Hard projects will be harder than you expect. How to prepare.

February 28, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Leadership, Nature

[This post is part of a series on empathy gaps. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

A second post from the book Willpower

Leading yourself and others requires foreseeing that doing something hard feels harder, longer, more frustrating, and so on than you expect. At the beginning you say, “I’m strong, diligent, and capable. I’ll power through no matter what comes my way.” Intellectually anticipating it will be hard doesn’t and can’t prepare you for the emotional motivation to stop you’ll feel in the moment.

One of my main reasons for running marathons (as if being cheered on by millions of fans isn’t enough) is to reach the feeling where your mind and body want you to quit and still continue. Only experience can give it to you. If you can keep going up some hill in 90 degree weather at mile 20 of a training run, handling a difficult meeting or colleague at work becomes much easier.

A psychologist put a name to it: the hot-cold empathy gap. If you don’t anticipate it in yourself or your teams, you will be caught off guard. Preparing for it can be hard since your motivations will be different in the moment than now. You can’t conjure up emotions for environments, beliefs, and behaviors you aren’t in the middle of. Beforehand you can’t project how you’ll feel then. Then you won’t be able to break out of that frustration to the calmness you feel beforehand.

The book describes it in the context of nineteenth century explorer whose team’s behavior deteriorated catastrophically in the jungles.

Stanley was describing what the economist George Leowenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation. At home in England, the men may have coolly intended to behave in a virtuous manner, but they couldn’t imagine how different their feelings would be in the jungle. The hot-cold empathy gap is still one of the most common challenges to self-control, albeit in less extreme versions…

In setting rules for how to behave in the future, you’re often in a calm, cool state, so you make unrealistic commitments. “It’s really easy to agree to diet when you’re not hungry.”

I consider this one case where almost nothing can substitute for experience. You don’t need experience in the area you’ll be working. You need experience with the emotions, which can come from other sources.

Incidentally, the book continues from that passage,

We’ve said that willpower is humans’ greatest strength, but the best strategy is not to rely on it in all situations. Save it for emergencies. As Stanley discovered, there are mental tricks that enable you to conserve willpower for those moments when it’s indispensable. Paradoxically, these techniques require willpower to implement, but in the long run they leave you less depleted for those moments when it takes a strong core to survive

I agree not using willpower helps. As my series on willpower points out, you can do better than mental tricks.

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