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Life is Easier When You Take the Stairs

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Last week CTV News did a segment with a Canadian doctor named Mike Evans, who started a Twitter campaign to encourage people to take the stairs, park farther away, sit less, and walk more.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this advice. Telling people to “be more active” is about as new to us as the automobile. But the way he put it — “make your day harder” — is different from the usual message, because it hints that there is something about difficulty itself that should attract us.

What he didn’t quite say is that making your day harder in these ways won’t just make your life better, but easier. We all know it’s “better” to eat quinoa salad than hamburgers, and to take the stairs instead of the elevator, but that doesn’t necessarily convince us to change. “Better”, in the exercise-and-whole-grains sense, has always been on offer, but this better life often seems harder than the one we already have, and the last thing we want is to make life harder.

I think what most of us really want is an easier life, not necessarily a more wholesome one. We want less trouble and more enjoyment, probably more so than we want achievement and virtue. But what we often overlook is that embracing difficulty in certain places nets us a lot more ease than our usual “easy” ways. Putting in three hours a week at the gym is easier than being out of shape 24 hours a day. Studying is easier than sitting in an exam room not having studied. Doing a good job at work is easier than wondering when they’ll finally fire you.

I’m used to thinking of ease and difficulty as a pretty straightforward dichotomy: we want more of one and less of the other. And maybe in a sense that’s true, but they are often found in the same place and come together as a package. A small amount of difficulty often serves as the gatekeeper to a large amount of ease.

We end up with needlessly difficult lives because we have trouble recognizing ease when it’s hidden behind difficulty. It’s hard to see, for example, in that difficult moment when you’re about to walk into a gym for the first time, that you are taking the path of greater ease: if you get yourself through that short, difficult experience, your life quickly begins to lose a lot of difficulty. Beyond the gate, your health situation is easier, dating is easier, clothes shopping is easier, and so is virtually any physically demanding task you can think of, possibly for the rest of your life. All of this ease is bought for three hours a week, which themselves quickly (and permanently) become many times easier than they were the first time.

If you’re a long-time sufferer of shyness it is hard to see the long-lived ease you’re creating in the difficult moment when you speak up in spite of your normal tendency to keep quiet. Venturing into “difficult” territory, in that moment, brings ease to countless future experiences, including job interviews, first dates, presentations, family gatherings, and every situation in which it is possible to make a new contact or a new friend. This new ease lasts forever and compounds on itself. Fears tend to stay down once you walk over them once.

I have always understood that it was better to confront fears and difficult tasks, but I don’t know how make my heart want “better” more than it wants “easier.” Maybe you’re the same, and maybe that means we’re not very virtuous. But if ease is what you want, there is often a ton of it hidden just behind small bits of difficulty. A thing that seems difficult is often actually a densely-packed bundle of ease — perhaps even a lifetime supply of a certain small kind of it. Most of the hard part is the tough packaging. It’s the first part you have to deal with, but also the first part left behind.

In other words, we often get a bad deal when it comes to finding ease in life, because we tend to insist on having the ease up front, no matter how little of it there is.

It’s one thing to grasp this idea intellectually, but it’s another to actually see difficulty as something appealing, rather than something in the way of what’s appealing. Virtually anywhere you have a chance to willingly do something difficult, you have a chance to create more ease than you’ve been living with. I’m taking a post-secondary class for the first time in nine years, and at first I was intimidated by the thought of going back to school. But instead of using my old strategy of trying to manage my basic shyness by speaking out only when I have to, I’m grinding it down to nothing by speaking out more than I have to. Two weeks in, all jitters are gone and I feel like I can talk to anyone, on campus and off, more easily than it’s ever been for me. Dr Evans’s advice to make my day harder has made everything easier.

After a lifetime of dragging my feet around every instance of difficulty, I’m starting to see difficulty as “ease up for grabs”. The feeling of “Uh oh, that’s hard” is starting to become “Hey look — another way to make the rest of my life easier”.

There are, obviously, forms of difficulty that aren’t worth embracing, and which might not make it easier to do anything you value. Eating sawdust will make your sawdust-eating experiences easier for the rest of your days, but that alone doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. But when we complain about difficulty in our lives, we’re usually talking about the kinds that seem to stand between us and what we really want: more ease. Ease when it comes to our health, our relationships, our finances, our goals, and our day-to-day routines.

If things seem hard in any of these areas, maybe it’s because of how little difficulty we usually volunteer ourselves for. Technology has made it easier than ever to make our lives harder, by letting us bypass even the smallest instances of social and physical difficulty. Why call when you can email? Why cook when you can order in? Why walk when you can drive?

This habit of “taking the elevator” leaves us dependent and unprepared for inescapable difficulties when they do come, and cheats us out of a lot of long-term ease. Life is easier when you take the stairs.

