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The Art of The Hard Part

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I was always moved by a particular line in The Godfather: “Mister Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”

The line stuck out to me because it was so clearly the opposite of my natural tendencies. I always tried to move away from unpleasant realities. When I started to worry about money, for example, I avoided looking at my bank balance. When one of my friends was mad at me, I would avoid talking to them.

This is an almost perfectly terrible life strategy. Virtually every personal victory I’ve had amounted to doing exactly the opposite—finally confronting some reality, or some experience, that I had historically avoided. Monsters grow in the dark, so if you like your monsters small and manageable, you probably want to go and meet them at your earliest convenience.

The story arc of my adult life has essentially been a long process of learning and accepting that fact. A few weeks ago my friend Hélène taught me something that brought this principle to a new level of clarity. Her suggestion not only destroyed a specific problem I was having, but also seems to be a master key to all sorts of long-standing problems in other areas of my life. 

I sought her help because she is, among other things, a strength coach, and I had been having a psychological problem with a very physical task—the barbell squat.

Some of you are familiar with this exercise. With a barbell resting across your back, possibly weighing a few hundred pounds, you brace your whole body, squat down, and stand up. Repeat.

The movement is extremely demanding physically, but the real difficulty is psychological. If you’ve ever done heavy squats, you know they have a way of defeating you before you even arrive at the rack. It’s a daunting thing to get under a heavy bar, unrack it, and voluntarily squat down with it, especially when you’re pushing your limits at it.

The intimidating nature of the squat makes it a prime candidate for excuse-making and avoidance behaviors. There’s a running joke in the fitness world about skipping leg day—if you don’t feel perfect, if anything about the day seems off, if the stars aren’t all in the right houses of the Zodiac, you’ll convince yourself to do legs another day.

Being a master excuse-maker, I had taken to aborting or shortening my squat sessions a good two-thirds of the time. It got to the point where I was really only doing it on a token basis, squatting just often enough to convince myself I still do it.

Coming Out of The Hole

Like so many difficult things, the squat has only one truly hard part. It’s when you’re at the bottom and you’re beginning to move back upwards. This position is known, ominously, as “the hole”.

Being in the hole is a convergence of several almost-unbearable feelings: you’re holding your breath, you’re bearing a tremendous weight on your back, and you’re immobile and vulnerable. You’re about to see if your body will be able to bring you back to the surface, and you fear it won’t be able to.

The hole is a scary place to be, and you don’t want to be there for long. It feels like forbidden territory that you need to escape immediately. The impulse is to get out of it, and when you’re there for even an instant too long, the mind wants to panic. The normal strategy is to really psych yourself up for the squat, dip down and blast your way out of the hole because it’s just so unsettling to be there.

The whole time I was avoiding squats, I was really just avoiding that intense, taxing moment in the hole. The rest of it was relatively easy.

Hélène gave me the silver bullet to hole anxiety, and many analogous types of trepidation. She had me practice a different form of the movement, once a week: use a lighter weight, then squat down and stay in the hole, braced and holding my breath, for a very slow five-count—an eternity—before coming up. These are called “pause squats”.

This was a very strange feeling, actually inhabiting a place you normally feel compelled to escape immediately. It felt like discovering I could live underwater. It turned a forbidden, hostile, panic-inducing place into a somewhat familiar one, even one where I could find some measure of comfort and confidence.

Having this sense of patience and familiarity in the hole feels like having a secret weapon. I’m advancing my squat every week now. More importantly, it no longer feels like something I need to either avoid or confront. It’s just something I can do when it’s time to do it.

Everything Has a Second Act

In movies, the Second Act is typically where the main characters are at their lowest point. The villain has the upper hand, the heroes are constrained or beaten down. To bounce back, they must respond with a moment of growth: find some sort of inner strength, make a hard choice, or reframe their view of things. By Act III, they’ve hit their stride, and while it’s not quite over, it’s clear that they’re going to make it.

My working hypothesis now is that everything that is persistently difficult in our lives has its “hole”, its second act, the part you hate and want to blast through or avoid altogether. The key to overcoming this persistent difficulty is to locate this difficult moment, and let yourself spend time there. A bit of familiarity with that moment is all you need to do to transform a long-term trouble into something routine and doable.

The math makes it clear why this works—if you can go from spending, in a given week, ten panicked seconds in the hole to spending two patient minutes there, the task transforms. It loses its ability to defeat you psychologically, because you no longer treat it like a monster.

