We all have fears. Walt Disney was afraid of mice. Matthew McConaughey is scared of revolving doors. For most of my life, I’ve done everything I possibly can to avoid cold water in the mornings.
38 days ago I finally went toe-to-toe with my fear by taking a one-minute ice cold shower immediately upon waking up. And I forced myself to keep doing it for 30 mornings.
Here’s what the typical morning was like:
- I wake up and I think about the cold shower, which makes me want to stay in bed.
- After a few minutes of contemplating whether to get up, I finally do and make my way to the bathroom.
- As I stand there peeing, all I can think of is the cold shower that is just a few seconds away. They’re not pleasant thoughts.
- I’m finally finished peeing, which is disappointing because it means the cold shower is up next.
- I check my readiness by asking “can you really handle this today?” and I try to deduce the answer based on how empathetic the “NO!” is that my mind answers back with.
- I remove my clothes, turn on the water as cold as it gets and set the timer on my phone to one minute. This is when shit gets real.
- A final feeling of fear and doubt comes over me, putting me in automatic fight or flight mode, as I go to push the start button on the timer. I know that once I press this button, there’s no backing out. The only way forward is to through the cold embrace of the shower.
- “Fuck it, I’m doing it.” I start the timer and walk under the water, still unsure if this is a good idea.
- The first 10 seconds are SO BAD it probably hurts less to poke yourself in the eye with a fork.
- After the first 10 seconds pass, it gets easier, and I even kind of enjoy the shower. Totally weird, right?
- The timer goes off to celebrate the completion of the minute. I’m fresh and totally awake as I grab my towel, and more than a little bit proud that I have successfully faced and conquered my fear another day.
So that’s a rough outline on what happened every morning during the challenge, although in truth it did get noticeably easier as time went on.
But there’s more to this challenge than just seeing what happens. Namely, to finally get an answer to a question I’ve wrestled with for a long time. That question is:
“What is it actually like to force yourself to do something that you really don’t want to do for an entire month?”
The reason this topic interests me is because it’s the essence of learning almost any new, not-so-easy-to-learn skill or habit.
It doesn’t matter if you want to learn how to sell, control your emotions, exercise regularly, speak in public, speed read, eat healthier, code, or speak a new language – they’re all useful skills, but in order to learn them, you have to keep doing things that you find difficult, unpleasant or boring.
What happens to you when you embark on a mission to learn something new that requires you to do things that aren’t fun or easy? How do you motivate yourself? In which ways do you resist adopting this new skill or habit?
I figured that if I can learn the pattern for how I psychologically resist something, I would be able to create a mental map that would allow me to plan and prepare for all the excuses and negative emotions that pop up as roadblocks along the way, thereby significantly reducing the chance of them ultimately leading to another failed attempt, ie. me giving up.
To keep track of my resistance and adaptation, I kept a journal for the duration of the challenge to record my thoughts and feelings before and after each shower. The before column included how much I resisted or feared the shower, the ways in which I tried to talk myself out of doing it, how I got myself to do it on the mornings that resistance was strongest, and so on. The after column included how each shower actually felt both physically and psychologically, the effect it had on me, and my general feeling after the shower.
Here’s what I found, in a Q&A format for quicker reading:
Which mornings were the most difficult?
The worse I slept, the harder it was to get in the cold shower. Although perhaps not surprising, it is certainly ironic, since those were exactly the mornings when a cold shower is most needed and has the biggest impact. To most, a cold shower when you are tired, grumpy or hungover sounds worse than running a marathon, but I guarantee you, it works wonders!
Why is it harder to get in a cold shower after short nights?
There is a mountain of evidence that links lack of sleep to lower levels of self control and self discipline. The less you sleep, the weaker you usually feel in the morning. The weaker you feel in the morning, the less energy you have and the less you want to physically exert yourself. Translation: forcing yourself to do anything you absolutely don’t have to do is going to be tough as hell on such mornings.
How does the mind try to reason its way out of a cold shower?
The closer to the shower I got, the more my mind tried to convince me to avoid, delay or in some way lessen the difficulty of the situation. Thoughts such as “I don’t know if I can do this today”, “maybe I can do it a bit later today” and “I need time to prepare myself” kept flooding my mind. These are clearly excuses rooted in feeling and not fact, but when your entire body feels this way, it’s surprisingly hard to ignore.
What do cold showers teach us about overcoming fear?
The biggest and most valuable lesson is that time is fear’s trusted ally. The more time you spend between getting out of bed and into the cold shower, the harder it is to finally get in. Each and every second makes it tougher. One morning, I “allowed” myself to brush my teeth before getting in the shower because “I really needed the preparation time”. What seemed like a good idea at the time turned into the single most difficult morning I had in terms of getting in the cold shower and facing my fear.
How I kept going for 30 days when it was so unpleasant?
I had a clear purpose that provided me with enough drive and motivation that kept me going despite the voices that screamed profanities on my way from the bedroom to the bathroom. And what was my purpose? I said to myself, “if you can’t take cold showers for 30 days, how are you ever going to succeed with any self development program that is remotely challenging or unpleasant?” This simple question framed the challenge in a positive way and really made me stick to the plan. And over the 30 days, I never once skipped a single shower.
What benefits did I experience from taking cold showers?
I noticed a number of significant benefits:
1. The wake up – a cold shower is a jolt in the morning that destroys “slow mornings” in a heart beat; it’s without a doubt the most effective wake up method that is totally worth the brief discomfort. And far more effective than 10 cups of coffee.
2. Productivity & efficiency – an immediate yet short moment where you conquer yourself first thing in the morning infuses you with genuine motivation to be productive, efficient and courageous with whatever tasks you need to face that day.
3. Health benefits – there are numerous benefits but the most immediate and noticeable over my 30 day challenge have been my skin, which is probably in better shape than it’s ever been, and my hair, which there isn’t a whole lot of, is softer than ever before.
I also haven’t caught any colds (prime flu time in Finland) during this time, which is often a recited benefit of cold showers, but obviously 30 days is not enough time to accurately assess that.
Has my relationship to cold water changed?
More than I could have imagined. Just the thought of an ice cold shower first thing in the morning used to cause my balls to want to retreat back into my body, but now I am able to separate the unpleasant sensation of cold from the feeling of fear connected to it. A cold shower or a dip in the icy sea are just sensations, which are usually the gateway to a wonderful state of being afterwards.
Do you plan to keep taking cold showers every morning?
Yes! It’s now 38 days since the challenge started. I could have stopped taking cold showers 8 days ago but I genuinely haven’t wanted to. The breathtaking jolt in the morning is not nearly as unpleasant as it used to be, and I’ll admit I kind of look forward to the excitement and adrenaline of the cold water touching my skin. Plus, no more slow mornings for me! I’m up and ready to roll within 5 minutes of waking up.
Should you try cold showers in the morning?
My parents taught me not to tell people what to do, so instead I’ll urge you to ask yourself: if you could feel more healthy, alive, awake, and productive in exchange for 60 seconds (maximum) of unpleasantness every morning, would it be worth it? If your life philosophy is the combination of convenience, pleasure and the easy way, then there’s probably nothing I can say to make you try this. But, if you want to start your day off feeling like a champion every single morning, with an amazing physical and mental buzz, regardless of how you may initially feel upon waking up, then I urge you to give it 30 days. You’ll be amazed at the results.
As always, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself and let me know how it goes.
Now if only we can find a way to help Matthew McConaughey with his fear of revolving doors…