This post was written by Leo Babauta, originally for Zen Habits. Republished here with permission.
We are, all of us, amazing at avoiding things. Our minds are less “thinking machines” than they are “avoiding machines.” And the incredible thing is that we aren’t even usually aware that we’re avoiding thinking about something. Here’s why avoiding difficulties doesn’t work.
Why Avoiding Difficulties Doesn’t Work
I’ll give you a few examples:
- Right now you’re reading this article but probably avoiding the difficult thing you don’t want to think about.
- We are constantly checking messages, news, feeds, notifications … to avoid doing something we don’t want to face.
- When we’re facing difficulties in life, we try to tell ourselves that’s it’s OK because (fill in the blank), or get busy with some activity or numbing agent (like alcohol) so we don’t have to face the difficulties.
- When a problem comes up, our reaction is to want to go do something else, put it off.
- We put off paying bills, doing taxes, dealing with long emails, dealing with clutter, because we don’t want to face these difficulties.
- We put off exercise because it’s uncomfortable.
In fact, there are thousands more examples, every day, that come up and that we don’t even notice, because our minds switch to thinking about something else.
Try this right now: pause for a minute and think about what difficulty you’re avoiding thinking about right now.
You will either notice a difficulty you don’t like, or your mind will quickly turn to doing something else before the minute is up.
What you’ve done is part of what I call the Face Everything Technique … which I’ll explain in a minute, after we talk about why avoiding difficulties is an ineffective strategy.
Avoidance Doesn’t Work
Our minds want to run from whatever discomfort, pain, difficulty we’re facing … and this is a good strategy for temporarily not having to deal with difficulty and pain. So in the present moment, we might feel some temporary relief.
But what it does is relegate us to a life of running. A life of distraction and never facing what ails us. We keep ourselves busy, but never learn to deal with what’s inside us, what’s in front of us.
This means we are at the mercy of our fears, of our discomforts. We are like little children who don’t want to do any hard work, but want the latest shiny fun thing.
This results in not working on the important work (or at least putting it off until it starts to get painful). The same is true of exercise, healthy eating, finances, clutter, relationships, and more.
In the end, we usually have to deal with these things, but they’ve just gotten worse. It would have been better to face them early on, when they weren’t such a big deal.
The Face Everything Technique
This technique is based on the idea that it’s better to be aware of things, and to deal with them like an adult, instead of running.
And if we do, none of it’s that big of a deal.
Here’s how it works:
- Create awareness by asking, “What am I doing right now?”Throughout the day, set reminders or put little notes that remind you to ask, “What am I doing right now?” The answer might be, “Checking Facebook,” or “Switching to a new browser tab,” or “Eating some chips.” Something simple and mundane like that, but just ask yourself what you’re doing, to start to bring awareness.
- Next, ask yourself, “What am I avoiding?” When things get difficult or uncomfortable, we automatically switch to something else. We run. We avoid, like crazy. You’re doing it all day long, but not realizing it. Ask what you’re avoiding: some fear, some difficult task, some difficult emotion, some discomfort, or just staying present in the current moment? Name what you’re avoiding.
- Now face it. Just stay with this fear, discomfort, difficulty, in the present moment. Not your story about it that you’re telling yourself in your head, but the actual physical feeling in your body in the present moment. How bad is it? You’ll find that it’s No Big Deal. Stay with it for a little longer. And a little longer after that — challenge yourself.
- Take appropriate action. Now that you’ve faced it and have seen that it’s not such a big deal, you can act like an adult: you can decide what the best action is right now. If you’re afraid of doing some task, but you’ve faced it and seen that the fear is not such a big deal … you can remind yourself that the task will benefit you and others, and is much more important than your little fear. If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation with someone because you’re angry, you can see that the anger and offense is not such a big deal, and you can talk to the person calmly and appropriately, with empathy and compassion, and figure out a solution.
Of course, not all problems will just evaporate using this method, but I can tell you that you’ll be able to face many more things as you practice this method. You’ll get better at dealing with discomfort, instead of running from it as most people do. You’ll get better at not procrastinating, and doing uncomfortable tasks. You’ll be more present and more willing to stay in the moment rather than needing distractions all the time. Not overnight, but with practice.
You might have the urge to dismiss this article, to avoid practicing this technique. That too is avoidance, and I urge you to face it this moment.
If you’d like ways to let go of the negativity in your life, check out our 30 Day Negativity Detox.