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Anxieties can only come from your internal judgement.
— Marcus Aurelius
We all have things in our lives that seems to stop us from completing things that we really want to do. Often, these things aren’t even all that big but end up being show stoppers nonetheless. Today I want to talk about why it’s important to pay attention to the things that get in your way, and some possible ways to get around them.
The other day I was listening to the Hidden Brain podcast and they were talking about the idea that we get stopped from doing things by obstacles that we don’t even really notice. We spend a lot of time and energy on adding fuel to our efforts, such as improving our skills, or spending more time or money, but we miss the small and sometimes seemingly trivial things that are really hammering our progress.
So what do I mean by friction? Friction is anything that slows you down from completing your task. Friction is different than an obstacle in that an obstacle is something obvious and very evidently in the way of completing your task. Friction on the other hand is usually something smaller, subtle, and much harder to figure out.
As a simple example of friction, if you’ve ever been ice skating, a zamboni out on the ice is an obstacle. It is something clearly in your path and something that you’ll need to go around. A rough patch of ice is friction, and while it doesn’t stop you it can slow you down and make your time on the ice much slower.
Why is it easier to add fuel than it is to remove friction? Fuel is obvious. Fuel is resources. Whether that’s time, money, effort, it’s the necessary elements that make up whatever it is you’re working on. It’s things that can be added. If you’re trying to send a rocket into space, adding more fuel to lift you out of Earth’s orbit make sense.
Friction on the other hand is usually something small. They’re usually hard to detect, and may time a lot of time. Often we ignore it as well because each one in and of itself may not be a big deal, but cumulatively several small frictions can add up, and have just as much impact as an obstacle. Back on our rocket analogy, this would be like removing every possible bit of weight that you could from your rocket and payload.
Adding More Fuel
Often times when we’re trying to work on or improve something, we do so by adding fuel. This often is the easiest part because we know what we need to add to something. By this I mean we put more effort into it, push harder, or maybe add more resources. But often times, what is foiling our efforts is not that we aren’t putting enough time or energy or money into something, it’s that we aren’t examining the things that are in the way. It’s not that we need more fuel, it’s that we need to remove friction.
Understanding that sometimes adding more fuel sometimes can actually be detrimental was a lesson that I learned while I was training for short course triathlons. A triathlon for those that don’t know, consists of swimming, cycling, and running, and while I’m not a great runner, I found that swimming was probably the most challenging aspect. When I first started out I could do 500m in about 20 minutes. Just on my own I was about get that time down to about 16 minutes, but it didn’t seem to matter how hard I swam, I couldn’t cut any significant amount off that time.
Then I purchased a book on how to improve my swimming technique, and as I read through all the different pointers, there were two small changes that had a giant impact my time. The first one, was that I needed to reduce the amount of drag that I had in the water by changing my stroke just a little more to the center of my body. Basically, reaching right over the top of my head, rather than to the side. This small change help me be more aerodynamic, and flow through the water a little more smoothly.
The second change, which seemed most counter-intuitive, was that I needed to slow down and use less strokes for each lap. At first I thought, this was crazy, but I tried it and bam! I found that by trying to trying to slow down and use less strokes, my strokes became longer, which helped center my body, and more efficient because less movement also created more flow in the water. By shaving off 2-3 strokes per lap in the pool, I dropped my time closer to 10 minutes.
In his book, The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield talks about the idea of Resistance. Resistance is the opposing force in any creative endeavor, or any endeavor to improve ourselves. To me, Resistance is the mental friction that keeps us from doing our work and accomplishing our task. Whether it’s composing music, writing a novel, starting a company or non-profit, or even just trying to get back in shape, Resistance are the blocks that our minds put into place slow or stop our progress.
Pressfield defines it like this:
Resistance comes arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.
The thing about Resistance is that it happens to everyone. Those people that are most successful know this. They get that is not something to be feared, but understood. They don’t run away from their enemy, but study it, learn it’s tricks, and find ways to counter every move.
The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher.
