Do you ever find yourself avoiding a task just because it seems too hard? Do you stop before you even start?
What if I told you that the difficulty you perceive might not be real?
The truth is, we all have a tendency to overestimate the difficulty of a task, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious. This can lead you to avoid challenges that could help you grow and learn.
In this post, we’ll explore the paradox of difficulty:
the idea that the things that seem most daunting or too great to be overcome might actually be the ones that offer the greatest rewards.
We’ll discuss why you perceive tasks as difficult, the consequences of avoiding them, and strategies for overcoming your own resistance to the unknown.
So if you’re ready to embrace a new perspective on difficulty and unlock your full potential, keep reading.
What is the paradox of difficulty?
The paradox of difficulty, aka the perception of difficulty, is the idea that the perceived level of difficulty of a task may be influenced by your psychological factors, for example, your level of self-confidence, your mindset, and your emotions.
It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.Seneca
This highlights the role that your own fears and doubts can play in making a task seem more challenging than it actually is.
At its core, the paradox of difficulty is a phenomenon that can prevent you from taking action and pursuing your goals. When you perceive something as too difficult, you can feel discouraged or overwhelmed, which leads to procrastination, avoidance, or even giving up altogether. However, if you shift your perception and see it as more manageable or approachable, you might be more likely to take action and make progress.
What makes this even worse is that this perception of difficulty can be self-reinforcing.
When you avoid a difficult task, you can feel temporary relief but over time, this avoidance makes the hill you need to climb look even higher. As a result, this creates a cycle that keeps you from even starting the journey.
Once you have a firm understanding of this, you can begin overcoming your perceived limitations and taking action with more confidence and determination.
This can involve
- Reframing negative self-talk
- seeking support from others
- breaking down tasks into smaller steps
- embracing a growth mindset – seeing challenges as opportunities for growth and learning
The psychology of perceived difficulty
Our perception of difficulty is influenced by a range of psychological factors.
Fear of failure, Overestimation of effort, Lack of confidence, stress, anxiety… The list goes on.
On top of this list is…
It refers to our tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive. When you were in the bush with a friend and something sounded like a tiger, you were better of to run away than your friend who stayed to check if it was a rare bird and became a snack.
This used to serve us well in the past but nowadays it gets you focused on all the obstacles that may materialize on your way to a goal, causing you to feel overwhelmed.
Negativity bias also leads to negative self-talk. You tell yourself you’re not good enough to go through all the obstacles at once. Which leads to…
Fear of failure
When you’re afraid of failing, you’re more likely to tense up, which will make accomplishing whatever you set your mind on, more difficult to achieve than if you were relaxed and focused.
This gets worse the farther away the goal is from your current circle of competence. What it doesn’t take into account is that as you start the journey you’ll learn things, gain new skills and sharpen existing ones.
Past experiences and beliefs
Past experiences and beliefs about your abilities also shape your perception of difficulties. If your next challenge reminds you of some negative experiences you had before, you’re more likely to see the challenge as more difficult and it will be harder to attempt.
The same thing happens if you believe things like “I’m not the type of person who…” or “I’ll never be able to…“
All this contributes to…
Stress and anxiety
When you’re stressed or anxious, your mind becomes more focused on potential threats and dangers and tries to find a safe place. And by definition, everything new is unknown and has its own unknown threats. This makes you see more negative than positive and closes the circle of negativity bias.
By understanding these psychological factors, you can have more compassion for yourself and start challenging your assumptions of difficulty. You can start by reframing negative self-talk towards a growth-oriented mindset.
Consequences of avoiding difficult challenges
So what’s the big deal? Why not just avoid anything hard? Live an easy life and all that…
Sure, if you stick your head in the sand, you won’t see the scary thing. But you’ll also miss the opportunity to get to know it, learn how to deal with it, and gain some skills.
If you run away from challenges, your self-confidence will slowly diminish. Keep telling yourself that you can’t handle new things and you’ll start believing it. This self-doubt can spill over into other areas of your life.
Just because you avoided a task, it doesn’t mean it went away. The thought of it usually still lingers somewhere in the back of your mind and every now and then remind you of the consequences of living a life of avoidance, fear and not living up to your full potential. It becomes even harder to face new challenges.
Strategies for overcoming perceived difficulty
Ready to learn how to go overcome this?
Break it down
One of the most effective ways to overcome a perceived difficulty is to break the task down into smaller, more manageable steps.
By doing this, you can focus on one piece of the puzzle at a time, which can make the overall task feel less overwhelming.
Ask for advice, guidance, feedback… Talk to your colleagues, friends, family members…
Focus on the process, not on perfection
James Clear, the New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits, suggests to
- Start with an incredibly small habit
- Increase your habits in very small ways
- As you build up, break habits into chunks
- When you slip, get back on track quickly
- Be patient. Stick to a pace you can sustain.
Embrace a growth mindset
Finally, adopting a growth mindset can be incredibly helpful in overcoming perceived difficulty.
Recognize that challenges and setbacks are opportunities to learn and grow, rather than indicators of failure.
By embracing a growth mindset, you can approach difficult tasks with a sense of curiosity and openness, which can help you overcome fear or overwhelm.
So remember “It’s not because things are difficult that we don’t dare, it’s because we don’t dare that they are difficult“.
By understanding the paradox of difficulty and the psychology behind your perceptions of challenging tasks, you can start breaking through your own resistance to the unknown and unlock your full potential.
Next time you’re faced with a daunting challenge, take a deep breath, reframe your thinking, break it down into smaller steps, seek support, and embrace the growth mindset.
Best of luck on your journey of growth and self-discovery!