Hard Things First

The Benefits of Getting an Icy Start to the Day


It’s 6 a.m. in Park City, Utah. I’m in the shower. I go through all the typical shower rituals — I wash behind my ears, shave, and more — until I’m ready to get out. I grab the handle for the water, pause, take a deep breath and then turn it.

I don’t turn it off, but to all-the-way cold. Then I stand there shivering for two minutes. It’s the 23rd day in a row that I’ve done this. If you’re like most people — including myself, sometimes — you’re probably wondering why.

I’ve known about the benefits of taking cold showers for a long time. Many of you are probably familiar with some of the science. You may have read about it in Tim Ferriss’s book, “The 4-Hour Body,” or seen it in a Fast Company article.

A quick trip to Google Scholar will also reveal a smattering of academic papers about the benefits of cold-water therapy, including weight loss stimulation, increased circulation and stress reduction. Taking a cold shower may even serve as a potential antidepressant, according to a 2008 study published by the National Institutes of Health.

But I’ve discovered that the biggest benefit I get from taking cold showers isn’t any of the wonderful things listed above (I’ve noticed many of them, though). The thing that most draws me to the cold water is also the thing that most repels me: It’s really hard to do.

Even though I know all the research, understand the benefits, and feel great every single time I do it (at least immediately afterward), it’s still hard. Not just hard, but really hard. And maybe even a little bit scary, if I think too hard about how it’s going to feel every time I reach for the handle.

Both from the scientific work I’ve read and from my own personal experience, I know it will be beneficial. I even know that I’ll be glad I did it right afterward. And yet, there is still this daunting gap between knowing I want to (and should) take the cold shower and actually doing it.

And that, in a nutshell, is the biggest reason to do it (with the caveat that if there is a water shortage in your area, you should find something else to do that is hard). It reminds me a little bit of that Mark Twain saying, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” I’m not suggesting that taking a cold shower in the morning will make sticking to your budget in the afternoon trivial by comparison. That’s not the point.

The point is that starting your morning by tackling challenges head-on will help encourage similar behavior throughout the day. And, it turns out, there’s a wealth of research to back up this idea as well. People who do hard things first tend to procrastinate less and get more done, according to Brian Tracy’s book, “Eat That Frog.”

It’s important to note that it’s not just about taking cold showers, it’s also about doing it in the morning. Consider that a one-two punch. According to the Florida State University psychology researcher Roy Baumeister, one of the leading experts on willpower, “The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen.” In other words, if you wait until the evening to take your cold shower, there’s a greater chance you just won’t do it. Not to mention that it nullifies the whole idea of getting your day started on the right foot. So don’t just do it, do it in the morning.

 The world is full of hard and scary things. We are at our best when we can tackle them bravely and confidently, not when we are accustomed to shying away. Set your alarm for two minutes earlier, get in the shower and before you turn it off, put it on cold. Think of it, quite literally, as stepping out of your comfort zone. It may be really hard, but just remember that most good things are.

This piece was originally published by the New York Times.

Featured image by Carl Richards.

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