Since this breakthrough with the squat, I’m noticing my to-do list thinning out. My attitude is more relaxed and more confident. There seem to be fewer reasons to delay on things, and my projects don’t seem so fraught and risky anymore.

Whatever the task, if there’s no hard part, good. If there is one, I want to get there. I want to meet the monster instead of thinking about where it’s going to appear. If I need practice with a particular hard part, I’ll find an appropriate “pause squat” practice—spending more time where I’m uncomfortable, just with a lighter load.

I’m already doing this with things I have historically dreaded—cleaning much more frequently but for shorter periods, ledgering my receipts daily instead of monthly, handling more communications via phone instead of avoiding calls. The lifelong psychological blocks I’ve had with these parts of life are fading as I willingly enter the hole more often.

Any hard parts, any tough second acts, don’t seem like downsides or costs anymore, because I know that they’re the most valuable places to be. Any time spent there just makes another kind of long-running trouble into a new kind of ease.

***

Photo by Joe Del Tufo

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Justin Malik April 17, 2017 at 3:08 am

I totally thought this was going to reference your attempt to narrate your own post! :D

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:01 am

Haha no I wrote this before that. The other side of this recent breakthrough was to do fewer things altogether, so that I can apply more energy to what I really connect with. I had gotten into the habit of taking things on just because they sound like a good idea, and not because they make sense for me to do. So a necessary part of pushing through with the important things is minimize the number of things. Better to do 3 things well than 8 things half-assedly. That’s another post though :)

Justin Malik April 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm

Definitely. That reminds me of the “Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘No'” article by Derek Sivers.

David Cain April 20, 2017 at 5:09 pm

Yes that’s the idea exactly. I just read “Essentialism” and it had a big influence on me

DiscoveredJoys April 17, 2017 at 3:16 am

Another excellent post. I particularly liked the Hero’s Quest elements (Act II) – particularly as some reckon the *only* story is the Hero’s Quest and all other stories merely partial adaptations or elaborations; we live by stories.

So if “actually inhabiting a place you normally feel compelled to escape immediately” corresponds to Act II, The Road of Trials, what corresponds to Act I, Crossing the First Threshold, or Act III, Crossing the Return Threshold?

Other descriptions of Acts I, II, and III are available – whole books, in fact.

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:07 am

Like a lot of analogies, it might not make sense to follow it too much to either side. The important part is that time spent willingly at the most intimidating part makes the entire thing drastically easier.

Anne April 17, 2017 at 3:41 am

Good one, David. As soon as you mentioned finances, I was there. I’d also add health concerns, getting stuff done on the house, confronting relationship problems, just for starters. I’m going to sit down with my hideous to-do list and figure out where else this applies. Thankyou.

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:13 am

This is what I’ve been doing:

I look at my to-do list, and for each item try to imagine the “hole” — the part that keeps me from tackling it. Often it’s something that creates perennial difficulty for me in life, and if I can spent time willingly engaging with that hard part, it makes that whole category of difficulty easier. One thing is cleaning things fully — any thing where I have to pull everything out of a shelf or closet, clean it and put it back. This always seems to me like a painful, fraught task for some reason, so historically I have avoided anything involving that. But now I know that doing that willingly with something small (like a drawer) saps that intimidating quality from doing it in every other context, like closets or storage rooms. I’ve found the hole and engaged with it. Same with organizing piles of paper, sorting out anything financial, or comparison-shopping for anything. Engaging with the low point of each of these makes it easier in every instance, even when it’s on a bigger scale.

Vishal April 17, 2017 at 4:45 am

Like you David, I’ve observed a correlation (or maybe causation) in my ability to push harder at the gym and take on more challenging tasks in life.

Won’t say any more. Just gonna soak this fabulous post in…

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:16 am

That’s one of the great unsung benefits of a fitness regimen. It teaches you a lot about problem solving, discipline, and responding to challenge. That might be even more valuable than the health benefits.

Mike April 17, 2017 at 4:48 am

Just what I needed to hear before I deliver a presentation tomorrow. Boy, I am so nervous.

Mike.

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:18 am

I’m sure it’ll go great Mike. Best of luck. Do some squats beforehand :)

Mike April 18, 2017 at 3:38 am

Well, I managed to stutter through the first 10 minutes but things kind of went ok after that. I am not sure that I will ever find public speaking easy.

