It matters which you choose.
Have you ever had a looming deadline but instead of doing the work you ran to TV shows, video games, or debauchery?
I’ve never descended into debauchery myself (which I’m a little sad to admit), but I can say I’ve spent an absurd number of hours watching TV shows and playing video games just to avoid doing the work I knew I had to do.
And it totally makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re stressed about a deadline and we want some relief. What’s wrong with a pinch of debauchery to relieve the stress?
Especially since you know the work will get done. Sure, you might need to pull a couple all-nighters, but that never killed anyone!
The problem I’ve noticed is that not all challenges we face have deadlines. So, when there’s no looming endpoint, what do we do?
For me, I never stopped procrastinating. I never stopped putting things off. Every day I would run away from hard work and hard decisions, straight into the loving arms of TV and video games.
And yeah, they treated me right. But underneath all that love and affection was an uneasiness that never went away. I felt it in the back of my mind even when I was happily doing other things. And I felt it fly to the front of my mind when there was nothing to distract me.
Do you live your life like this? Do you feel an uneasiness in quiet moments, like something is wrong, something is missing, something needs to be done?
I think this is a sign that we’re avoiding a difficult challenge in our lives, what I’ll call a “hard problem”. And no matter how far or fast we run, the problem will always be directly behind us, breathing down our necks.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that we can’t escape hard problems, no matter how tirelessly we try. That’s why our strategy needs to change.
That’s why instead of running away from hard problems, we need to move toward them.
The first hard problem I ever acknowledged was writing my master’s thesis. There was no deadline. It was just me and a mountain of work that I didn’t know how to accomplish.
This didn’t go well for me. Or the work, for that matter.
For nearly two years, I was constantly uneasy. There was a weight in the pit of my stomach that never quite went away.
But, there are countless other hard problems that we all begin to encounter as we enter adulthood. What do I want to study at university? Am I happy with my partner? Should I change jobs? Do I want children? How do I start a writing practice? How do I deal with that conflict at work? Why is my relationship with my parents so shitty? Is this all there is to life?
These are the kinds of problems that can continue, unresolved indefinitely because nothing forces us to act — there are no deadlines. We must choose to look for another job, decide whether to improve our relationships, and figure out how to form new habits. No one can do this work for us. And it’s hard.
What are your hard problems?
Solving Hard Problems
The first step to solving a hard problem is recognizing that we have one (or many!). Unfortunately, this can be tricky.
The way our minds tend to react to problems is a little strange. If we are mindful, we will notice a pulling back or a retreating to some other activity. We might feel a desperate need for a drink, sex, or our favorite TV show. Whatever it is, it’s where we’ll find comfort.
When we engage in this pattern, it’s a sign that something’s up. So it’s important to recognize this pattern when it arises.
A couple of months ago I decided to end a relationship because I wasn’t in a position to give it what it deserved. The decision itself was a hard problem, but so was the aftermath of that decision.
To escape the pain of that breakup, I went back to my old habits of watching TV and playing video games. And you know what? It made me feel a little better. The distraction helped to settle my mind.
But, there came a point when the distraction became a hindrance to progress. I felt stuck and I knew that avoiding the problem wasn’t the solution to the problem itself.
There is a little voice inside our heads that often sounds compassionate, but it can be misleading. It tells us, you’ve had a long day, just watch some TV. Or, you’re tired, have a drink. Or, you’re stressed out, hook up with someone on Tinder.
That little voice sounds like it has our best interest at heart, but it’s often suggesting to put a band-aid on a gaping wound. It’s trying to distract us from the pain, rather than deal with its source.
That’s why when we hear this little voice we need to meet it with wisdom, courage, and strength. Wisdom because sometimes that little voice is right — sometimes we need to simply escape or unwind. Courage because sometimes we need to ignore that little voice and stand face to face with whatever is stressing us out. And strength because overcoming hard problems is difficult. It takes time to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it, and we need strength to stand firm while we do it.
When something stresses us out, our gut reaction is to seek comfort from that stress. There’s nothing wrong with this at first, we just need to remember that this behavior will never solve the problem that’s causing the stress in the first place. At some point, we need to stop running.
Recognizing the point when we need to stand our ground is not easy. That little voice is going to try to convince us to keep distracting ourselves indefinitely. We need to be able to see when we’re ready to face the problem head-on.
All of this means we need to be mindful of the challenges that inevitably arise. We need to be mindful of what’s causing us stress. We need to be mindful of when we’re running away from stress. We need to be mindful when we’re ready to stop running and confront the challenge. And we need to be mindful of the little voice that is constantly trying to persuade us to seek comfort in distraction.
Confronting the hard problems in our lives can be scary, for sure, but it is also liberating. Realizing we have the strength to courageously stand before these problems and work through them empowers us to live our best lives. This is how we learn and grow. This is our path.
Marcus Aurelius expressed it best:
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Thanks for reading! Many of the ideas presented here are from Joseph Goldstein’s podcast Insight Hour.