How to Make Yourself Do Painful Things
5 min read

How to Make Yourself Do Painful Things

How to Make Yourself Do Painful Things

In the small college town where I live, one summer job is the clear favorite among students: door-to-door sales. Hundreds of twenty-somethings leave every year to make their homes in Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey—you name it—where they’ll peddle a product or service to local residents. The popular products are home security systems and pest control. The summer sales routine is an all-out assault, as the salespeople canvas neighborhoods one door at a time.

The appeal to summer sales is simple: It’s incredibly lucrative. The top salespeople make over $100,000 in just 3 months, and even the average performers save a sizable chunk of money, maybe $15,000 to $30,000, to save for the upcoming school year. When you come back from summer sales, you’re flush with cash and living the rockstar life. But there’s also the flipside: summer sales is a lonely, excruciating psychological slap in the face, a summer of crappiness.

Just ask my little brother, Sam, who spent last summer hawking pest control in Minneapolis. After a couple afternoons of training and with a few memorized scripts, he was left to fend for himself. From 1 PM to 9 PM every day he was alone, walking from house to house, selling a product that few people wanted to buy. It’s easy to compile a list of the summer sales “cons”: when you sell door-to-door, you’re lonely, tired, rejected, hot. It’s a mental beating, and many people give up and go home early. Of the nine or so new guys that my brother went with, four of them gave up and went home after just a week or two. So, how did Sam survive the summer?

We all face “hard things” in our lives—obstacles that we have to endure if we ever want the rewards that follow. We eat healthy to lose weight. We lose sleep to put more time into special projects. We make sacrifices to pave the road for opportunity. But what are the keys to persevere? How do we gut it out? How do we withstand the agony? The research on achieving goals will help us find some answers.

Make the Right Choice Ahead of Time

Any time we set new goals, we know that the “easy going” won’t last. Often we expect to fail from the outset, because we’re so used to giving up when things become difficult. This idea was expressed by the endlessly quotable Mark Twain, when he said, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it thousands of times.”

In 2013, marketing professors at Duke and Tulane universities put together the following study. First, they found a group of grocery shoppers who were enrolled in a rewards program with a local grocery store. The shoppers regularly received a 25% discount off of purchases because of the program. Then they proposed to the shoppers a surprisingly unfair arrangement: If they didn’t increase their number of healthy purchases in the next month, they would forfeit the discount. Though it sounds like “healthy blackmail,” many of the shoppers willingly agreed to the arrangement.

Over the course of six months, the shoppers enrolled in the program increased their healthy purchases by 3.5%, a significant improvement compared to a control group. Why did it work so well? The health shopping arrangement employed a “commitment device.” The shoppers made the healthy choice when they first enrolled in the program, which made it more difficult to make the unhealthy choice later. If you want to stick to a goal, commit to the right decision long before the opportunity for a wrong decision arises.

One Step at a Time

In the middle of hard things, in the moment the agony is the worst, it’s difficult to imagine that we’ll ever be happy again. At least that’s how it seems when you’re knocking doors in humid Minnesota. And that’s why one step at a time, one door at a time, is the mentality that keeps you sane.

Albert Bandura, a brilliant former Stanford psychologist, frequently studied this principle of proximal goals. In one study, he tested proximal goals with a group of obese participants that were trying to lose weight. Some participants were instructed to set small, short-term proximal goals, and others to set longer term (distal) goals. For example, the first group would set goals about how much to eat during certain time periods of the day, whereas the second group focused on goals for an entire week.

So which test group performed better? That’s actually a trick question. Performance in both groups was about the same. However—the reason that the groups were so similar is that many people in the second group, with the “long-term” goals, intuitively broke their goals down into smaller short-term goals. In other words, the study was difficult to conduct because the most effective goal-setters seemed to create short-term goals naturally. The study confirmed that the people who “improvised” mini goals outperformed those who didn’t.

People Around You

We’re all-too-familiar with the impact of social influence on behavior. In a well-known motivational talk, speaker Jim Rohn once said that we are “the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Social influence is one of the strongest forces that affects our behavior—often stronger than money and intrinsic motivation.

Some of the best examples of social influence in action come from the many micro-finance lending programs adopted throughout the world. A simple example comes from a recent social endeavor in Chile. Hundreds of Chileans were offered savings accounts in a bank with interest, as their financial success was tracked over time. While some Chileans received an incredibly favorable interest rate (5%!), others participated in a group accountability program. In the group setting, they would regularly share their savings goals with the group, then receive public praise when they met those goals.

While many of us would kill for a savings account with 5% interest, the social accountability group was more effective. When we know others are watching, it nearly always changes our behavior.

Withstanding summer sales

If we take a look at my little bro Sam, the goal-setting psychology lined up perfectly. When Sam left for summer sales, he had a roundtrip ticket—he arrived in Minnesota in May and came back in August. I asked him about the commitment. He said he knew it would be hard, but he decided before he left that he wouldn’t come home until the summer was up, and the plane ticket was a commitment device holding him to the plan.

How about proximal goals? They’re the only way to survive the misery of selling. Each salesperson calculates their “number”—the number of doors they have to knock, on average, to get a sale. When your proximal goal is a number of doors, instead of the number of days left in the summer, you can slog your way through the rough spots.

And the social influence? Most of the guys who went home, Sam told me, worked with a different manager. Sam’s trainer was a relentless sales animal, always making the most of the time available to knock doors. And Sam’s only option was to follow along. While the other team went to out to lunch and found other ways to delay the inevitable door-knocking, Sam was out with his team because they all wanted to sell.

Achieving Your Goals

These are all principles that you’ve probably heard before—the basics of setting a tough goal and actually achieving it. They’ve worked for me, whether running a marathon with my wife or gluing myself to the computer to write a book. What works for you?