How to Do Hard Things in Life

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 13 November 2023
  • 12 minute read
How to Do Hard Things | The Health Sessions

We’ve all heard it before, the well-meant encouragement of “you can do hard things”. That sounds motivating and supportive, but how exactly do we tackle challenges that push us to – or over? – our limits?

When you’re chronically ill, chances are, you’ll have to do hard things. Whether it’s physically exhausting and painful, like rebuilding your fitness levels when you’re bed bound; mentally demanding and draining, such as finishing your degree despite chronic fatigue and brain fog; or emotionally taxing like needing daily injections when you’re terrified of needles, there’s no getting around these challenges.

And unlike the people who celebrate stepping outside of your comfort zone, you don’t get to choose whether you want to do these hard things – it’s often your only option. What’s more, the hardest things in life don’t come with a step-by-step guide on how you should handle them.

How do you…

  • mentally prepare for invasive surgery or scary medical treatments with a long recovery period?
  • go from spending many hours in bed every day to becoming healthy enough so you can resume a ‘normal’ life?
  • get through months of summer holidays without childcare when you have very limited energy and mobility?
  • keep doing your job when you’re in pain but need the money?

There’s no one size fits all answer to this, but the following psychological principles can help you do hard things in your (chronic) life.

How to Do Hard Things | The Health Sessions

1. Fuel your motivation

To beat overwhelm, helplessness and apathy, we need an inner drive that urges us to take action towards our goal or our valued outcome. But where do you find that motivation, and how do you keep motivated when the going gets tough?

Firstly, narrow down why exactly doing this hard thing matters to you. Maybe it’s necessary for survival, but it can also be because you love your family, because you long to make your dreams come true, or simply because you think it’s the right thing to do. Just getting that reason clear can already inspire you to move forward or to hang in there.

With that in mind, see if you can mentally move from “being pushed by your fears” to “being led by your dreams”. Having something positive to work towards (for example, going through a tough physical rehabilitation program in the hopes of being able to dance at your wedding) often feels less stressful than pushing yourself because you’re afraid of your situation worsening.

Once you’ve identified your “why”, keep fueling your motivation. Like Zig Ziglar famously said,

People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

So put up reminders like inspiring quotes on your bathroom mirror, special photos as screen savers, or creating a vision board you can above your desk or in your bedroom. You could also watch kick-ass movies, read touching books and listen to uplifting songs to fuel your motivation to keep going against the odds.

Finally, mind your mood. When you’re going through a tough time, it’s only natural you’ll feel sad, confused, helpless or angry at the world. But try to avoid getting stuck in a negative spiral, and find ways to support your mood while dealing with these difficulties. Aside from obviously feeling better, research also showed that when people are in a good mood, they’re more likely to take on hard tasks that’ll make life better in the end.

How to Do Hard Things | The Health Sessions
Photo by Kampus Production via

2. Break it down into bite-sized chunks

Doing hard things like healing chronic health problems, giving up alcohol and smoking, or crawling out of a deep depression take time, dedication and a lot of work. Who wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the thought of pushing through months of physical rehabilitation, psychotherapy or recovery work?

But just like a real marathon, your personal race is also run one step at a time. So break down your huge goal into more manageable chunks. For example:

  • Need to overhaul your entire diet? Depending on your medical situation, start by making the most important, impactful change first – like no more sweets and sugary drinks when you have pre-diabetes – and slowly add healthier swaps over time. When there’s less urgency, you could also take a first step that’s easiest to you, such as eating vegetables with your lunch.
  • Struggling with your mental health or addictive behaviors? Don’t expect quick results from therapy, but focus on one key habit first, like learning to identify your feelings and finding healthier ways to cope with stress.
  • Rebuilding your life after a long sickbed? You can’t resume your work, household chores and social engagement all at once. Choose one commitment and start with the minimum workload; a load that you can stick to even on bad days. Only  take on more hours or more tasks (gradually!) once you’ve established a doable routine for your first commitment to prevent relapses.

You can also prevent overwhelm by planning breaks and buffer time, setting priorities and boundaries, asking for help and realizing that done is better than perfect.

And don’t forget to celebrate mini milestones along the way! That doesn’t just feel nice – studies show that occasionally rewarding yourself for small victories will boost your willpower to keep on going.

3. Ask the magic question

In her New York Times best-selling book ‘The Lazy Genius Way’ (affiliate link), Kendra Adachi shares helpful strategies to be a genius about the things that matter to you and lazy about the things that don’t. One of her principles is to ask The Magic Question:

“What can I do now to make it easier later?”

For example, if you’ll be spending weeks in bed recovering from surgery, you know you won’t have the mobility and energy to do much around the house. To make those post-op days easier, you can stock your freezer with healthy meals to heat up or make a schedule of family, friends and hired help on how and when they can help you out with cleaning, walking the dog or picking up the kids from school.

Other ways that asking The Magic Question could pay off:

  • Does your arthritis leave you feeling stiff, sore and groggy in the morning? Prep the evening before by laying out your clothes, packing your bag and getting breakfast and/or lunch ready to go.
  • Make it easier to manage your chronic illness by sorting your pill box(es) once a week, having a packing list with necessities ready for hospital visits or trips, and creating a medical binder to stay on top of your healthcare needs.
  • Decluttering and reorganizing your home can be a lot of work, but it could save you a lot of time tidying and cleaning in the long run.
  • Build a relaxing nighttime routine to give yourself the best chance of getting a good night’s sleep, which in turn makes you feel more refreshed, mentally sharp and content the next day.
  • You could also save energy by planning your week, batching similar tasks like paying bills and running errands, or using tools like a slow cooker for more effortless meals.

