Be Hard On Yourself – The Zen of “How”

by Marc Winitz

If you are new to this blog please don’t think this post is about self-flagellation. Because it is not (yet). Sure, you come to this site, see the two ukes (dudes in the front of the blog header picture) training with a sensei standing menacingly in the background who is holding something that looks like it inflects a lot of pain. And the first part of the post title may start to make some sense.

I am often asked what is the most difficult part of martial arts training on the path to becoming a black belt. Defending against three person attacks? Nope. Performing a flying kick over someone else and breaking a board in the air? Not really. The hardest part is making yourself train when you don’t want to. The actual act of training is the metaphor for the process of living in a martial arts context as I have written about here. In a nutshell, if you want to become a black belt (in anything) it all boils down to this simple sentence.

Do what you need to do, when you don’t want to do it.

Stop and re-read that sentence. This is the Zen of “How”, digestible for Western meaning.

The Motivation “Pill”
Assuming you could turn the sentence above into a pill it would be the greatest selling “motivation” item of late night cable infomercials for all time. Hell, I’d buy it. Most people beat around the bush when it comes to understanding how to maintain sustained productive action. I am not talking about motivation. You can be highly motivated and still not do what you need to do all the time. I am also not saying it doesn’t help or doesn’t make the process of succeeding easier because motivation does do this. But motivation usually relates to a short term catalyst for the principle I am talking about: How to commit yourself to push through something when life presents a difficult obstacle to overcome. Interestingly on a personal development level the obstacles I am referring to  are mundane. They are not big or life changing. They are ever present and always around us. When you run into these situations your have your own “teachable moment” that is an opportunity which is waiting so you can make your self better.

I am waiting for all the arrows to come from success coaches, motivational speakers and personal development bloggers now (which I will gladly accept).

Why “Just Do It” Doesn’t Cut It
An old college friend and successful venture capitalist named Mark Suster writes a terrific blog on start-ups at Both Sides of the Table. One of his excellent posts deals with his belief that successful people (his audience is entrepreneurs) should “Just Do It”. However, Mark turns that acronym into JFDI. You can guess what emphasis the “F” provides. In a business sense Mark is a warrior. And his post gets the point across in the start-up context very candidly.

I contend that the phrase “Just Do It” really means:

“Just Do It Because “It” Is Really Hard, But If You Do Push Yourself

When You Don’t Want To You Will Succeed”.

Except that the marketing people at Nike realized that wasn’t so snappy even if the principle was sound. So they shortened it to the popular phrase that now dominates our lexicon. Unfortunately the part that got lost is the “how” in this process. Which leads me to the point of this post which is all about the how, not the why. There are too many people writing and advocating “Just Do It”. As a teacher I can’t help you any more than the billions of dollars Nike has spent telling you why. We are going to talk about the “how” part which is the 20 words following the three word slogan above.

How Pleasure Eliminates Pain (Not Really)
OK, now that I have everyone’s feathers ruffled a bit, let’s get into the core of this problem. There is a natural tendency to move from things that are painful to things that are of pleasure. Why not move to a place of pleasure? That’s what motivational speakers and advice givers tell us. Things are nice and easy in Pleasureville. We are told “this is where you should spend your time”. I am happy. I have a “passion”. I want to spend my time doing fun things.

You are probably saying to yourself “I just paid you a lot of money for your course or book on how to be successful and motivated and I want to feel good about that.” It’s a good thing menacing Karate teachers still exist well past the days of the Samurai – so go with me on this and read on.

Believe me when I say that a lot of motivational advice does a great job of not telling you what you don’t want to hear. So it’s time for the gloves to come off (figuratively). I am sorry to say that the pleasure principle, which is sold in droves, does nothing to enhance your ability to do what you must do. It doesn’t eliminate pain at all, it enhances it.

I’m No Snowflake – How Does Pain Avoidance Hurt Me?

