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Use these 3 brain hacks to do something uncomfortable

If psyching yourself up doesn’t work, try playing tricks on your brain.

Use these 3 brain hacks to do something uncomfortable
[Photo: Rawpixel]

You know that it’s time to ask your manager for a promotion, or be honest with your boss’ boss about what you really think about the company’s new initiative. You know that the salary you were offered is below market rate, and given your experience and qualifications, you deserve way more. You know you need to do all these things to move forward and grow in your career. But you’re really scared and you don’t know how to get past that.

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Don’t worry–it’s perfectly normal to feel like that. While it definitely gets easier with practice, that doesn’t mean it stops being scary. One way to get past that? Play tricks with your brain–here are a few ways to do just that.

1. Focus on enjoying the process

When you focus on the outcome of making a “risky” move (or what you perceive to be, anyway), taking the first step can seem more daunting than it really is. Anytime I set a goal and get overly caught up in the results, I have found the mental barrier much more difficult to break through. But when I focus on following the process and enjoying it, it stops being scary. For example, the thought of completing a marathon makes me completely nervous–but the thought of running three to four times a week for three months doesn’t. This mind-set can apply to your career, too.

For Irit Singer, head of marketing at HERE Mobility, this mindset helped her to make some uncomfortable career moves. After spending seven years as an algorithms developer, she transitioned into consumer marketing–a field she discovered her passion for when she did her MBA. In a previous Fast Company article, she wrote:

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the big picture, forgetting to appreciate the process of achieving your goals. Being driven and ambitious is crucial to a successful career, however it’s important not to be too focused on the end goal, because ultimately, this will leave you detached from the present, and incapable of adequately taking stock of the situation you’re currently in.


Related: Three hacks to help your brain learn stuff faster 


2. Practice in a low-stakes situation

When it comes to doing something that scares you, practice might not make perfect–but it will make it easier. So find ways to exercise that uncomfortable muscle when the stakes are relatively low. Public speaking, for example, is something that I still find uncomfortable–so if I know that I have a presentation or a panel discussion coming up, I’ll deliberately speak up more in meetings, or make myself attend more networking events where I don’t know anyone. Those situations aren’t exactly the same, but they allow me to practice my presentation skills in a low-risk and low-stake environment. It lets me “prime” my brain into thinking that giving a talk to strangers is something I’ve done numerous times, and so when the time comes, I have nothing to worry about.

Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, wrote about this in a 2015 Fast Company article. Gregersen points out that firefighters are required to operate in life-and-death situations, and they’re only able to do so “with clarity and precision” because of “extensive training and experience.” “Business leaders seldom, if ever, do anything as deadly as racing into a burning building, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t take a similar approach to self-preparation,” Gregersen writes. “Volunteer for projects that are especially challenging–those where you know your current strengths and experiences won’t help you much. You’ll have to learn how to put out fires, so to speak, in real time, and you’ll get better with practice.”

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Related: How I overcame my biggest freelancer fears 


3. Give yourself no choice but to do it

When I want to do something that scares me, the first thing I do is create a situation where I don’t have a choice. If I want to expand my professional network, I RSVP to that networking breakfast. If I want to get my physical health back on track, I sign up for that race three months out. If I want to have an uncomfortable conversation, I schedule that meeting so I can’t get out of it.

This is the trick that writer Stephanie Vozza employed when she pretended to be outgoing for a week for a Fast Company story. She struck up conversations with waiters, volunteered to partner with a new member of a class at her gym, and connected two people that she thought she should meet. “For someone who is outgoing or extroverted, my week probably sounds like normal life, but for someone who is shy, it was a big step. I thought I might feel tired or overwhelmed, but I was actually energized by the experience, which means I may not be as introverted as I once thought. I’ll be attending a conference in a couple of weeks, and instead of dreading the networking part, I’m looking forward to making more new contacts,” Vozza wrote.

Positive talks can work, but when taking that step fills you with anxiety and dread, it might not be enough to get you to act. When your brain tells you that you have to do something, you’ll be amazed at just how much easier it is to do the very thing that scares you. And when you do it often enough, you might just find that doing something uncomfortable isn’t as frightening to you as it once was.

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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