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The Art of Getting Started

Overcoming the barrier to entry guarding productive pursuits.

Most of us are extremely lucky to be healthy and able to do almost anything we’d like. With the right commitment and work ethic, we’re all capable of achieving our own version of greatness. To some, that may mean summiting Everest, but for most of us, it might mean getting in shape or finishing the novel you’ve always had on your mind. Greatness, regardless of specific the pursuit, is comprised of hundreds or thousands of small consistent actions that have been strung together consistently over a long period of time.

These critical daily actions, like exercising, writing, meditating, sales calls, or painting are the bedrock of success and we crave the feeling of getting these things done. Even though we feeling amazing when we finish these activities, beginning them is a battle with our mind. Getting started is the most difficult part of any worthwhile daily action because it makes us uncomfortable.

James Clear sums this up succinctly,

“Are you willing to be uncomfortable for 5 minutes?

Exercising is easier once you’ve started the workout.

Conversation is easier once you’re already talking.

Writing is easier once you’re in the middle of it.

But many rewards in life will elude you if you’re not willing to be a little uncomfortable at first.”

Overcoming the barrier to entry for key activities is what sets apart high performers from everyone else. It’s never a question of if you’re capable of doing the work (i.e. working out, writing, having a difficult conversation) instead, it’s about showing up.

Frustration arises when we know we’re capable of something, but fall short of our own expectations. I’ve seen college athletes struggle to exercise consistently, talented sales agents scared to pick up the phone, and passionate writers who rarely capture their thoughts on the page, but once they’re in the midst of the action, it becomes effortless, enjoyable, and hard to remember why there was so much resistance to begin with.

The difficulty stems from our evolutionary tendency to avoid discomfort. When faced with a choice between immediate comfort and immediate discomfort, our bodies are programmed to choose the former even though the latter comes with a slew of long-term benefits. Mastering the art of getting started means training our bodies to overcome the short-term discomfort in exchange for the long-term benefit.

The difficulty of getting started is often compounded because most of us decide whether or not we will do something immediately prior to the action. This creates an over-reliance on willpower and emotion in the decision-making process.

Think about your state of mind immediately after waking up. Would you trust yourself to make any important decisions in those first few minutes? In this state, our willpower is depleted (or possibly nonexistent) and given the choice to get out of bed and face discomfort, or hit the snooze button and continue feeling safe and warm, our brain makes the easy choice and rolls over.

If the option to snooze is removed and the alarm is placed on the other side of the room, there’s no longer a decision to be made when the alarm goes off. To turn it off you have to get out of bed and without a snooze function, you’ll oversleep if you get back under the covers. Thinking ahead when we’re in a stronger state of mind means we can thwart the discomfort and plan around it.

To overcome the barrier to entry that defends worthwhile pursuits, we have to make the decision long before the action takes place. This allows us to make a decision in a state with a higher level of willpower and without facing immediate discomfort. Detailed planning makes it easier to focus on the long-term benefits of actions instead of the discomfort of getting started, but planning on its own is not enough.

To ensure the difficulty is overcome, it’s important to avoid scheduling competing interests at the same time. I call this Contradictive Planning. For example, scheduling time to work on a side project on Friday afternoon when you know your coworkers will be inviting you to happy hour. Even though you’ve already decided to work on your project, the invitations will deplete your willpower and make it easier for emotions to override your plans.

Instead, plans need to create the path of least resistance for the desired behavior. This might mean leaving the office 10 minutes early to avoid the invites or working on the project in the morning so you don’t have to choose between the happy hour and the project.

Similarly, you have to plan for the worst scenario to consistently overcome the barrier of getting started. When unexpected circumstances arise, we’re faced with a new decision that needs to be made in the face of discomfort. If you decide to go on a run in the morning and it’s pouring rain when you wake up, your instinct is to stay home, avoiding immediate discomfort.

If you planned for the event of poor weather in advance, you’d already know exactly what to do next without having to make another decision. Maybe you decided you’ll go to the gym for a workout or that you will run regardless of the weather. Whatever the alternative action is, it’s imperative it’s already been decided so when you’re faced with an “unexpected” situation you don’t have to rely on your willpower or decision making in the moment.

The actions we should be prioritizing each day are difficult to get started but always leave us feeling better after they’re completed. Because of this discrepancy, it’s critical to keep the results of these actions in mind. This is relatively easy to do while planning in advance, but becomes challenging when you’re facing resistance in the moment.

To combat this, it’s helpful to shift our internal dialogue from present tense to future tense.

“I really don’t want to exercise right now” becomes “I will be grateful after I finish my workout”.

“I would be happier if I watched Netflix instead of writing a blog post” becomes “I will regret watching Netflix instead of writing a blog post”.

If you can’t change your immediate reaction, add a future focus to your automatic thoughts. For example,

“I really don’t want to exercise right now, but I’m going to feel energized and proud afterward”.

Or “I would be happier if I watched Netflix instead of writing a blog post, but at the end of the day I’ll be ecstatic if I’m able to finish the post”.

To consistently execute on important daily actions, the best thing we can do is design our lives so doing the right thing always falls on the path of least resistance.

We can plan our lives so doing the next right thing feels effortless and rewarding. With enough intention, we can create a life where the barrier to entry for the negative becomes greater than the barrier to entry for the positive.

Without any planning, the path of least resistance is decided by outside forces vying for your time and attention via emails, texts, social media, advertising, and countless other channels. When we take control of our life and incentivize ourselves to do hard things; doing hard things becomes normal.

Rolling out of bed at 5am becomes routine, sitting down to write becomes automatic, and unforeseen circumstances transform from roadblocks to detours. When these daily actions become second nature, it provides the confidence to begin even more difficult pursuits like registering for a marathon or committing to writing a book.

As this pursuit of progress continues to develop, our lives adapt and things we once thought impossible become part of our daily routine. Personal bests become warm ups and 10 year goals become building blocks.

We all have the capacity to accomplish immensely more than we think possible and all that separates us from doing great work is getting started.

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