I’ve come to realize that smart people are very good at creating super persuasive arguments for why they shouldn’t do the thing they fear doing.
This past week, I’ve worked with half a dozen intelligent people who have convinced themselves to give in to their resistance, over and over.
They’re persuasive, convincing people, and when it comes to convincing themselves, they are really good at it, as there isn’t even anyone to argue back.
So they convince themselves, in the moment of fear and resistance, not to do the thing they told themselves yesterday they wanted to do. This results in not sticking to their word to themselves, not doing the habits they want, not doing the important, meaningful work they’ve always wanted to do.
So how do we overcome our own persuasive rationalizations? I’ve learned a few things working with these wonderful and intelligent people. Let me share them with you.
Start from Your Best Mindset
Mike Tyson had a famous phrase that went something like, “Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” While I don’t love the violence of it, I do love the recognition that our best plans go out the window when we’re faced with fear.
So we have to train in how we respond to the fear so that we don’t collapse.
But before we do that, it’s important to start by thinking about this when you’re in your best mindset. Or at least a pretty good one. Not when you’re in the middle of the resistance, because at that point, you’ll just rationalize your way out of it.
Your best mindset is when you can look at the situation objectively and decide what you really want to do. Not what you want to do when faced with the book writing or sales call you’re resisting. Not what you want to do when it’s cold or you’re in bed and the alarm clock’s gone off in darkness. But what you want to do when you are calm and not feeling the resistance.
What do you want? Why do you care about that? What would it mean for you and others? How important is this for you? Write down your answers and look at them when the fear punches you in the face and you want to run.
Prepare Your Counterarguments
Now that you know what you want and why, practice your counterpunches.
Start to list the reasons you give yourself not to do the thing you fear. You can add to this list later when you see them in the wild. But for now, list the ones you can remember.
Now write down a good counterargument for each one. Each rationalization will be at least partly true, which is why they’re powerful. So you have to overcome it with even more truth.
- I should sleep in, I need the sleep. Yes, that’s true, sleep is important—but that just means you need to start going to sleep earlier. You can wake up today and suffer a little bit, but then get very serious about going to sleep on time so you can get on the schedule you need to be focused.
- Why should I do this, I’m already happy. That’s also true, but giving in to your fears doesn’t lead to long-term happiness. Breaking your word to yourself doesn’t lead to self-trust. Doing the thing you said you really want to do will lead to long-term happiness.
- Just this one time won’t hurt, isn’t a big deal. That’s true, except that it is a big deal because you’re breaking your word to yourself. It will hurt because one inevitably leads to another, and so you’re forming a pattern that will hurt you. This is the argument I made so that I could smoke cigarettes, and it always ended up hurting me. So look at the evidence—has believing that rationalization hurt or helped you?
- I’m too busy. Yes, you are busy—but are all the other things you’re doing more important than this? Can you say that with absolute certainty? Because yesterday you decided that this was important, and the other things weren’t as important. Maybe you shouldn’t renegotiate with yourself right now, but wait until you’re in your best mind to reprioritize.
These are just a few common ones. You can probably think of a few of your own right now. If not, watch what you tell yourself the next time you try to put off your important things, and write down the rationalization.
What would convince you not to believe your rationalization? Write it down, and tell it to yourself at the moment of difficulty.
Train in the Moment of Resistance
It’s one thing to write things down and have counterarguments ready for yourself, but what will you do when fear punches you in the face?
This takes training. You need to intentionally practice in this, every day, so that you get better and better at overcoming the resistance and not collapsing when hit with fear.
The training is this, in a nutshell:
- Set a practice time for yourself, and commit to doing the training every day at that time.
- Set something for yourself to do in that practice time—something that will bring up some resistance. Set this the day before.
- Only do a small chunk of it. If you want to write a book, for example, only try to do 10 to 20 minutes of it (depending on how hard that is for you). Don’t make it crazy difficult at first.
- Notice what happens when the time comes to practice. What do you do? What rationalizations do you give yourself? What comforts do you turn toward? What complaints are there? Just notice, without judgment.
- Stay for a moment with the fear and resistance. Just be with it. You don’t need to run, just feel it for a moment. Maybe a couple moments. This is the training: not running.
- See if any of your counterarguments work. Remind yourself of why this is important.
- Put yourself in a place of love. How is doing this an act of love for yourself and others? How important is that love? Can you let yourself feel the love and compassion right now, for yourself and others? Let this move you.
- Try to get even one minute done. See if that’s possible. Maybe 10 seconds. It’s an opening. Tomorrow, get a little more done if possible, or at least the same amount.
Daily training will help you not need to run. The rationalizations will lose their power with time, because the fear won’t be as scary.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with more than 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net