently told people on Facebook, if you want to make a profound change in your life, the fastest way to do it is to become dissatisfied with the way you’re currently thinking. But first, you have to understand your thinking.

The secret behind painful decisions

If you notice that your tube of toothpaste is empty, you go buy a new one.

You don’t sit around pondering the issue. You basically made the decision some time ago and now you’re acting on it. It’s a script that runs in your brain that says, “If the toothpaste is empty, buy a new one to replace it.”

These kinds of if-then statements are called conditionals, and what I’m going to suggest is that they exist for many of the decisions in your life. Most of the time, conditionals run on autopilot behind the scenes because the cognition required to make a decision is an expensive and exhaustible resource.

Unfortunately, you don’t always get to consciously decide which decisions to spend your mental energy on. Our days are filled with draining moments. Should I eat that donut? Can I squeeze in an hour at the gym? Should I turn left or right at this intersection? What should I get Dad for his birthday? How can I answer all these emails and still get my work done?

Your brain handles all these requests equally, first come, first serve.

This means your conditionals not only kick in when the answer is obvious, like with the empty tube of toothpaste, but when we are too tired, stressed, or otherwise exhausted to make a reasoned choice. So the conditional dictates a decision and then our brains rationalize it.

There are many kinds of conditionals. But the one we rely on the most often, particularly when we are weighing something that we anticipate will be unpleasant, is what I call The Burning Bridge.

The Burning Bridge
Conditional: If the pain becomes unbearable, then I will act
How it works: The level of pain and anguish necessary to trip the conditional can vary, but without a conscious decision, the default is usually “more than I can take,” which, given the human’s natural resiliency, is often quite a lot.

This is the one conditional that guarantees suffering (no suffering, no change). From an evolutionary standpoint, this conditional makes some sense, which is probably why it serves as a default in so many situations. If something isn’t killing you, then you’re better off sticking with that course of action than trying something risky that just might.

But in our more modern day troubles, the Burning Bridge can be dangerous. Creative work is exhausting because you have to make hundreds of decisions throughout the process. By the time I thought to myself, “Wow, my wrist hurts,” I was all out of the willpower I needed to tackle ergonomics. I let the conditional take over, again and again, and came close to doing permanent damage to something I needed to keep writing.

In another example, someone once told me he couldn’t afford my No Regrets Career Academy, but was absolutely desperate for help. After a few back and forth emails, he let it drop he had just returned from a week-long vacation at a nice resort.

Do you see how the Burning Bridge is shaping his decision space without him even realizing it?

Anyone who is “desperate” is almost undoubtedly suffering from cognitive and emotional overload. The issue wasn’t the number in his bank account, the problem was that he didn’t have the mental resources to tackle a more complex decision such as “Is this the right course to help me change careers?” So he allowed the conditional to decide he’s not in enough pain yet, and the brain manufactured a perfectly plausible reason why he should wait.

Unfortunately, anyone in this situation will only become more stressed with time, and thus more cognitively depleted and less capable of making good decisions on their own. If he waits long enough, he may wind up like a couple of my clients, who were either fired for poor performance or wound up in the hospital due to stress-induced illness.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Just because the Burning Bridge is our default conditional doesn’t mean we have to keep it. One of my missions as a coach has been to guide people through the big decisions in life without having to experience some kind of trauma to move them to action.

One way to do that is to set a limit on the amount of suffering you’re willing to endure. For example, you might set a limit on the number of days you call in sick to avoid going to work.

You can also try addressing your problem when you aren’t mentally exhausted—while you’re driving to work, for example, or on the weekend. This is one reason why retreats frequently produce epiphanies that elude us when we’re caught up in the day-to-day. With a reduced cognitive load, we can see our obstacles for what they really are.

An even simpler solution is to chose another conditional. Here are a few other options:

The Right Opportunity
Conditional: If the right opportunity comes along, then I will change
How it works: Sounds like the voice of optimism, but if you aren’t clear on what opportunity you want and how to hasten its arrival, this conditional can degrade into The Burning Bridge without you realizing it. The key here is to identify what you want and stop waiting around for its appearance. That usually involves lots of little actions, but think of it like a sound investment strategy–no single action has to pay off, but the hope is at least one of them will. To make this work though, you must have clarity.

The Follower
Conditional: If other people change, then I will change too
How it works: If you think being a follower is somehow a bad thing, you need to watch Derek Sivers’ TED talk. This is why having a community of like-minded people works. It’s the power behind Weight Watchers, Basic Training in the military, running marathons, and many others (No Regrets too!). If you can get just one person to go through something difficult with you, you’re much more likely to say yes–and stick with it.

The Sign
Conditional: If something significant happens to indicate I should change, then I will change
How it works: The problem here is that too often, people don’t even know what sign they’re looking for. Unfortunately, that means the sign is usually something dramatic that completely shakes up our world view: a near death experience, loss of a loved one, or an unexpected layoff. This conditional is unpredictable unless you can set a very specific tripwire for action.

The Baby Step
Conditional: If an option is easy/small enough, then I will do it
How it works: One of the reasons we often fail to act is that we’re fearful of what comes next. Conditionals can work towards inaction too, as in “If the next step is too scary, then I will wait.” But what if the next step was so small and insignificant, it stopped being scary? The trick is knowing what the next step should be, and then the one after that, and so on. This is why having a process, strategy, or checklist is so useful—there’s little thinking required, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

The conversation that can save your life

How do you change your conditional? Start by having a little mental conversation with yourself that goes like this:

You: This problem is ridiculous! I’m tired of dealing with this pain. I need to solve this.

Little Voice in Your Head: But I don’t want to do what’s required to solve it. It’s too scary/hard/expensive/risky (insert appropriate excuse)

You: Okay, so when am I going to solve it then?

Aha! Now is your chance to change your conditional. However you answer this question will essentially reset your tripwire for action.

That’s not to say everything will be easy. Some problems are big or complex enough that you may invoke multiple conditionals throughout the process.

But in most cases, getting to the point of action creates a kind of momentum. You get just a little bit of distance between you and the pain and you can see how ridiculous it was to keep waiting for the problem to solve itself.

Jane Goodall said, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

In your heart, you know what you need to do. As soon as you get your brain on board, you’ll be filled with the certainty you can do this.

You have to be willing to walk into your greatness.

What nobody tells you is that sometimes you have to talk the talk before you’re willing to walk that walk.


Editor’s note: Registration for the No Regrets Career Academy closes in just a few days. This will be the last time I  will coach clients through this course as I embrace my own career change and go “all in” as a writer.  If you’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to find a career that fulfills you, this is it!