It’s actually pretty simple. When you avoid doing things you don’t feel like doing you are moving from pain to pleasure. Or at least less pain. But that transition away causes mental weakness. By moving away from things that are difficult or even things you just don’t feel like doing you lose the opportunity to train yourself to follow through in virtually any circumstance. Once a year I would go to the snow in the middle of Winter and the desert in the dead heat of summer to train in extreme conditions. Hours on end punching and kicking among the swirl of the elements. It is in this moment that you learn how to become dedicated to something, one of the 6 Elements that I have discussed in previous posts. You don’t have to like something or have a passion for something to be dedicated to it. But when you can dedicate yourself to pushing through anything that is not easy (read hard, monotonous, boring, tenuous, painful physically or mentally) that is were the real progress is made. This is being a warrior.

There were many times during my pre-black belt days where I didn’t want to go to class. I trained hard the previous days before. My body was sore. I didn’t want to do more push-ups. My arms and legs hurt from throwing punches and executing blocks against kicks. Yet I trained anyways. I went to class. I taught others students. I was mentally tired but forced myself to be present. To focus and push on. It is in those moments when you learn (read internalize) the “how” of doing what you don’t want to do.

A Simple Exercise – The Zen of “How”
I am new to this form of blog (personal development) so the whole “7 Steps to Being More Motivated” is an approach I am not yet comfortable with. There is no 7 Step program for learning how to do what you need to do, when you don’t want to do it. However, you can put yourself in a similar process, without any martial arts training, to begin to understand how you can get to this state.

You’ll notice, I said “simple exercise” above. We are talking about doing something once a week for 3 weeks. “Weeks” you say? I don’t have weeks. I have blogs to write, tweets to send, whatever. 3 weeks is short time in comparison to the payoff you will get and believe me it took years for me to understand and internalize how to do this. I am talking about real personal development here that is action oriented in the simplest way possible that anyone can accomplish.

Step 1: Make a list of 10 activities you have been putting off that you know you need to do. You haven’t done them because they are painful so you have averted them in exchange for some form of pleasure.

Some examples are things like:

  • cleaning out your garage
  • hauling some stuff away from mom’s house she asked you to do six months ago
  • cleaning all the outside windows of your house
  • weeding the backyard (I despise weeding)
  • organizing your office or closet
  • clean up your bathroom completely (perfect if you have roommates)

You get the general idea here. The tasks should be something you can complete in one day in a period of 2 to 8 hours. Also, don’t pick some form of exercise instead. Or a hobby. Or something for your business. That actually defeats the purpose here. Do any of those things in addition to this. Nothing that you couldn’t easily blow off as soon as your best friend called and said “what’s you doing?” to which you reply “nothing, want to go out?”. You’ll be telling them “no thanks, we’ll have to schedule another time” while you curse my name under your breath.

You’ll notice that a lot of the suggested tasks involve some form of “cleaning”. That’s no accident. It’s called “soji” which is a process of cleaning a dojo that has many meanings. I’ll save this for another post in our digital dojo here (lucky you, more cleaning).

“But I work hard all week and want to enjoy the weekend” you are going to say to yourself. I know. And that is exactly the point of this. Why? Because that’s the attitude a black belt (or someone training hard to become one) takes when it comes to training and personal development. They never take the easy out. They do what they have to do when they don’t want to do it.

Step 2: Pick any 3 items and write them down on a list in the order you will do them. On the top of the list write in big letters “BBG” which is short for Black Belt Guide. That’s me and I’ll be your paper sensei for the next three weeks. Post the list somewhere prominent where you have to see it every day such as your office, kitchen, or bathroom (lucky you, I am in your bathroom).

Keep the list posted prominently in a public and NON-computerized setting. Why write it down versus put on your computer as a reminder? Because you can turn that off, delete it, cancel the reminder, etc…In short you can blow it off if you are not forced to look at it.

Step 3: You will do 1 item per week for three weeks. Again, each item should take 2 to 8 hours.

How Do I Read The Tea Leaves?
This is a real personal development exercise. You are putting yourself in a position where you are making yourself do something you don’t really want to do. Whether you accomplish some, all or none of the items the value to you is to examine why you are or are not following through. This exercise is not that different from standing in the middle of the snow and doing 1000 kicks and punches in terms of the outcome. It’s easy to give up in that situation. In this exercise it is relatively easy to accomplish as you get to set the goal, it’s not dictated to you.

A Final Thought
I am as into pleasure and avoidance of any kind of pain as the next person. And I value my time, as I am sure you do as well. You will reap great benefits from examining this underlying principle that black belts regularly train by. Once you have gone through this exercise you will have experienced the beginning seeds of an Indomitable Spirit, which is the development of your personal will, another one of the 6 Elements.