— Ryan Holiday
The Path of Least Resistance
Part of why we often make the choices we do is because we tend to follow the path of least resistance. When we come up against a challenge, we tend to choose the easier way through. If you’re walking in the woods, you’re more likely to follow a path that others have already created. When we work on achieving our goals or making personal changes we will also take the path of least resistance, and that’s not always a good thing. If we’re trying to change our diet but we don’t make it easy for ourselves to follow our new plan, then we’re likely going to fall back on old eating habits because they’re much easier and require a lot less work. For example, I know some people who will batch cook meals one night a week so that they have healthy meals every day of the week, rather than trying to come up with some each night that fits into their diet.
Figuring out what is friction in your life is not an easy task. There are so many small things that keep up from stepping up and doing the thing that we want. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s a lack of skill. Maybe it’s a thought pattern or anxiety that keeps us from making the first step. Whatever it is, the more we can do to reduce the friction that we have in our lives, the better off we’ll be when we work on pursuing the things that we want.
Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
So how can you tell what items are friction and getting in your way of not accomplishing what you want? Often times it can be found when listing out why you are struggling with something. It usually starts with some something like, “I can’t x because of y”. For example, I have friend that gets anxious driving and parking downtown. In their minds they think, “I can’t meet up with friends downtown because parking is so stressful.” In a case like this doing things like finding a parking garage on a map, taking an Uber, or carpooling with a friend is a way to reduce friction of meeting up with friends.
I think one of the most pernicious and most obvious forms of friction is perfectionism. It’s the idea that if we can’t produce something that is good enough or follow our plan well enough that we shouldn’t even try. I know that when I sit down to work on music I will often get overwhelmed because I know that most of what I create that session won’t be very good, at least not at first. This is something that even though I’ve created music that I like, such as the theme to this podcast, I still struggle every time I sit down at the piano because of the pressure I put on my self.
Often we have things that distract us that keep us accomplishing our tasks. There are plenty of things that are easier to do than to put the work in. Our phones, Netflix, email, the internet, are all distractions that can keep us from working on things that we want. These aren’t bad things but we need to be honest about if we are using them to distract us from working on things that we want. Often these are things that feel productive, like answering emails or reading up on something for work. But are they really? Sometimes we do these things because we feel like we are doing work, but we’re not progressing towards our goals. We’re not moving the needle.
Never let people who choose the path of least resistance steer you away from your chosen path of most resistance.
Sometimes when embark on changing something in our lives we may find that the social costs are something we don’t want to pay. Sometimes this can be our friends or family might not approve of what we want to do, so we avoid doing it, even if we know that it is good for us or it’s something that we want to do. I’ve read that sometimes people are often sabotaged by partners or family members when they want work on losing weight or getting into shape. Other people may not want the us to change, because it may mean that the relationship will change. For example, if one partner is losing weight the other partner may feel threatened because they don’t want to change their eating habits, or they may feel if their partner loses weight and gets into shape, that they may no longer be attractive to the partner that has changed.
Another big example of where let friction stop us from moving forward is our careers. We will often stay at job that we are unhappy with because the friction of finding another job and leaving is too great. We will stay in a field we don’t like because planning out and learning new set of skills can feel overwhelming. It can often be a simple as the idea of taking the time to update our resume seems like too much work, or setting up an account on a job site feels like too much of a hassle.
So how do we reduce friction in our lives? I think the biggest thing that we can do is to simply recognize the friction. Once we recognize it, then we can work on strategies to reduce or eliminate the friction. If we suffer from perfectionism, then we can treat our work or tasks as times of play and curiosity, and reduce the pressure to have some to good to just having something at all. If we are easily distracted, we can work to create a distraction free space. If we’re getting friction from our partners or friends, we have frank conversations with them and ask for their support. We do anything that we can to reduce the friction.
When I started this podcast, I found that a friction point for me was that I felt like I didn’t know how to record voices very well. I had been composing music in Logic Pro, so I could use audio software reasonably well, but using a mic to record my voice and make it sound good seemed so overwhelming that it kept me from doing it. So instead of using my expensive equipment, I used my iPhone for significant portion of the first episodes. Once I felt more comfortable with my process, I moved over to recording in Logic, and continued to improve my skills at mixing and recording my voice.
Each of us is going to have different points of friction for the things that we work on in our lives. Often we don’t even recognize what these things are, and in doing so, we may be missing small things that keep us from accomplishing what we set out to do. We may be trying our hardest and putting in extra effort, but finding that we are still falling short, or even digressing. Recognizing and removing the small things in our way can often have the largest impact.
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