Coruja April 24, 2017 at 11:35 pm

Inhabit the hole with a lesser load!

I attended a work seminar recently and the guy is the highest paid motivational speaker in my country (which is not the US).

He ended up in this career because he was, in his former job, a terrible public speaker and it was stopping him progressing at work.

Luckily, his place of work had informal lunchtime seminars for employees to make small presentations about an aspect of their work. So, he started speaking about his area of work to a few colleagues who were interested.

Talking/presenting about something you really know to a group of people you are comfortable with is the first step.

Then, as his talks got better and attendance increased, he found himself presenting to bigger and bigger audiences – still talking about a subject he knew, but to an larger group of people, most of whom he did not know.

I have not been able to put this in to practise, and I am a terrible public speaker, but I know it is a skill that can be improved if you want to.

I hope this helps you or someone and that my reply is not too late.

Ellen Symons April 17, 2017 at 6:34 am

This is very helpful. Among other things, it’s helpful to remember to look at the different components of an activity and notice which one(s) are actually difficult. That makes the monster smaller immediately. Thanks, David.

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:19 am

That has been such a helpful insight to me. It always seems to be true: whenever a task intimidates me, it’s almost always just a particular moment I’m fearing. Most of every task is trivial.

Tonya April 17, 2017 at 8:30 am

I know this is probably going to sound weird, but I’m going on a 2-week vacation to Europe by myself (and I’ve actually done this before), and kind of feel very anxious about it and somewhat dread it. I know right?! Most people can’t wait for their trip. I think it’s because I’ve gotten so used to being comfortable. My food, my bed, my workout routine. I’ve thought many times about cancelling but haven’t and won’t, because for the very reason I’m scared is the reason I NEED to go. To get uncomfortable. I have a feeling a lot of what I’m “looking for” is in that space. The hole.

David Cain April 17, 2017 at 9:22 am

Not weird at all. Travel nerves are a reasonable thing — there’s so much uncertainty because we can’t know how the details will settle out. When I was leaving for my big backpacking trip, I was so nervous about it that I forgot to look forward to it. At the airport, when I hugged my sister goodbye (she was a much more experienced traveler) she said “You’re going to have so much fun!” and I remember thinking “Really?” like I had forgotten that was even possible.

Anyway, enjoy your trip. I’m sure it will be amazing.

The Tepid Tamale April 17, 2017 at 10:27 am

David, I so look forward to your posts thank you! I have been struggling with all sorts of avoidance when faced with the tasks I need to accomplish also. Leo at zenhabits.com is where I first encountered this theory of purposely sitting (literally in your case!) in the discomfort, to realize it’s not anything close to what you have built it up to be I have not been practicing this like I should, so thank you for the reminder!

David Cain April 18, 2017 at 9:14 am

Leo did an activity with us in Ecuador where we got into pairs and stared into each other, and had us notice and be with the resulting discomfort. I think the most helpful thing a person learn is to gently work with small amounts of discomfort on a daily basis. We tend to just avoid anything that puts us at risk of discomfort, and so we end up limited and clinging to a small number of familiar behaviors. One of the great benefits of meditation is that you are constantly noticing and allowing low levels of discomfort, so you become much more open to experience and find a wider range of experiences easy to deal with.

Belladonna Took April 17, 2017 at 8:33 pm

You know, you seem like the most together guy in the world – dishing out all this wise advice, so calm, so … HERE. And then you post something like this, and I think, “Holy cow. This is me. He’s just like me!” Well, not really; there is no way my body would come out of a squat, assuming I could get it down into the hole. I’d have to pack my stuff and take it with me, because I’d be moving in. But in other ways – significant ways that sometimes make me feel so desperate I want to run away and hide? Totally like me.

Thank you for this. It’s a welcome and timely reminder of how to tame monsters.

David Cain April 18, 2017 at 9:15 am

Haha I assure you I am not the most together guy in the world. This whole blog is about my struggle to one day be together :)

One convenient thing about weight training is that it’s very simple to improve incrementally. Most people would start with an empty bar, or even no bar at all.

Hélène Massicotte April 18, 2017 at 10:18 am

“Most people would start with an empty bar, or even no bar at all.” Thanks for mentioning this fact. So many people think you need to start with some weight to learn to back squat or else it’s not worth the bother (not for “me” syndrome) and it couldn’t be further from the truth. We all have to start somewhere and what matters is that the somewhere is right for us at that point in time, no matter the activity in question.