How to Do Hard Things | The Health Sessions

4. Take it one day at a time

And sometimes, just an hour at a time.

As much as I love planning ahead to make things easier, don’t look too far into the future, especially if you’re prone to worrying about things that may never even happen. You cannot predict what life will look like in a few weeks or months time, nor how you will feel physically and emotionally.

If you tend to play out doom scenarios in your mind, try not to get sucked into a negative spiral of overthinking. Instead, follow these short-term strategies to take a mental pause, get into problem-solving mode and use positive distractions, like getting out of your head with hands-on activities.

When you’re in the middle of doing hard things, the uncertainty of what could happen can also be stressful to deal with. Find constructive ways to comfort yourself, from cuddling your pet to watching videos that make you laugh. Ironically, resisting your current reality only tends to prolong the negative emotions you’re feeling, so give yourself time to start accepting your situation. Stay present in the moment and try to focus on the things you can control. Remember how you’ve gotten through tough times in the past, and you will do so again now.

Most of all, be kind to yourself. Seek support from the people around you and look for the calm in the chaos.

And like Emily Dickinson said, “one step at a time is all it takes to get you there”.

5. Plan plenty of rest

Nothing sparks my determination like cinematic scenes that show characters – real or fictional – overcoming obstacles and working through intense struggles. But there is always one thing missing: the moments in between the action.

In the sports movie Hustle, we see the relentless training sessions to become an NBA player, but we’re never shown the recuperation, the rest that Bo Cruz would need to repair muscle tissue and internalize the new skills. True, that would be boring to watch, but there is an underlying cultural belief that we have always have to hustle, to keep on fighting, to reach our goals.

But when you’re living with a chronic illness, rest is actually one of the most important parts of the training or recovery journey. I’m not talking about lying on the couch scrolling your phone, but real rest that activates your body’s natural relaxation response, from a warm bath or gentle yoga session that relaxes your muscles to mindfulness exercises that calm your mind.

Research also shows that when you’re sleep-deprived and in pain, your willpower and tenacity diminish. In contrast, being (relatively) rested increases your ability to resist short-term temptations like unhealthy foods or bad habits in order to reach your long-term goals.

So when you have to do hard things like weaning off medication or overhauling your lifestyle to improve your health, you need to make time for restoration. Make a good night’s sleep your priority, including creating a bedtime routine. When planning your days, leave buffer time around your appointment to avoid stress and rest up before and afterwards.

And remember that real rest doesn’t just involve relaxing your body, but also take steps to quiet your racing mind, with short meditations or calming activities.

How to Do Hard Things | The Health Sessions
Photo by Ivan Samkov via

6. Anticipate ups and downs

In my experience, hard things tend to take longer than you think and more work than you think. I’m not saying that to discourage you – on the contrary.

Even a small cut takes a few days to fully heal, so it’s not realistic to expect your chronic fatigue, anxiety disorder or bowel disease to swiftly disappear once you start making lifestyle changes. What’s more, by nature the human brain tries to preserve energy, so it does not like having to make an effort, the way it has to when you’re building new habits.

All change takes time, and there will be obstacles on your way. Healing from sickness, injury, addiction or mental illness rarely happens in a linear line. You’ll have ups and downs, and sometimes your path will look more like one step forward, two steps back than an uphill climb.

Don’t let setbacks, slow progress and the resistance you feel stop you from going after goals that are meaningful to you. Keep hope in your heart for better days ahead and hold on to your resilience and determination.

7. Learn to cherish ‘garbage time’ too

It’s tempting to think that once you’re finished doing these hard things, then you’ll finally be happy again.

But although there’s no doubt that your days would be infinitely better if you wouldn’t be in pain and struggling, that’s just not your reality right now. And waiting until things get better before you can start enjoy yourself again could lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment – plus you’d be missing out on the life in front of you.

As a push back against the focus on quality time for families, comedian Jerry Seinfeld said he actually enjoys the garbage time with his kids – those ordinary moments when you’re not doing anything special but you’re just living life together.

I think you can apply that same principle to going through tough times. Of course you wish you didn’t have to do hard things like rebuilding your health or reintegrating at work. But now that you have no other choice, you can still make (some, not all!) of that experience meaningful, or a little more pleasant.

Don’t wish all your days away but look for the few, tiny good moments. Cherish the garbage time by engaging your senses and really listening to your favorite song, studying that art work in the waiting room or savoring your comforting cup of tea at the end of a tiring day. Instead of going through the motion, eat your meal mindfully, give your loved ones a heart-felt kiss or hug and enjoy the sun on your skin. Explore how you can still make the most of rest days in bed.

No positive experience can magically take away the struggle that you’re going through. But noticing and enjoying the simple pleasures in life does make it a little easier to bear the heartache and pain.

And finally, during hard times, it can help to focus on contentment instead of the jump-for-joy happiness that people so often chase. Contentment combines a deeply-rooted acceptance of who you are and where you find yourself right now with an appreciation of the good things in life while you’re working through the bad ones.

How to Do Hard Things in Life | The Health Sessions
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Sadly, there is no manual for how to do hard things in life. Some day you’ll struggle to keep on going, and that’s ok. Dig deep to find your “why” and use that motivation to reach for your goals in small, doable ways. Please don’t feel you always have to stay strong and keep fighting – you need time to rest and recharge, physically and mentally.

Take extra good care of yourself when you’re going through tough times, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. There will be ups and downs along the way, and you could use all the support available.

But no matter how hard life gets, don’t forget to look for the tiny positive moments that are still there. And always keep a little hope in your heart for a better tomorrow.

How do you do hard things in life? 

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