An exercise in doing what you have to even when you don’t want to

Everybody faces tasks they don’t want to start, know they have to do, but also know won’t take that long — things you might characterize like pulling teeth, holding your nose and taking your medicine, or grinning and bearing it.
We all want to learn to motivate ourselves better.
Examples include talking to your boss about a raise, talking to a significant other about a problem that’s been bothering you for a while, or finally sitting down and doing your taxes. You know the task won’t take that long. It probably won’t even hurt. But you have to do it.
When you read a lot of leadership and personal development literature, you come across some odd practices. Sometimes it helps more than you expect. I’ve been doing one recently and found it helpful, though I admit odd.
Anyone who has spent a winter in Shanghai will know the increased challenges I faced on this one recently.
I came across a few people who started purposefully taking cold showers. I also saw a show on meditation that showed some monks meditating under a waterfall with what they said was cold water as a way to augment their meditation practice. I’ve talked about cold showers to a bunch of people lately and people keep talking about health benefits of cold showers. I don’t know whether to believe them or not, but I’m not writing about health benefits here.
I’m talking about motivation. Cold water is funny. I wouldn’t describe the feeling of being in an ice-cold shower as painful, but I really don’t like the feeling. I also really like hot showers. So based on seeing that others found a benefit in it, I experimented with it. I tested the waters first, if you’ll pardon the pun, by just getting in the shower before turning the water on so that I’d experience the cold before the water heated up.
In New York I found the practice an effective emotional test. Emotionally, you don’t want to hit yourself with cold water. In my case this emotion is stronger than most. Yet intellectually I knew I had zero risk of injury. I knew the water would heat up quickly. I faced no consequences more than a few moments of discomfort.
Do you see how this exercise can help you develop the emotions to do tasks like I described above?
Let me add one more thing — it feels great to feel the water heat up when you’re in a cold shower.
This exercise teaches two things:
First, you develop your willpower to overcome powerful emotions. You know the cold water won’t hurt you so you can practice developing motivations to overcome emotions that aren’t relevant.
Second, you associate the pleasure and reward of the feeling of the water warming up with exercising your willpower, which augments the first effect.
You’re probably reading this like I read about others taking cold showers — what’s the point? It seems silly.
Yet I found it helped develop useful skills. Read my series on willpower for more background on how much it contributes to overall life success.
By the way, I mention Shanghai winters because most Shanghai buildings don’t have central heating and are drafty. In my case that meant doing this exercise in an already cold bathroom. Going from cold air to a really cold shower puts this exercise into overdrive.
I figure almost everyone who reads this won’t do it, but I was surprised how effectively it develops willpower.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Franco

    Trying this for a week, brrrr. Let’s see if it is useful!

    1. Joshua

      Good luck.
      I’m still doing it… much easier in the summer in New York than in the winter in Shanghai, where my apartment didn’t have central heating. Now I just have a few seconds of cold water.

  2. Franco

    The experiment went pretty good, it was a simple, quick and daily
    mental challenge which helped me in keeping up with my routine
    (something I often struggle with).
    To elaborate a bit more on the usefulness of cold shower, I found
    that personally they work best with me:
    – done in the morning
    – after my set of burpees
    – before I do anything else
    Overcoming a little “obstacle” in the morning (and of course,
    succeeding), puts me in a good mood.
    Keep blogging great ideas!

    1. Joshua

      Thanks for the update!
      It’s amazing how many exercises we can find in simple things we do daily that cost nothing and take no extra time.
      Awesome about the burpees too.

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