***

Photo by Johannes Martin
trillie June 29, 2015 at 1:09 am

Ah, in other words: Epicurus had it right :)

DiscoveredJoys June 29, 2015 at 4:09 am

Curiously enough this was my immediate response too.

Epicurus promoted the concept of ‘The Double Choice’. Greeks did not have the concept of ‘will’, as in ‘free will’, only choice or avoidance. Epicurus identified that you should use a double choice: the first being to cultivate your general attitude towards a general topic and then the second being your choice (or avoidance) of doing a specific action in that general topic.

So it was perfectly fine to cultivate the attitude of eating simply but sometimes consider an occasional indulgence. In this way you maintain your pleasure without risking greater pain.

The advantage of this two step reaction is that it interrupts the automatic response ‘see cheesecake – eat cheesecake’ which can slide past your conscious intent before you realise it.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:33 am

Epicurus was so smart. I wish he lived in the era of blogs.

Tim July 8, 2015 at 7:16 am

So do I, David, so do I! I think Epicurus would have some very useful things to say about how we live our lives these days. If someone asks me what my “philosophy of life” or some such is, my usual answer is Epicureanism–which then demands a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to separate the truth of the philosophy from the popular misinterpretations of it.
That being said, I can strongly recommend “A Guide to the Good Life” by William Irvine. It’s about Stoicism for the modern world.
As always, David, thank you for your insights and your wonderful postings!

Minikins June 29, 2015 at 2:45 am

Acts of self denial or penance have always been part of most religious belief systems. The difference is that they are done in a selfless manner with no expectation of benefit to oneself but as an “offering” to God in acknowledgement if our human failings. The wonderful thing is that many people DO gain much for these acts, but that is not the reason they are done. It is the spirit in which people do these acts that will determine how much one will gain from it, spiritually, mentally and physically. With the absence of religious faith in much of society today, I think we could dedicate these acts to others, for example “I will fast once a month in honour of those who starve in the world today” or “I will take the stairs every other day in honour of those who have lost the ability to walk”. It encourages humility and compassion and that in itself has the ability to change the world let alone improve personal fitness.

Minikins June 29, 2015 at 2:46 am

Acts of self denial or penance have always been part of most religious belief systems. The difference is that they are done in a selfless manner with no expectation of benefit to oneself but as an “offering” to God in acknowledgement if our human failings. The wonderful thing is that many people DO gain much for these acts, but that is not the reason they are done. It is the spirit in which people do these acts that will determine how much one will gain from it, spiritually, mentally and physically. With the absence of religious faith in much of society today, I think we could dedicate these acts to others, for example “I will fast once a month in honour of those who starve in the world today” or “I will take the stairs every other day in honour of those who have lost the ability to walk”. It encourages humility and compassion and that in itself has the ability to change the world let alone improve personal fitness.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:31 am

I have thought of this concept a lot during my fasting experiments. At first you see only the difficulty, but it gets easier, and brings ease to every instance in which I’m not eating whatever I want, or at all. Just a little bit of voluntary fasting has changed my relationship to food and sense desire in general.

Ektor June 29, 2015 at 4:10 am

Simply really amazing piece of writing!!! It’s incredible the precision of the universe in giving me what I need when I need it!
Thanks David

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:32 am

Thanks Ektor

maz June 29, 2015 at 4:22 am

‘Fears tend to stay down once you walk over them once.’ I will keep this phrase in mind from now on, and try to face things rather than turn away. I recently had to drive into an unfamiliar city centre, not really knowing how to get to where I needed to be. After suffering stress meltdown in the doing of it I realized that I had confronted my fear and actually achieved the dreaded thing. I’m sure it will be much easier for me to do something similar in future, and I won’t be so afraid of it. Your piece cemented this new attitude for me. Thanks.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:35 am

It is unbelievable the amount of pain we will create for ourselves by avoiding something because it might be painful. In my experience fear really does lose most of its rigidity the first time you walk through it, and it only gets worse if you don’t. Still, it’s hard to make that initial move.

Mike June 29, 2015 at 4:29 am

I certainly agree with the essence of your argument. For instance, the thought of having to give a presentation normally fills me with nervous anticipation, yet this fades once I’ve given a few.

However, while we should sometimes just bite the bullet and face our fears, I think that it is occasionally ok not to put yourself through an emotional wringer in the drive to evolve as a person. I know a guy who is anxious of driving, and the thought of sitting his driver’s license test terrifies him. Although life could be a bit easier and possibly more interesting if he did have his license, I really don’t see that the potential benefits justify putting himself through the anxiety he suffers. In this case, and perhaps in others, I think it might be best just to find peace in avoidance.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:42 am

Yes, I’m certainly not advocating that we act as though fear doesn’t exist, only that we recognize how much ease we miss in our search for ease.