I am not a personal coach but if you would like some support in the process, feel free to send me an email (my address is the contact page for this site) and I’ll be glad to virtually support you. And the worst case out of this is that you’ll have a clean garage. Perhaps my first book should be  titled “Zen and the Art of Garage Cleaning”?

{ 4 trackbacks }

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ben February 4, 2010 at 11:47 am

Hey Marc.

This is a really interesting post.

I think pain is an important part of growth. It not only makes you mentally stronger but also gives you emotional fitness. “Motivational Speaker” Tony Robbins once put it that life at times is like lifting weights. The rep that does us the most good is not the last one number 10 but in fact number 11. We only grow and become emotionally fitter when we push through and “do what we need to do when we don’t want to do it.” This is a great analogy Marc and hits the nail on the head.

A lot of the problem is that people are just scared off by things when they become really really difficult because of the potential pain. The important thing to consider is that pain is defined as something that hurts us but that we have control over yet suffering is something that hurts that we can not change. Many people confuse the two and so never learn to deal with the pain, using it to their advantage.
.-= Ben´s last blog ..Music: The Soundtrack to life =-.


2 Marc Winitz February 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Ben – Great analogy on weight lifting. The “11th” rep concept represents the blog post concept very succinctly. I agree with you that a lot of people fail to see the value of looking at what is painful and using it to their advantage which is an opportunity missed. Thanks for the comment.//Marc


3 Armen Shirvanian February 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Hi Marc.

This is a very detailed post, and I agree with a lot of what you say here. We have many similar thought patterns. Jay-Z said “Don’t run from the pain, go towards it”, and a quote on Alex Shalman’s site from Jim Rohn said “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” Points like these reminds us that it is worth it to be hard on ourselves at that tough point.

We tend to know when that tough point is. One that comes to my mind is when I am at a local library writing material building off of something from a book, and am in a writing mode. I then have the opportunity to cut it off at any point, but those few times where I keep going as the mind starts to tire are where I get a load of output that can be worth multiple times itself in effort(like with 2 hours being more valuable than 10 regular hours of effort).

It’s right to do something you need to do when you don’t want to do it, as it might not even be doable later, which means a loss of opportunity usage.

You got it all right here.
.-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..An Interview With Gail Brenner =-.


4 Marc Winitz February 4, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Armen, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I was unfamiliar with either of the quotes but they capture the point of this post well. I agree we all recognize the inflection point of when we want to give up. Getting over that point is what pays off from my experience.//Marc


5 Jimi Jones February 4, 2010 at 8:39 pm

This is an awesome post, Marc.
We all have that avoidance maneuver to fall back on, but find ourselves using more than is healthy for our productivity. Some times, you decide to face the pain and push forward, only to wonder why you stressed over it to begin with. There are times when it is not as bad as anticipated.
Really like the post.
.-= Jimi Jones´s last blog ..Social Media Branding – Tips To Break From The Crowd =-.


6 Marc Winitz February 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Jimi – thanks for your comment. What you say is very true. I also think that a smaller group face the pain, and push through, and it’s still painful. Yet they do it, stressed or not. That’s real progress. Thanks for coming by.//Marc


7 Philip Hotchkiss February 5, 2010 at 7:02 am

I came across your blog thanks to Mark Suster. This is the first post of yours I’ve read, and it’s one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read.

The principles you describe apply to many things. From my experience, they apply extremely well to building startup companies because as a founder and CEO, there are so many things you don’t want to do, but you must do-and you must grind them out day after day, i.e., raising money, dealing with operational decisions that are necessary to bring your vision to life but are in no way part of that vision, etc.

They also apply to classical musicianship. I’m an amateur classical pianist. Learning to play a piece of classical music ‘musically’ takes hundreds of hours of practice. It’s much like climbing to a high summit I suppose, it takes a lot of work and preparation to get there, and once you are there-when you’ve ‘peaked’-you often can’t stay up there very long, but it’s worth it.

