Don’t you find it strange?
We’re probably living in the most exciting times of humankind. We have access to any kind of information. We can learn skills without going to college. We have the freedom to create anything we want, and there’s always an audience for it.
This freedom should empower us. Yet, it depresses us more. Stress and anxiety levels have shot through the roof.
This shouldn’t be happening. What is going on?
Where We are Messing Up
Ironically, this freedom has become our Achilles’ Heel because what we end up doing is not what we should be doing.
Stay with me here.
To achieve our goals, we must take action. Some of those actions make us uncomfortable. Like working on the important project, writing the book, losing weight, and fixing business problems. In fact, the more uncomfortable the action, the more significant it is.
All of us begin with vigor. But as soon as the going gets tough (and it always does), most of us replace the important tasks with easier ones. Like checking social media, watching Netflix, or taking on more than we can handle.
“The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the farther we run from actual accountability.” — Ryan Holiday
In the short term, this works out well. But in the long term, anxiety keeps piling up when we avoid doing what we should. Until one day, we experience a full-blown meltdown without knowing why. We vent this poorly understood frustration on other people. When they don’t respond well, we feel like everyone is out to get us, like our world is crashing.
We label this condition as “depression” and resort to medication.
Medicine will temporarily numb your anxiety. But it won’t help you get better. For that, you must stop looking for answers in easy and familiar areas, and turn towards the place where the real solution lies — the void.
What is the Void?
You know the frightening abyss when you enter uncharted territory, where you can’t see where you’re headed, and you don’t know whether the bottom is a bed of rocks or roses?
That’s the void.
The void is a cold, demoralizing, and draining place… or it feels like one. It terrifies people. Millions of corpses of unfulfilled dreams line up its entrance.
But the void is also where your best work comes… by wrestling with it, not by scrambling away from it. When you work in spite of (not in the absence of) fear, you turn your inner turmoil into something beautiful. In the process, you discover something beautiful about yourself.
Yet, most people won’t take the plunge. They’ll stand at the precipice, complain about how daunting the void is, and place the corpse of their unfulfilled dream at the entrance.
Today is difficult, tomorrow is very difficult. The day after tomorrow is very beautiful. But most people will die tomorrow evening. – Jack Ma.
Honestly, it’s not their fault. Here’s why.
Thinking about how to complete a mammoth task sends the jitters through human beings. Such thoughts trigger the amygdala — the part of the brain which controls our fight-or-flight response.
Such responses are useful during real danger, like getting mugged or facing a predator. But the problem with the amygdala is that it triggers such responses whenever we try to veer from our usual, safe routine.
When we step outside our comfort zone (which a daunting task demands), the amygdala drags us back into it. And we value our comfort zone more than anything, even money. That’s why we sign up for courses we don’t complete, rent studios to do work we never finish, and hire coaches to help us with goals we never pursue.
The result is overthinking — thinking of the problem rather than thinking about it. The anxiety, stress, and depression only get worse.
Is there a way out? Can we keep the amygdala in do-not-disturb mode and complete what we’ve set our sights on?
Let’s Play a Game
The brain might be frightened of stepping outside the comfort zone, but it loves to play.
Heavy questions like “how will I complete this project on time?” or “how will I lose 15 pounds in three months?”, wake the amygdala. But small questions set the brain into play mode and discover simple yet effective answers.
In his seminal book Getting Things Done, David Allen writes that we can ask ourselves three simple questions:
Q1. Which project is on my mind the most at this moment?
What distracts, bugs or interests you the most, or consumes a large part of your attention at this moment? It could be an in-your-face problem or an important project with a looming deadline or a family vacation you’ve put off for long.
Did you identify it? Then it’s time to move on to Question 2.
Q2. What is a successful outcome for this problem or situation?
Write down what would need to happen for you to check this thing off as done in a single sentence. It could be as simple as handling the situation with a colleague, emailing the status update to your boss, or just taking that vacation.
Did you write it down? Great! Now it’s time for the final question.
Q3. What’s the very next physical action required to move the situation forward?
If you had nothing else to do but get closure on this, what would you do right away? Can you set up a meeting with the colleague? Or email your partner on the project asking the current status? Or look up the cost of flight tickets to the destination for your vacation?
If the action will take less than two minutes to complete, finish it right away. If it’ll take more time and energy, note down the next step in a place where you can easily read it again.
This quick exercise will make you feel relaxed and focused. Not just because you know what to do next, but also because you feel confident enough to swing into action.
When you keep taking the very next physical action, you make tiny progress. And then witchcraft happens.
Progress makes you feel exhilarated rather than exhausted after work.
It increases your self-confidence because you believe in your abilities. When you take on new challenges, you back yourself to move forward despite setbacks.
It makes life meaningful. You don’t depend on external validation to feel happy. Nor does entertainment feel like an escape from the drudgery of daily life. Instead, it recharges your batteries to return to what you enjoy doing.
Progress brings tiny results that motivate you to stick to the activity and become better at it. You fall in love with the process instead of the outcome. And you discover what you love to do (your passion).
Making progress in important tasks is the ultimate antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s the most underrated motivator and is completely in your control.
Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day-if you live long enough-like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve. — Charlie Munger
You cannot control situations, outcomes, or what people think of you. But you can control your actions in the present moment to impact them and become worthy of being liked by the people you respect.
You cannot control the cards that get handed out to you. But you can rearrange them to make the best house possible.
When you live in the present moment, you enjoy the brilliant miracle called life, which is nothing but a culmination of your actions.
Enjoy each moment. Draw out the possibility that each moment has to offer. What else could possibly matter more?