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“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
― Seneca

What’s really going on when you want to get started on a new task at work, ask someone out, try to get a new job or prepare for a presentation? It seems like whether the task is big or small, it’s often difficult to get started. It’s like there’s a hump that you need to get over before you can really get started on the task.

The Current Survival Objective

Survival is pretty much your most important instinct. It’s the one that keeps you from throwing yourself off a rooftop or walking into a busy road. If you’ve ever looked down the ledge from a high rooftop, you know what it feels like to fear death. If a friend gives you a small nudge from behind as you stand there, you’ll probably freak out, even if you know the safety of the guard rail will protect you.

Anxiety is works in a similar way, except for emotions or states you want to avoid. Not all anxiety is crippling of course. I like to look at it as survival objectives. If a task is new or risky for instance, your survival instinct will tell you that not doing it will be the safe and comfortable thing to do. For example:

“Don’t start that proposal, you’ve never done that before, maybe you’ll screw it up and people will think you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What if she says no? You’ll feel ashamed and rejected, better to not ask her out.”

“Did you prepare for that speech enough yet? If you say something wrong or get lost in thought, an audience of a hundred people will see how stupid you are.”

Rewriting the Survival Objective

Think back to an instance where you really wanted to avoid doing something, such as starting the dishes. Perhaps the task was leering over you all day (as it is for me as I write this article!) and you just find that you have better things to do. Eventually you go to toss a plate in the sink but it’s too full, so you just decide to wash that plate right then and there. Since the water is already running and you already have the sponge in hand, you end up washing the rest of the dishes too, without any kind of resistance.

This resistance often comes from the conflict between your survival and your trying to accomplish every part of a situation. If you see an attractive member of the opposite sex, you don’t need to think of what to say, how to get their phone number, what kind of date you need to take them on to impress them, or how many dates you need to wait until you have sex or become exclusive. You just need to go say “Hi.”, just as you need to turn on the water and grab a sponge to do the dishes.

Anxiety That You Can Ignore

Essentially, if you can limit the process to something most simple, you can start to steer the automatic response away from survival via inaction to survival via the task at hand. Perhaps you’re afraid doing the dishes is boring and you have better things to do, so your instinct tells you to skip it in order to survive. Once you begin the task, the survival objective shifts to completing the task, and now your instincts are working with you.

See if you can notice times this has happened in your life, and if you can feel when your instincts shifted from avoiding a task to going at it full force. This is an anxiety you can ignore and instead focus on using a small amount of willpower to start to steer the survival objective towards helping you complete the task.

There is a profound new simplicity to life when you can notice this whole process go on, and decide to ignore it and take small actions to change its direction.

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