The Discipline to Do Hard Things

trail runners doing hard things by running through mud

I ran a cross-country race sponsored by the US Track and Field Association a few weeks back. The weather was wet and drizzly and much of the course was a muddy mess from the rains of the past several days. Like all runners my feet were slipping and sliding. I was taking short steps and spreading my feet apart to avoid going down. At the halfway point I realized how hard I was breathing and just how much I was laboring.

And then I got wondering what the heck I was doing out here on a Saturday morning. I didn’t need this misery. I could have been wrapped in the warm covers of my bed, enjoying a nice breakfast with my wife, getting a head start on my to-do list, or browsing some interesting articles on the internet.

And yet here I was, working hard, pushing myself almost to the point of exhaustion, ruining a perfectly good pair of running shoes and slogging through mud and yuck. FOR WHAT?

The Discipline to Do Hard Things

The experience got me thinking about how we develop the discipline to do hard things, especially when we don’t have to because there is an easier path. Here are a few realizations I’d like to share with you as I’ve continued to think this through.

  • Physical exertion feels good. It is like waking my body and bringing it to life. I’m more aware of it, not taking it for granted, feeling sensations not available at every moment. There is something pleasurable about this.
  • Some of it is the thrill of competition, not against other people but myself. Just how well can I do? How much stamina do I have? How much mastery of my mind over my body? Competition awakens my spirit and helps me know that I can achieve certain outcomes through will and desire. Events don’t just happen. I can influence them and bend them to my will.
  • There are rewards at the end of doing hard things. An outcome has been accomplished or achieved, something that would not have been possible without effort. The reward is not a given. It has to be earned. And we usually value these rewards. They are a why and motivation to do hard things.
  • One form of reward is a sense of pride that comes with victory. I feel good about myself when I accomplish something hard. It may be as simple as thinking or knowing, “I did it!” This isn’t the same as praise from other people. It’s private, a metaphorical fist pump and affirmation of me.
  • It’s also rewarding to stop. Slowing down, knowing that the exertion is over (at least for today) is rewarding. The state of rest and relaxation are far more pleasurable following exertion than following ease or a path of least resistance. It feels like they’ve been earned.
  • There are also social rewards. Other people notice and comment. We’re social beings and enjoy hearing affirming words from others. But beyond this, it is fun to associate, talk and share “stories of the trail” with like-minded people.

Of course, as I write these words I’m aware that I’m talking about much more than running a race on a Saturday morning. We all face the prospect (or opportunity) to do hard things, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, and socially. It may be hard to learn a skill necessary to improve your work prospects. Maybe it’s hard to have a needed conversation with your boss or a co-worker, or to meet the emotional needs and demands of young children. It may be hard to make a phone call or fulfill a particular task or assignment. And so on. And what may be hard for one may not be hard for another. There is really little use in comparing in the game of life.

Doing Hard Things and Success

But I can tell you that we have to do hard things if we’re going to succeed. Define success however you choose. Real success requires that we develop the discipline to do hard things. Look at anyone who has succeeded in any field or endeavor—an athlete, a company leader, a loving mother, a great teacher—and you’ll see someone who has learned to do hard things.

It is such a natural tendency to avoid or procrastinate. We find lots of ways of distracting ourselves from doing hard things. It is easy to follow the path of least resistance.  But we pay a price.  And the biggest price is missing out on all of the rewards that come with doing hard things—the loss of tangible outcomes, diminishing of self-pride, gradual fading of our sense of mastery, failing to enjoy our moments of relaxation.

So, here’s to seeing and loving the rewards, and being willing to put up with the drizzle, the mud and the muck that inevitably come with doing hard things.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “The Discipline to Do Hard Things”

  1. Rishikesh Pandey says:

    Many thanks to you sir. I read your book “The Hero’s choice”. It completely changed my life in 4 days. My biggest hurdles were my past traumas which I can now say was nothing outside but my wrong interpretations of events and misjudgement. I got to know how much people around loved me and wanted to be with me. Thanks to you sir I will not waste my remaining life.
    Now I need this skill, the ability to work hard. I need your insights on it. How can I discipline myself to do hard things. Please guide me. If I need to read a book I’ll very happily do that. I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to work hard. Please guide me.

    • Hi Rishikesh,

      Thanks for the nice comment about my book. I’m glad it made such a difference to you.

      You shared that you need to develop the ability to work hard. I’ll share a few of my thoughts and have a book I’ll recommend.

      For me, doing hard things is much easier (or more likely) if I begin with a clear vision of what I want and all the rewards I’ll get from what I want. I think of an Olympic athlete and the hours of arduous training. Why? Because they care so much about the outcome. They have thought deeply about it, lived and breathed it for years as part of their training. You have to do the same. What do you want? Spend time thinking about this, visualizing it, deepening it’s importance to you. And then imagine all the rewards, everything you have to gain from achieving what you want. The rewards and benefits of what you want have to be more important to you than the payoffs you’re getting out of the status quo. This comes from focusing on the rewards of the outcome until they begin to pull you in their direction, until they become motivating.

      Project yourself into the future. See your future self. Imagine that self talking to you and even congratulating you for your accomplishment and hard work along the way. Make a contract with that self about what you want and what you’ll do to get it. Imagine your future self being a cheerleader to support and help you along the way.

      Also, look at all the ripoffs of the status quo. What would happen if you did not achieve your vision? Let yourself feel the real pain of not achieving what is important to you. Imagine how bad it would feel.

      Then set a goal–the outcome you want as well as the steps to achieve the outcome. Make those steps concrete and actionable. They don’t have to be big steps. In fact, a lot of people fail because they try to do too much at once. Take baby steps towards your goal until you begin to gain some momentum. Remember how to eat an elephant. (One bite at a time.) Writing my book seemed like a big mountain. Getting my degree seemed like a big mountain. I focused on the rewards of climbing those mountains. But then I broke them down into bite-size chunks and kept my focus on one task or even one day at a time and kept moving forward no matter what. Be happy and celebrate little progress.

      It can help to set up structures to support you–mechanisms or routines that will help you, any kind of device which will remind you to take action. It can be an affirmation, picture of what you want, music, checklist, carrying a reminder/symbol of what is most important, an alarm that triggers a certain behavior, etc.

      Find support. Who can you share your goals with? Someone who will support you and also hold you accountable.

      These are just a few ideas, hopefully, to help you get started. As important as anything is to have a big “why.” You have to know what you want and realize all the rewards from it’s achievement. Then be satisfied with little steps, baby steps as you move forward.

      One book I want to recommend is Atomic Habits by James Clear. It is great at helping you start new habits.

      Roger

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