My son turned 7 today, he’s been training as a classical pianist since he was three, he studies with his teacher 2 days a week, he plays six days a week, every week. (with a couple of 2 week breaks a year to re-charge) When he is not with his teacher, I sit with him at the piano 4 days a week as his coach. Last night we were both tired, I didn’t think I could even sit up next to him at the piano, let alone help him read the new Shostakovich piece he just started, but we both ‘did what we needed to do when we didn’t want to do it’, and like many other such times, once we got to the doing, we made a lot of progress and achieved that day’s musical goals.

I love the discipline of classical music because, like martial arts, there are no shortcuts, no Guitar Hero quick fixes, just discipline combined with talent that breaks through in moments that transcend just playing the notes-and in those moments, the music breaks free, sounds effortless and a 7 year old’s artistry is unveiled.


8 Marc Winitz February 5, 2010 at 9:10 am

Phil – first of all thank you very much for the kind words and the insightful comments. They are both appreciated. You have hit on something close to home here. It turns out that many top black belts I know are musicians (I have no musical talent by the way). In fact my instructor played piano and is a life lone fan of classical music. Both arts are very much the same in the way you and I have described them in terms of working to make a breakthrough. My daughter, who is 9, is a flutist. She started playing a year ago after dropping piano. She has talent (hopefully no one is gagging as the proud dad’s regale in their kids’ accomplishments). She recently ran into the same situation you described and wanted to give up. I pushed her enough to get her over the issue and her improvement was very tangible. It is good to see these principles play out in other sectors of life in a way that is easy to understand. You, as a VC backed CEO, are living those challenges daily. Except in your case it’s not just an activity (like Karate, or piano). People depend on you for the livelihood (employees, partners, investors). So you have to make it happen. It doesn’t get any more real than that. Thanks again for coming by and contributing to the conversation.//Marc


9 Philip Hotchkiss February 5, 2010 at 9:32 am

I just wanted to comment on Ben’s comment above: Ben points out a profound distinction:

“The important thing to consider is that pain is defined as something that hurts us but that we have control over yet suffering is something that hurts that we can not change.”

For those of us who are wired to be driven, and who are in positions to motivate and push others, it’s important that we always remember Ben’s point-some people with disabilities for example, suffer. They can’t turn it off, they can’t get mentally stronger because it may be their brain that has betrayed them. In a world of extreme sports, extreme risk taking, etc.-I think Ben’s point should always be kept in mind.

Thanks Ben.
.-= Philip Hotchkiss´s last blog ..PhilipHotchkiss: I can’t believe it, my little guy turned 7 today:-) =-.


10 Marc Winitz February 5, 2010 at 10:46 am

It is an important distinction. I would say the ability (where possible) to get yourself to move through pain can be an important antidote to some types of suffering. I mean this on a personal level. When you are injured for example, you certainly can suffer, even temporarily. Sometimes you need to push through both pain and suffering, until you can re-group and be in a better place. Great insight, thanks for pointing it out.//Marc


11 Julius Kuhn-Regnier February 5, 2010 at 11:07 am

Wow this is an excellent article. Your article really inspired me to do what I need to do. Everyone does postpone things he doesn’t like to do. I do it myself all the time.
.-= Julius Kuhn-Regnier´s last blog ..My Pathetic Believe about Social Media =-.


12 Marc Winitz February 5, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Julius – thanks for coming by. It happens all the time. Even if you don’t sign up for 3 items, just try and do one. The 2 hours you spend on something will force you to contend with the core issue and it becomes an active learning experience.Thank for the comment.//Marc


13 Alex Blackwell February 6, 2010 at 10:02 am


I also believe in the philosophy we can’t boil the ocean but we can begin to make ripples in it. For me, creating both a short-term and long-term task list, and them making progress toward these, gives me the confidence I’m heading in the right direction, now!



14 Marc Winitz February 6, 2010 at 11:25 am

You and I are definitely on the same page in terms of not boiling the ocean. That never works well. In terms of the lists, I use them too although I would recommend for what I am talking about here you really create a separate list focused solely and exclusively on what you don’t want to do. Otherwise it is to easy to just let those items slip and you will never address them and the issue behind this. In itself that will tell you something. I have found if you can get through even when one of these that’s where you can make a real breakthrough. Thanks for your comment.//Marc


15 Linda Wolf (Insanely Serene) February 6, 2010 at 10:24 am


Excellent post. Made me think, because I have been working very hard on learning how to listen to my internal guide to point me to the actions that feel good to me in life. I spent a lot of my life working out of alignment with myself and thinking I would feel good if I did things I thought others’ valued. So I’m learning my own values and aligning to them in all aspects of my life.

