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We're Going to Need a Smaller Horse

After not being able to work for a while, we often try to get back on the horse in the least helpful way. Inevitably, we get trampled. Here's why it happens and what to do instead.

Something counterintuitive happens to most of us when we've been stuck trying to do something for a while. The longer we've gone without accomplishing the thing in question, the bigger the result we think we need to create.

If you have been dragging your feet about updating your resume, you opt to redo and redesign the whole thing. If you've been getting up at noon and want to start work earlier, you set your alarm for 5 am.

At a workshop recently, I asked people why they thought this happened. Why is that, the harder we are finding it to do something, the more we up the ante on ourselves? What kind of weird-ass impulse is this?

As the responses people gave made clear, it's actually a reaction that makes perfect sense when you've been ground down by internal resistance: We up the ante because we want to redeem ourselves, and because the longer we fail to do the thing the more redemption we seem to need. Because we want the end goal to seem worth all the pain it's taking to try to get there. Because imagining a great future outcome feels good, which seems essential when everything else about the situation feels so bad.

But just because it makes sense doesn't mean it's a useful idea. In fact, trying to get back on the horse by choosing the biggest horse you can possibly imagine is pretty much bound to end in disaster. Not only will you be unlikely to get on the horse, but that failure will just make you feel worse than when you started. Which means the next time you'll conjure up an even bigger horse, and the cycle continues.

In practice, this means we don't write the 20 blog posts, or redo our whole resume or get up at 5 a.m. In fact, we don’t do any of it, because that was a step way too far from where we're starting, and it felt way too daunting and intimidating. But because we don't notice that, we just feel like we've let ourselves down again. Which means the next time we think up an even bigger goal to try to achieve that sense of redemption, worthiness and pleasure. And on and on.

As my brilliant client Ginny put it, We're going to need a smaller horse.

If we want to stop this cycle, we need to start with a wee itty bitty horse that a fricking two-year-old could mount and stay on.

We need to start with a horse so small that when our brains say, I don't know if we can get on, it's legit laughable. We want to be able to automatically call bullshit and respond appropriately, like: Brain, are you SERIOUSLY trying to tell me we can't spend TEN MINUTES on this resume? That we can't get up at 11.45 instead of 12? That we can't just write down three ideas for blog posts?

As you may notice when you read over this list, these goals are not sexy. They are not big rippling stallions. They do not seem to carry the promise of redemption or give us a nice dopamine hit via a fantasised awesome future.

That means our brains will have a little tantrum when they hear that this is the agenda. But we need to let the tantrum happen without changing the agenda, because the giant horse we keep thinking we have to ride will just keep trampling us into the ground.

There is no version of upping the ante that ends well. Whereas the tiny horse will carry you a little bit further each day until you can actually see the destination that felt unreachable.


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