Sophia Alisa Ali April 18, 2017 at 5:28 am

This is a great piece of advice! I think our natural inclination is to avoid anything that feels or what we think is going to be difficult. I particularly like “Everything Has a Second Act”, this is so true, I never really saw it this way until you mentioned it, it makes total sense, because when we think about it with most things we start something with great hopes and the first part is usually easy then comes the second part where we are struggling, but those are where the most lessons are learnt and we then come out of it with a better outlook on not only the situation itself but life in general. Thanks again David for sharing this.
Cheers,
Sophia

David Cain April 18, 2017 at 9:19 am

Thanks Sophia. I tried the “avoiding” strategy for a long time, and it just ends up limiting you to a few safe choices. But doing the intimidating things makes them feel a lot safer in the future.

Sophia Alisa Ali April 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Your most welcome David, and I wonder if we all go through phases of ”avoidance” and if sometimes it may come back round again when we think we’ve overcome it? if so I think maybe its happens to build our character even more as we live new experiences. As sometimes I find myself back where I started yet still ahead in some way, and then learn even more than before, life its a funny thing isn’t it, ha!

Joel April 18, 2017 at 8:05 pm

David,

Been to the site a few times and have enjoyed every moment of it. For 10 years I was a gym junkie (until a devastating injury and now workout in a home gym) and for 10 years I always tried to justify why I could skip leg day. When I read your reference, I had a pretty good chuckle.

I wish I had known about sitting in the “hole” for 5 seconds when I was there. While it sounds challenging, it also sounds exhilarating.

Love the article and analogies and have bookmarked your site.

Thank you.

David Cain April 20, 2017 at 5:10 pm

Thanks Joel. Leg day is a fearsome thing! You might like the video linked in the “skip leg day” paragraph. I think he nails it.

Abhijeet Kumar April 20, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Achieving smaller, easier tasks can add up. Looking back, I have crossed quite a few things in my dreaded list, and when I crossed it off, it didn’t seem that big. Almost like how we feel taking that last step up a long flight of stairs.

Biggest challenge is when I am faced with a dreaded task, and I haven’t taken a single step. The second act, the hole was where I would get stuck. And as others have mentioned, I would switch to escapism at that point. I would complain about lack of motivation, or just wallow in self pity.

Someone used to say to me, take the plunge, and you will know how to swim. But more recently I have discovered better ways to approach this. Beginner’s mind helps. It takes the dread out of the dreaded task, no expectations. It is just a task, and I will see what happens.

Deanna April 26, 2017 at 5:26 pm

Hello David! This article was fantastic, I learn something new every time I come here and I love that!
I have a topic idea for you. Say you do something that you feel was just so completely stupid and obvious and you know people around you are shaking their heads like “what the hell?” And say this happens to you a lot. How do you handle that without plunging into despar and self hate? Thanks :)

David Cain April 27, 2017 at 10:14 am

Can you give me some examples of this?

There have definitely been a lot of times where I assumed people were judging me and shaking their heads, but in hindsight it was all in my head. Do you really actually see people shaking their heads or making judgmental comments?

Deanna April 29, 2017 at 7:36 am

I just have this fear that everyone can figure me out but I can’t figure them out, it’s a little bit like being naked, only it’s being naked as a person rather than physically. I guess it’s hard to explain.
Do you know what it’s like to not want to change subconsciously? That might be another idea. Just throwing some out there, you’re great! Thanks again

David Cain April 29, 2017 at 9:08 am

I definitely know that feeling! In my experience it’s just projection — when we’re really self-conscious, we believe we can “feel” the judgments of others, but really it’s just our own judgments. It was a huge part of my life for a long time and I should probably write an article on it.

Nelu Mbingu May 5, 2017 at 3:58 pm

You know what, I feel like I’m in that hole right now, but my problem is I’m refusing to get comfortable in it. I keep panicking and wanting to get out, but the more I panic, it seems, the longer I stay in the hole. I think I just need to change my mindset about it. Start getting comfortable right where I’m at instead of wanting to get to the comfortable part.

Thanks for sharing, hey. I’ll bookmark this just so I can read it again when I forget.

Cheers!

PS: I hate calls too lol!

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