Don’t Muscle Through It - Your Frustration-Free Guide to Change
High-performing and ambitious people believe that progress is important; they pride themselves on improving and understanding the underlying cause of their actions. They are also often known for their grit and determination to make change happen. They know that change is constant, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I’ve felt this, many times. In one particularly hard instance, I found myself getting frustrated with my father when he was compromised by a phishing email through no fault of his own. As an immigrant family, security has always been important to us, so it was heartbreaking for both of us. And yet, I got frustrated with him and showed very little empathy toward him. I was shocked at my behavior, especially since I consider myself empathetic even with strangers. I talked through this with my own coach, Audrey, and her reply opened my eyes. She said, “Farrah, it's not that you are or you aren't empathetic, it's that you can't yet do it with your dad the way you want. There's more history and emotion there. You can juggle three balls right now, but with your dad, it’s more like juggling six given the complexities that come with a father-daughter relationship.” She helped me realize that change isn’t black and white—you don’t go from feeling like you need to be perfectly empathetic and then voila! Progress is a process—a slow climb up from “yet” until “yes.”
But it’s that middle phase, the training phase, that can be the most difficult. You can be motivated and have the desire to practice new habits and behaviors, but it takes time to get there and the patience to welcome small wins. When you try to make a change in your life or course correct a habit, it’s common to become frustrated if you are not where you thought you would be despite your best effort.
There are two important foundations to keep moving forward and minimize frustration. First, you need to be compassionate with yourself as you build the muscle around what you are trying to change. Like our physical muscles, you need to train and make that muscle stronger until it begins to automatically pull you in that direction. It’s hard work to do this—you can’t lift 100 pounds right away—but slowly over time the action will become natural. Your awareness of the process and being open to change will help you start flexing that muscle. With my dad, even once I was more aware of what was happening, I slowly caught myself naturally being more empathetic. I didn't nail it right away or every time, but I made progress and saw it as a win that I could build off of and be proud of versus letting myself get frustrated that I didn't change overnight to get it perfectly. It’s all about practice.
Second, it’s important to know that your other muscle—the behavior or habit you’re trying to change—is already really strong and will try to pull you in the opposite direction. Your mind and body will always lean on the stronger muscle. This is where you need to be intentional with your actions and use strategies to build the new muscle. For example, I have a client who is a high achiever and ready for his next leap, but he’s also burned out and exhausted from the go, go, go lifestyle. He wants to learn to rest and slow down, while still feeling like he is achieving and performing. He’s so used to working nonstop, he doesn’t know how to make this happen. He knows that his health and wellbeing is a priority, but has always operated as someone who is extra responsive and always ready to dive in quickly. He cannot expect this behavior to stop overnight, but he wants it to.
Here are my specific suggestions with examples of how he can make effective change. These tips can be used by anyone, in both professional and personal situations, to create frustration-free change:
Get to the underlying behavior and identify your mindset. Why is the “other” muscle so strong? Get a coach or ask yourself probing questions. For example: What drives me to go at this pace? What am I afraid will happen if I don't give 200%? Once you have your answers, summarize your mindset in a phrase, for example, “need to perform” or “things need to go well.” And be kind to yourself for having this mindset and these behaviors. There was a reason for it and it likely got you to where you are, even if it doesn’t serve you as well now.
Shift your mindset and assess will. Once you identify your mindset and your why, write down the balance to that thought. For instance, if your mindset around working crazy hours is that "I value my job and in order to do it well, I need to be on 24/7." Then, choose the balance to that thought, like "I value myself and my health and can figure out how to still do my job well without being tied to work." Then decide which are you most committed to: It's okay to feel both but you need to be “more” committed to one.
Start small — create small experiments and see the effect. For instance, turn off your phone one hour earlier, allow an email to go unreplied if you’re cc’d, go to the gym. Then, assess what happened—did your fear come true? Was everything okay? And be sure to celebrate the wins. Remind yourself you did something that was hard. Little wins lead to big progress.
Have the infrastructure in place for change. Be intentional with your actions and identify strategies by asking yourself: What is the hardest part of making this change and what are the components I need to address to help me? If you’re used to being on the phone and responsive at all hours, try to turn off notifications or put clocks on the wall so you don’t need to check your phone for the time. When you do see an email that you want to jump to respond to, ask questions to pinpoint your next steps because the answer may not necessarily be what your instinct (or muscle) might tell you to do. For example, "How important is this email? How important is it to respond to now? What will happen if I don't respond now"? Then, choose a path and assess the outcome (see #3 above).
Remember that change is hard. A growth mindset is key, as is that powerful word “yet.” Tell yourself, “This is something I’m not used to doing; I haven’t learned to do it before, or I haven’t learned how to do it...yet.” Expect it to be hard. A wise friend once told me, “things that matter are hard.” We most want to change the things we often care about most. If you are used to being on at all times, slowing down might even seem scary.
Have an accountability partner. Studies show that you are more likely to reach your goals when you share them with another person. Enlist a coach or a colleague to help you gain awareness, create strategies, and cheer you on as you build your new muscle.
You don’t have a skill or not—just like anything in life, you need to intentionally practice these new behaviors until you build the muscle to the point that they become natural actions. As they become natural, they will also take less energy and become easier. Repetition is also important. That’s what any trainer will tell you. That’s what my own coach, Audrey, helped me realize, too. As is your mindset. You can be frustrated with the process, which just adds to the exhaustion, or you can be compassionate with yourself and have empathy with yourself and know that you’re working on things and you’re not there...yet.