Leader’s Edge was privileged and honored to have Dave Durham, a Disney Imagineer for 30- plus years, come and speak with us. Over the two and a half days I was able to be with him, one of the things he repeated over and over was that the key to leadership and life was “Do the hard thing!” Dave said if we are honest with ourselves, we know that most of the truly worthwhile things in life that are hard—not destructively hard—just hard. They are out of our comfort zone. Maybe it will take more time than we would prefer. Maybe I will have to learn a new skill or a new way of thinking. It’s probably inconvenient. Dave said we spend a lot of energy trying to find an easier way when it would be best in most cases to embrace the hard, and as Nike says, “Just do it!”
The person who seeks only easy things will never make much of his or her life. A person who avoids hard work will not achieve anything truly worthwhile. We know that, so why do we so often try to avoid the hard thing? We’re wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable. So when we are tired, stressed, or fearful, our brains tag effort as bad, because it’s hard work, and we’re more likely to “go with our gut” instead of carefully considering all the available information and making a wise decision.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, David Rock, cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, offers three tips to help tackle difficult tasks. In our times of stress, we have an “expediency bias.” We do whatever feels right, or rush to judgement, "without properly considering all the variables … because it's much easier to fulfill existing ideas than new ones." As a result of this psychological principle, called fluency, many of us are naturally inclined to do whatever feels right or familiar, regardless of the facts.
Also, Rock refers to the "hedonic principle” which means humans are "wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable.” That causes our brains to identify effort as negative because it's hard work. When we are on a new and challenging path, we default back to the worn-in grooves (ruts!) that we know best.
So how can we do hard things when our brains are constantly telling us to avoid effort? Here are three tips from Dr. Rock, and others I have added:
Tackle difficult tasks when you're in a good mood. In a 2016 study, researchers found that people were less likely to try to accomplish difficult things when they were upset. Good moods changed their willingness. Talk to yourself to get yourself out of an unproductive loop. This reappraisal will really help. "I'm going to feel better once I get started” may be just what you need.
Give your brain a choice. Since you know you are set to choose the easy but deficient choice, reset the options: “Do I want to do what feels good today, or what will make me happy in the long run?”
Practice a growth mindset. Strengthen your mental and emotional muscles by continually reminding yourself that you don’t want to be where you are today six months from now. You need to consider the journey as significant as the results. Value the growing, not just getting there.
Remind yourself that you will sacrifice now or later. Whenever you really do want to move ahead, you will have to sacrifice and do the hard thing. It will never happen without it. So you might as well sacrifice now.
See it as part of the bigger picture. Loosen your grip on the story you are telling yourself about this thing.When you let go of all the things you are telling yourself about this challenge—the things you “know,” you will be surprised at the opportunities. The hard things are often hard because we think of them that way.
Seek likeminded people to be in community with you when you’re doing hard things. It’s so much easier when we remind ourselves that there are other people in this with us. Showing up for each other is transformative for everyone. Sometimes we’re so busy critiquing, evaluating, comparing, and judging, we forget we need each other. Take the first step and make the connection. Everything feels easier, and everything feels lighter when we do it together.
If you choose to do the hard things, you will grow as a person. There is nothing more fulfilling in life than growth. You will become a better person. You will stand out. Most people are taking the easy road, so you will be noticed and respected for doing the hard thing. It will lead to new opportunities. You’ll be healthier in every way. You’ll become smarter. Taking time to do the hard thing puts your mind into overdrive, and you will think of things that would never have surfaced if you took the easy way. You will become increasingly productive, and you will be valued. Bottom line, you will be happier. You will know you have put in your best effort, and your self-confidence will grow. You know that when tough times come, you are equipped for the situation.
Do the hard thing. It’s the only path to what is really worthwhile.