However, I agree with you that reaching your goals sometimes requires doing things we think we don’t want to do or have resistance to. In addition to motivation, I would add we that must have discipline and determination. In my self-growth, I have a willingness to do whatever it takes to be a better me, to find and align with my values. This means talking it out with my partner when we have a disagreement, and being willing to look at my part in it without pointing fingers or running away from the issue. It means continuing to commit to a meditation practice, to meeting with friends to discuss principles of growth, to applying what I’ve learned to every situation in life. Eventually a lot of this becomes natural and effortless, but I will always run into situations that stump me and push me to look at myself in deeper ways.

On the topic of pain and suffering, I have a different perspective than Ben. I believe in “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain does occur, physical and emotional. We hit our head, it hurts. We break up with someone, it hurts. Suffering is a choice. It is hanging on to pain rather than processing through it. And your suggestions in this post help with getting through pain. Doing what you don’t want to do when you’ve lost a loved one through breakup or even death means reaching out for help (not isolating), letting out your feelings (not suppressing or wallowing in them), being kind to yourself (not using self-pity to gain others’ sympathy), and doing the hard work of grieving.

I will certainly think about the things I don’t want to do and consider your suggestions. For example, I’m a technology laggard and my partner is an early adopter. Right now I have a new phone, a Pre, and I need to learn how to use it. I’d rather write for my blog, comment on yours, and play with Twitter than spend 2 hours on the phone. Also, I have a project of consolidating my contact info (e-mail, phone, addresses) that has been gnawing at my gut for at least 2 years now, and I’ve avoided it because it requires learning about technology. So there you go. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I will be thinking about doing what I don’t want to do and seeing if I’m willing to face my resistances.

Thanks again, Marc.



16 Marc Winitz February 6, 2010 at 11:28 am

Thank you, Linda. You have touched on something here that I wasn’t writing about but it is valid and worth exploring. The emotional element of “not doing”. It’s a great point and worth more thought, so thank you for that. Your last point about fear of technology is perfect for this exercise for two reasons – 1) it will force you to take action and you’ll figure out both the underlying issue holding you back (which you’ve already started) as well as the technical challenge, and 2) you may end up finding that whatever is holding you back from proceeding just means it’s not worth it to you to invest the time. That’s a great outcome and you get to the same place. Ultimately that’s what this post is about, just getting yourself to understand why you don’t want to. Which is great because then you can let that go and move on. Thanks for for your insights, I have learned something.//Marc


17 Steven | The Emotion Machine February 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Mark, this is definitely a point that cannot be expressed enough. There are aspects of life that we shouldn’t avoid no matter how much we may like to. Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and go ahead with it anyway. We only make things more difficult on ourselves when we avoid these necessities.

Thanks for sharing!
.-= Steven | The Emotion Machine´s last blog ..The Uses And Abuses Of Setting Deadlines =-.


18 Marc Winitz February 6, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Thanks for coming by and commenting Steven.//Marc


19 Cath Duncan February 8, 2010 at 1:49 am

Great post, Marc. I particularly like this distinction: “do what you need to do, when you don’t want to do it.” If you link that to outcomes and projects that are about what you love and what’s truly important to you, then you’re sure to have great success with all your ventures. Thanks for joining the mastery conversation!



20 Marc Winitz February 8, 2010 at 8:08 am

Thanks Cath. You have pretty much netted out the post. No guarantee of success by doing this but it certainly improves your odds of success.//Marc


21 Alman April 6, 2010 at 4:45 am

I rarly comment on blogs but I really like yours.Its hard to find good bloggers these days … everyone seems to be doing it for the $$:(


22 Fort Collins Chiropractor May 1, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Historically desperation or rarely inspiration is needed to motivate me to do something I dont really want to do. Will try the BBG list idea, thanks.


23 Guitar Accessories June 22, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Wow, this was a really high quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and actual effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and in no way appear to get something done.


24 May 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch! “To be 70 years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be 40 years old.” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.


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