Avoiding all short-term pain also avoids long-term gain.
We hate pain. We avoid it. We don’t like to remember it.
But not all pain is bad. Ed Latimore, professional boxer and doctoral physics student, knows a lot about pain. Here’s how he defines good pain and bad pain:
Bad pain is the pain you suffer seeking to avoid things you know will improve your life.
Good pain is the pain you endure seeking to gain something you think will improve your life.
Email provides a practical example.
Unread email typically represents some sort of decision to be made. When the decision is hard or uncomfortable, we mark the email unread and put off the decision. These emails accumulate, creating the pain of a cluttered inbox. We suffer that pain for as long as we continue avoiding the painful decisions we know we need to make.
Facing those decisions is good pain. You endure the temporary pain of a hard decision to deal with the situation head on and resolve it.
We make poor choices when we fear pain. But ultimately we need to realize that we aren’t choosing between pain and no pain. You are going to experience pain at some point — it’s just a matter of when and what kind.
Will you suffer pain trying to avoid things or will you endure pain trying to improve things?
Good pain sacrifices immediate gratification and invests in future gratification.
The ability to look beyond the present moment is incredibly powerful. Walter Mischel conducted a study in which young children were left alone for 15 minutes with a marshmallow. They were promised a second marshmallow if they refrained from eating the first.
Mischel followed up with the participants years later. Those who waited for the promised second treat had better results in many areas of life: education (SAT score), health (body-mass-index), and more.
So, how can we break free from the control of what feels good right now and make choices that bring more long-term benefit? How can we learn to live with good pain?
Believe the benefit
It’s not just about self-control.
A similar earlier study by Mischel connected the ability to wait for a promised reward with intact families — suggesting that children who had positive experiences with authority figures at home were more likely to trust the promise of future gratification. Children from broken families were less trusting and more likely to take what they could get right now.
If you want to stand a chance at denying your present self for the sake of your future self, you need to be convinced of the future benefit.
Imagine yourself stuck in a dead-end job. You want to open up better options, but you know you need to finish your degree.
How much more likely are you to go to night school if you know that field has a strong job market?
Or take weekly planning as an example. I’m already pressed for time (who isn’t?). If I’m also skeptical whether that much planning will really help, I won’t do it.
Before the future benefit can outweigh the present cost in our minds, we have to believe we will actually receive the benefit. After that, we need to be convinced the future benefit is worth the short-term loss.
If intellectual uncertainty is holding you back, do some research. Gather more information, and remove or confirm your doubts. What are the odds of success?
What would it mean if you succeeded? How would it change things?
Intellectual conviction is critical. But if we’re being honest, our bigger problem is usually a lack of emotional conviction.
I know exercise is good for me. I know I would be better off if I made time for more of it.
What I know isn’t the problem. I need to feel something.
That feeling could be longing, fear, or determination. Some feelings are better motivators than others, but you have to feel something that moves you to act.
This emotion needs to be directed toward your future self — a sort of time-traveling empathy. Reach out and feel the ultimate consequences of this present action.
If you make the hard choice, what will the result feel like later? If you make the easy choice, what will the result feel like later?
The more mentally and emotionally convinced you are of the long-term gain, the easier it will be to embrace short-term pain.
You need what Stephen Covey calls a “burning yes.”
“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage pleasantly, smilingly, and non-apologetically — to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside.” ~Stephen Covey
The long-term gain has to burn brighter than the short term pain.
Dieting says “no” to the pleasant food choice now because dieting has said “yes” to a healthier body later. Planning says “no” to more enjoyable things now because it has said “yes” to clarity all week long.
Imagine the outcome
Your empathy isn’t going to travel far into the future without some imagination.
The human imagination is amazing, one of the things that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. As a human being, you have the ability to create a reality in your brain that does not currently exist — and to engage emotionally with that reality.
This process brings intellect and emotion together.
Olympians and other high-performing athletes use their imagination to simulate a competition beforehand. Michael Phelps visualizes not only the event itself but his entire, precisely scripted pre-race routine. This associates the perfectly-executed routine with the perfectly-executed race. When he goes through his routine, his brain expects that race to follow and then helps make it happen (by producing adrenaline, etc).
It’s not magic. Obviously you can’t hope to compete in the Olympics just by imagining it, without also having the training and physical acumen.
But if you have everything else, imagination can help motivate in the present and help execute in the future.
The comforts and discomforts of the present moment are vivid and concrete. The benefits of tomorrow are vague and uncertain.
To conquer the power of now, you need to ramp up the power of tomorrow, and that means using your imagination.
Make tomorrow’s benefit as vivid as the present moment. Imagine what it will look like — what it will feel like. What will make this pain good pain?
Be specific. Get a picture in your head and a feeling in your heart. Visualize small details.