Fear can be crippling, and “biting the bullet” isn’t always possible, at least without intermediate steps. There are psychologists who specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for addressing phobias, where they work through different levels of anxiety gradually. Fear does fade when you confront it, even if it must be done a bit at a time. It doesn’t need to be done like a bungee jump.

Burak June 29, 2015 at 4:50 am

I enthusiastically like the idea that there are 2 forms of ease in each difficulty that is worth embracing: the compounding-over-time form of ease and the-difficulty-itself-turns-to-be-easy form of ease.

That’s really cool! Thanks for sharing :)

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:43 am

Thanks Burak.

Joe June 29, 2015 at 5:10 am

Another excellent piece. I will keep in mind the metaphor “like eating a coconut” when these opportunities present themselves.

BrownVagabonder June 29, 2015 at 6:29 am

I have been thinking about living and working downtown Toronto, but the feeling of not being good enough always comes in the way. I finally did move downtown and it was such an easy transition that all of those years of doubting seem like such a waste. Now I am moving towards working downtown as well, and I know that it will be an easy transition for me. I find that if you are able to move into ease in one part of your life, the other parts of your life seem easier as well. If you have high standards in aspect of your life, you will tend to have high standards in others as well. Thanks for the post!

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:46 am

I have had that same sensation: finally doing something, and realizing what a waste of energy it was to avoid it. I have avoided things for years only to find the “hard part” was over in minutes.

Gerard September 23, 2015 at 7:14 pm

In my house we call those somethings “dishwashing tasks” — you spend time going “ah, man, I have to wash the dishes,” and then it takes all of five minutes and the warm water is actually kind of pleasant. Often the writing I need to do for work is basically dishwashing-like.

George G. June 29, 2015 at 7:22 am

Love it! This is one of a handful of things I’ve recently consciously recognized that I need to overcome, and this frames it in a wonderful way. It’s very similar to how I recently heard Ramit Sethi frame a related concept (on learning a new skill), which was basically to tell yourself, “I only have to learn how to do this new, difficult thing ONE TIME, and then I will know how to do it for the REST OF MY LIFE,” and that adds so much more value to your life when you incorporate a new (worthwhile) skill.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:47 am

Yes, and even for something that takes a while to get good at, it will never be quite as hard as it was the first time. The slope begins to level off fast.

David June 29, 2015 at 7:59 am

Great stuff. I’ve struggled with how to articulate this well, both to myself and others. The health and fitness impacts are clearest for me. Doing things like taking the stairs or walking from farther away adds a small marginal amount of difficulty and time to certain activities that is repaid at a much higher rate in general well-being. Not to mention that when I do take an elevator or get out of a car and go right into my destination, I notice and appreciate the relative convenience of that rather than expect it as a baseline. Translating this into other aspects of life is something I still struggle with, even as I understand the value.

David Cain June 29, 2015 at 8:54 am

Fitness is unbelievably beneficial, in so many dimensions of life. It’s an unbelievable deal for the time and effort it costs.

And you make another good point: that not seeking the most immediate ease makes us more grateful when we do have it.

Laurie Py June 29, 2015 at 8:40 am

I am grateful for opening this up this morning! This very thoughtful essay is worthy of action. It reminds me of the saying, “if you have to eat 2 frogs, eat the ugly one first”. Thank you. This has been somewhere in my subconscious mind, but I really needed to SEE it!

Andrew Cain June 29, 2015 at 10:59 am

Great article, David. Thanks.

Hamed June 29, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Agreed!

For indeed, with difficulty is ease (94:5)

Indeed, with difficulty is ease (94:6)

–The Quran

David Cain June 30, 2015 at 10:05 am

Perfect

chacha1 June 29, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Excellent article. I was thinking about a particular word, one we use to describe just about everything in this modern overmedicated USA: disease.

We think of it as a word unto itself, but it’s not. It’s “dis-ease.”

Imagine how life could be different if we stopped pursuing this thing called “happiness” all the time and instead started pursuing ease.

Meena June 29, 2015 at 1:37 pm

I have so much to say about all of your posts – it’s too bad it took me so long to discover your blog, but there’s no controlling happenstance. And sometimes it seems the universe provides what you need only when you need it.

My various experiences: 1. About choosing the stairs: Sometimes I trick myself into doing things the harder/better way. The walk between my home and desk rental is about 50 minutes – longer than what I’d consider an easy walking commute. I use bus tickets instead of a pass in the summer so if I cave in and take the bus it costs $2.25, which I’ll never get back. It’s harder to justify spending the money, so easier just to walk.

