How to make hard things easy

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I live in a land of temperature extremes. In a typical year my city will see both 35 degrees Celsius and minus 35 (that’s 95 and -31 to Americans.) We have the greatest range of temperatures of any major city in the world. Average temperature is slightly lower than Moscow. Humidity and wind chill stretch these extremes further.

Our dramatic climate constitutes a large part of our modest civic pride. It’s particularly relevant to me though, because my day job has me working with my hands, outside, all times of year.

Construction crews know how to build things — roads, pipes, hydrants, and buildings — but they couldn’t possibly build them in the right place without a professional surveyor staking them out. That’s what I do. I read engineering drawings and mark exactly (to the inch) where all the new stuff belongs in the real world. Thousands of years ago, this was done using wooden stakes pounded into the ground at carefully measured-in points, and they have not yet found a better way.

Most construction happens in the summer. I find the points while a student assistant does most of the hammering. In winter, the construction season is on an outbreath and the industry slows way down. The students are gone, so two or three surveyors team up to create overqualified super-crews of stake-holders and hammerers. Many of my workdays, another surveyor does the technical stuff and so I become essentially a manual laborer.

Minus 35 is something everyone should experience at least once. The air shimmers with cold. When you inhale, the inside of your nostrils freeze. Your breath comes out in clouds. If there’s a breeze and some of your skin is exposed, say between your glove and the cuff of your coat, it feels like it’s being cut with a knife. But you wear layers, you keep moving, and you make sure to find a job for the extremities that tend to go numb first.

Worst of all for the surveyor, the ground is about as soft as a brick. Wooden stakes shatter when you try to hammer them in. So we must always first pound in an iron bar to make a hole.

Even with a pointed iron bar it’s almost impossible to make a hole if you’ve never done it before. If you don’t hit it dead-centre, often the bar bounces right out. It takes several great, two-handed swings with a ten-pound sledgehammer to make any progress, which means someone else has to crouch down and hold the bar for the hammer guy.

It becomes a cogent exercise in trust. A miss could be disastrous for the wrist-bones of the holder, but the hammer needs to be swung hard, and we have to do this thousands of times. Being the hammerer is actually scarier than being the holder — I would rather get hit with a sledgehammer than hit someone. After working a few weeks with a particular partner, a person gets less nervous and it feels a whole lot safer. The upside to swinging the sledge is that you stay warm. 

The whole process — working in bitter cold, and fighting such a hard physical battle for every stake — was always draining mentally, even when I was just thinking about having to do it the next day. I hated that I had to do it. It’s hard to even wake up, knowing how many of these little battles have to be endured just to get to the next day (on a slow day we’ll put in about fifty.)

How hard gets easy

Most of us have regular appointments with little things that always feel hard, usually a certain necessary part of your job or your personal commitments. Talking to a particular manager. Doing inventory. Performing a particular exercise in your workout. Cleaning the pots under the stove elements. Impending hard parts preoccupy us, which creates a draining effect on the easy parts.

It’s normal to prefer easy over hard. If there’s a way we can do something easy instead, without triggering any apparent consequences, we take it by default. We tend to think of easy as if it’s categorically a better deal. But it’s usually not, and here’s why.

Because I didn’t go traveling during the off-season, I did more winter sledgehammering this winter than ever, and at some point I found myself volunteering to do the hammering rather than avoiding it. Now when it’s time to do some winter staking I have no resistance to it. Waking up knowing I have to hammer fifty stakes in doesn’t faze me anymore.

That’s because of a wonderful law of reality: hard becomes easy. Almost everything that’s easy for you now was at one time hard.

What makes something hard is your emotional relationship to it, not what the thing actually is. Hard becomes easy, if you do it willingly while it’s still hard.

The biggest factor in getting something to go from hard to easy is normally exposure. The more you encounter something, the less intimidating it gets. Your emotional relationship changes. There’s less uncertainty, your skill in dealing with it improves, your resentment for it fades, your craving for ease or salvation disappears. It has become easy.

So if you have a bit of foresight, the easiest thing to do is to make the hard things easy. You make the hard things harder when you let yourself fall into a habit of avoiding them.

Normally we drag our feet all the way to the easy-point, so it stays hard as long as possible. A society that values convenience and technological solutions teaches us to overvalue the easy and to undervalue the hard. We try to escape the hard parts as often as possible, limiting our exposure and justifying our psychological resistance to it. We seldom come to something hard with the intention to get to the point where it’s easy. So what we’re really doing is ensuring that we experience as much “hard” as possible.

We’ve all seen this ease-seeking behavior in its extremes: people who only eat fast food, let the dishes pile above the faucet, or depend on the TV for most of their entertainment. Their lives are actually harder than those of people more inclined to address the “hard” things willingly, because they regard the easy option as a better deal.

We know this is ridiculous. We’ve all been watching hard things become easy our entire lives, but we still trust and even celebrate our resistance to them. We like to complain about the hard stuff we have to deal with, and often people validate us, and take the chance to share their own. It’s a big part of our culture. See any reality show for examples.

I’m beginning to retrain my impulses to regard the harder bits of life as more attractive, because the hard points reliably mark the places where you gain the most ground — which is to say the hard things offer more ease at the end of the day than the easy ones do.

This is upside-down from how I learned to approach the hard things and you’re probably no different. This winter’s survey work would have been a breeze all the way through if I’d understood how quickly everything can become easy once you bring willingness to the hard parts.

Approach the hard things like you might approach cleaning a great, filthy plate-glass window covered in smudges, dirt and cobwebs. You’re almost attracted to tackling the grimiest parts first, because that’s where the most ground is to be gained. You create more cleanliness more quickly by seeking out the dirtiest parts.

Reconditioning your reaction towards hard parts reduces the apparent hardness immediately, not just of any given task, but of life as a whole. The payoff is huge. You steadily transform the world around you into an easier, more welcoming one, by making a pretty simple change in perspective. You can finally welcome it all.

Think about it: life consists of alternating bits of hard and easy. So all the world can deliver you is ease, or a chance to create ease. That’s the world I prefer to wake up to.


Photo by hmboo

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Vexcel March 14, 2014 at 4:57 am

Oh wow. I needed this in my life. Thank goodness for this post.

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