You can also use your imagination to weaken the power of the present. Imagine how it will feel to look back on the sacrifice you made. That discomfort will be long gone, just a memory. Imagine yourself, not missing the sacrifice you made — satisfied with your wise trade.
Tell the story
“Imagining an outcome as an end state that can be visualized and deeply felt is essentially an exercise in storytelling. Just as stories can imbue our daily lives with meaning, outcomes give narrative structure and momentum to the tasks and to-dos that make up a day’s work.” Marcela (source)
Storytelling expands the use of imagination. Instead of a single image or sequence, story involves an entire narrative. This helps in at least three ways: context, identity, and journey.
Add a context
When we’re struggling to embrace immediate discomfort, our focus settles on the present moment. The choice becomes either/or. Present happiness vs future happiness.
By telling ourselves a story, we can shift the emphasis. Frame good pain as a sacrifice you make for a greater good. Look at it as a step on the journey to your desired destination.
Let’s look at an early alarm as an example, and the two different stories we could tell ourselves about it:
A: I have to snooze my alarm because I’ve had a long week
B: I need to wake up early so I can catch up from my crazy week
The first story justifies the capitulation. “Haven’t I suffered enough already?” it seems to imply. The second involves the same circumstances but focuses on what can be gained by pushing through.
Embrace an identity
Here is a third alarm example:
C: I can’t snooze my alarm because I don’t want to be the kind of person who is incapable of doing uncomfortable things
This story shifts the focus to my personal character. The choice becomes about who I want to be, not just what I want to do. Self-denial gets framed as a kind of heroism in contrast to the indulgence of snoozing.
Stories often resonate because they craft a role we want to fill — a personal identity we want to own.
You are already telling yourself stories. It’s part of what it means to be human; we think in narratives. For example:
I am a victim — bad things happen to me, and I’m helpless to do anything about it. My life is doomed.
I am a survivor — bad things may happen to me, but they won’t stop me. My life is durable.
The question is whether your stories are true and helpful. Are they based on reality, or are you fooling yourself? Are they encouraging you to make choices consistent with the kind of character you want?
Start paying attention to these stories — the ones leading up to a decision and those that follow in the aftermath. If a story is false, undermines your character, or threatens your goals, counteract it. Craft a better story, and rehearse it to yourself.
Enjoy the journey
Whether you hope to accomplish something or to become someone, your story has a destination. You could focus on that destination by itself, but the narrative of a story can help you enjoy the path to get there.
Ed Latimore says focusing too much on the end goal can undermine our perseverance. For achievements that take a long time, the daily grind can become boring. Checking to see where you stand can do more harm than good, because progress is slow.
The remedy, he says, is to find elements in the process itself to enjoy.
The four year college degree is a classic example. The daily grind will often wear you down before you can finish, unless you find smaller things in the journey to enjoy — individual classes, student organizations, etc.
So, identify the destination you hope to reach, but then examine the path for small things to delight in. Keep the end goal in mind, but don’t let the end goal be your only hope.
Test the theory
If you are still struggling to embrace good pain, here’s one more strategy that might help — experimentation.
Lower the bar. Shift the focus away from an uncertain benefit of questionable value and on to the benefit of knowing.
Focus on this: if waking up early is as great as people tell me, it would be worth trying it for a week to find out if it works for me. If it does, I’ll get tremendous benefit from using that strategy long-term. If it doesn’t, I’ll be able to focus on other ways to invest my time — and, I’ll also know myself better.
To get started, set the following parameters for your trial run:
Sacrifice :: be clear about what the pain point is — what comfort are you giving up, or what discomfort are you introducing during the trial.
Goal :: get similar clarity about the good you hope will come from this, so you can honestly evaluate whether it was successful or not. Try to be specific — not just “more energy” or “more time” but quantify the desired result as much as possible.
Duration :: set a specific time limit — something long enough to provide a fair test sample and short enough to keep the cost low. Keep in mind: some changes may require time for your body to adjust to a new rhythm.
Reward (optional) :: to sweeten the pot and help drive motivation, set a little prize for yourself, to be collected if (and only if) you execute the sacrifice to the end of the trial. If you think you might cheat, put someone else in charge of dispensing this reward.
Remember — the whole point of an experiment like this is to remove the barrier of uncertainty. While you want to give the investment its best shot at succeeding, ultimately you don’t need it to. Whether a given strategy works for you or not, you still learn.
Finally, self-denial is often a transferable skill — one week spent forcing yourself to wake up early will make it easier to silence the voice in your head telling you not to exercise. So even if the experiment is a dud, the effort you spend exercises your muscles of self-control for future experiments.
How do you take action based on all of this? Here are some prompts to help build an action plan:
1. What good pain have you been avoiding?
2. Which is holding you back — intellectual or emotional conviction?
3. Imagine your desired outcome in detail, or frame the story of your good pain.
4. Define an experiment to test this good pain.