2. About proving your own competence to yourself by doing hard things, I always think back to when I was 24 and moved to Winnipeg without knowing anyone. At the time that was a huge, self-defining step and it helps to remind myself that if I could do that I could do anything.

3. About hard choices leading to ease, when I did two of the hardest things (leaving my job and my marriage) at the same time it lead to my easiest life ever, as I’m now able to live much more authentically, not lying to anyone anymore about who I am. Have a great day, David!

David Cain June 30, 2015 at 10:09 am

Thanks Meena. Hindsight is a good way to see this principle in action. If you think back to how difficult it is to leave a relationship or a job, it’s nothing compared to how difficult it would have been not to, given what you know about the ease it ultimately created. It’s often many times harder to avoid doing the hard things.

Jo June 29, 2015 at 2:19 pm

Just THANK YOU, David! Your article delighted and motivated me!

raphael June 29, 2015 at 3:58 pm

“make your day harder” is my new best motto ;)

Barbara June 29, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Considering this mind-set has resulted in me feeling a great sense of ‘lightness’. Just imagine what may happen when I actually apply it!

Mukta June 30, 2015 at 12:19 am

Great writing there, David! Thanks a lot for it. This is a whole different way of thinking! And I’m definitely going to implement it; starting from now. I always wait for your articles. They are almost always eye-openers and God knows how but your advice in the form of your blog-posts comes right when I need it the most! I am unable to give you anything in return except my warm wishes and blessings. Thanks again.

Adam June 30, 2015 at 11:42 am

Thank you.

Annie June 30, 2015 at 4:36 pm

So great. This post is like a drill down on that Edison quote, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Bookmarked this for all the times ahead I know I’ll need the reminder.

elise June 30, 2015 at 4:52 pm

i found your piece via dave dallanave and really enjoyed it. it reminds me of every time I think I’m too tired to get up and pee or put in my bite guard. I wind up sleeping terribly, uncomfortably and fearful that I’m going to crack my teeth. The sixty seconds of relative discomfort to do what I need to do would provide me with a lovely slumber and protection. there really is something sadly ironic about the arduous effort it takes to live a lazy life. thanks for posting this.

Tejal July 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Hi david.. Love your writing. The simplicity with which you put across a concept is so amazing.. Every line i am like wow thats what i want i feel.. Thanks for d blog.. It has helped me immensely.. Lots of love :)

Jason Townsend July 1, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Hi David,

You give educated perspective to what is fast becoming a global epidemic – an obsession with the ‘easy way’. It’s amazing how many people, as you point out, choose to avoid short-term pain for long-term gain. If only these people (and even governments – another story altogether) could see the benefit in taking small, calculated steps towards their self-betterment, imagine how the world might change as a result?

Let’s ponder that.

As you pointed out in your post, people inherently avoid the ‘difficult’ decisions/route/method etc. for whatever reason, maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s stubbornness, only the individual will know. What has become apparent to me in my observation of this tendency (and what you have also eluded to) is the fact that all the people taking a ‘path of less resistance’ with their decisions and actions, actually causes more resistance. The more people clamber for the escalator, the quicker and easier taking the stairs becomes…

With a global shift towards convenience, the road to good old fashioned quality and thoroughly understood results of our actions is becoming easier to navigate. For example, saving money to buy your first car vs. taking a handout or loan in order to get it now. As you point out, going for the ‘fast win’ of a loan in this example, may seem like a good option. For some, I’m sure it is. How much do you learn about life in the process? You may learn to deal with banks, but what about fundamentals such as patience, hard work, gratitude, appreciation, saving, budgeting etc. that are avoided at cost?

Call me old fashioned, but I think that most of our desires are better served through patience and careful, calculated planning of their attainment. Chances are your decisions are more aligned with your beliefs and values as a result.

As many of the ‘elite’ in society will point out (the top 2%), there are less people at the top vying for a piece of the proverbial pie, so chances are good that you’ll get a slice. Mingle with the 98% at the bottom, and you’ve got a heck of a struggle on your hands. With less traffic, the ‘hard road’ is inherently an easier to find success upon – in more ways than just walking stairs for weight loss.

This is a really great piece that would benefit all who read. Thanks for sharing.

Cheers,

Jason Townsend – http://www.kickstartacause.com

Robert July 10, 2015 at 9:13 am

In an essence: get out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself in your learning zone.

Regards,

Robert

Free to Pursue July 14, 2015 at 9:06 am

I have never regretted stepping outside my comfort zone. Every hard/scary/difficult/ridiculous thing I’ve done has added to my life in wonderful ways.

Best of all, only rarely does a comfort zone shrink because our way of seeing ourselves and the world of possibilities is forever changed by regularly testing its boundaries.

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