For the first 40 days of this year, I jumped into a cold swimming pool with two of my sons, as a practice in facing discomfort and fear.
We never looked forward to it, but it taught me a lot about facing things I don’t want to face.
The things we don’t want to face can look like a top hits list:
- Overwhelming piles of work
- Our unhealthy habits
- Our addictions to social media or online browsing
- Finances or taxes
- Difficult conversations
- Projects I’ve been putting off
- Putting my work out into the world
- Piles of stuff in my garage
Does any of that sound familiar? We are inclined to avoid difficulty at an almost instinctual level, and overcoming this “instinct” is important to having the kind of life we want to live.
Cold swimming taught me some important lessons about facing difficult stuff. I will share them here, just in case you don’t have a not-quite-frozen pond or pool to jump into.
What Avoidance Feels Like
Every day, I noticed myself not wanting to jump in the cold water. Luckily, I had two other people I’d committed to, and they helped me to stick to the commitment.
I would pause and notice how my resistance felt. It’s a tightness in the chest, an urge to go do something easier or more comfortable, and a resistance to even think about the hard thing. I felt compelled to turn away, to go to the busywork that would fill my time.
Imagine having to dive in a pool of icy water right now. OK, some of you masochists would probably enjoy it (Canadians and Finnish!)—but most of us could quickly think of other things that need doing. We’d feel that bodily resistance, and maybe a little dread as well.
That’s how we feel when it comes to tackling an overwhelming project or having a difficult conversation. We would rather scrub the kitchen.
Taking the Plunge
For 40 days, we faced this resistance. And here’s what I learned that helped me face my uncomfortable task:
- Do it with others. Not only did it help keep me accountable, doing this challenge with my sons made it more fun. More meaningful. We were in it together. I highly recommend finding others to face a challenge with.
- Make it meaningful. Find a reason to do it that feels really meaningful to you. For me, it was not just doing it with my sons (though that would have been enough), it was being a model for doing scary stuff in the world for all my clients and readers. That is far greater than my fear of discomfort.
- Don’t overthink it. I wouldn’t think about the discomfort too much. Thinking too much can easily lead to psyching ourselves out, and finding reasons why we shouldn’t do something. I didn’t think about it, I just stayed in the moment, and didn’t even anticipate the cold until I’d leaped into the air and was headed down into the water. The anticipation is often much worse than the actual difficulty.
- Find the fun. Every day, we experimented with different ways to find fun in the act of diving in the water. We’d dance or yell, laugh or howl. In the water, when the shock of the cold water hit me, I’d find a way to bring joy to that moment. It doesn’t have to be miserable just because it’s uncomfortable.
- No big deal. The thing that helped us the most was the phrase “No Big Deal.” We would act nonchalant, like it wasn’t going to be anything to worry about. In the beginning, we’d do a lot of preparation, but toward the end, we adopted the No Big Deal attitude and would just jump in. It was just as uncomfortable, but we found that acting nonchalant about it was very helpful.
- Fall in love with the moment. There is always something to love. I would find wonder in the blue sky above us, in the intensity of the cold, in the aliveness I felt, in the yells and laughter of my sons. The discomfort is only a part of the moment—the actual moment is much bigger, and it is awe inspiring.
These were beautiful lessons for us. I hope to carry them through to my other challenges this year.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net