HEALTH / Spring cleaning in July?: People who put off unpleasant tasks are caught in 'the comfort trap'. Liz Hodgkinson reports

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The Independent Culture
ARE you sitting comfortably as you read this? If so, why? Have you already been to the gym, filled in your tax return, washed the dishes, made the beds and written 500 words of your novel?

No? Then why not? If you're slumping around instead of getting on with things, maybe you are sitting a bit too comfortably. Maybe you are in fact living in a Comfort Trap - trying desperately to avoid life's distasteful tasks by pretending they don't exist.

You are in danger of succumbing to this syndrome, according to the authors of a new book, if you lie in bed for that extra half-hour when your day is already too busy, if you sit eating chocolate biscuits when you are trying to lose weight, or if you can't face opening your bank statements because you know you overspent wildly last month.

We all want to sail through life without anxiety, frustration and fear. But, say psychologists Professor Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon, authors of Beating the Comfort Trap, life isn't like that. And when we try to live in a perpetual comfort zone, cocooning ourselves against unpleasant or difficult tasks, we end up causing ourselves more discomfort and anxiety.

Because for one thing, those nasty jobs don't go away when we don't do them. For another, whenever we try to avoid initial discomfort, we start to hate and fear any minor anxieties or problems - and become increasingly less able to cope with them.

If we don't go to the dentist with a slight toothache, we may end up in such agony that we have to have the whole tooth out. If we daren't open our bank statements, we may not realise that interest on the overdraft is mounting at 30 per cent or more, making the debt far more difficult to pay off. If we eat chocolate biscuits instead of working out, we'll get fatter and flabbier and hate ourselves even more.

Yes, yes, we all know this. We don't need to be told. But how do we get ourselves out of the comfort trap, and spring up instantly to do all those difficult jobs in a positive frame of mind?

It's a matter of brainwashing ourselves into a different attitude, says Professor Dryden, of Goldsmith's College, London. 'We may tell ourselves that this or that task is too hard, so we don't even attempt it. But if, instead, we learn to say: yes, this job is hard, but it's not too hard, it's unpleasant, but not too unpleasant, we start to be able to tackle these jobs.

'We have to begin telling ourselves that, yes, we can stand the initial discomfort involved in doing a difficult task right away. Whenever we say we cannot bear something, we programme ourselves into not being able to do it. Yet the truth is that although we may not like it, we can bear it.

'Nobody is spared trouble, pain and anxiety, and there is no reason why unpleasant or difficult things should not happen to us. People who get themselves into the comfort trap somehow believe that nasty things shouldn't occur - and they are affronted when they do.

'To some extent, we are all like this,' Professor Dryden added. 'But where is it written that we should all have immediate comfort? The danger is that when we get into the habit of short-term hedonism, we end up making life more difficult for ourselves than ever.'

If we fear anxiety, rejection and depression, we may end up restricting our lives so much that eventually we experience no excitement, no joy, because everything starts to become a huge risk. We might fail. People might not like us. When we tell ourselves we can't stand failing, or being unpopular, we take ever fewer risks, achieve ever less.

'When we tell ourselves that a certain job shouldn't be so hard,' Professor Dryden said, 'we make it impossible for ourselves even to start it, let alone finish it.'

We can start to ease ourselves out of the comfort trap by breaking up difficult jobs into manageable chunks. If, for instance, we've got a 5,000-word essay to write, we may say: no, I can't do this, it's too daunting. But if we just give ourselves five minutes at the desk, we've already diminished the demon, to an extent.

'It's impossible to change habits overnight,' Windy Dryden said, 'but if we come to understand that life is uncertain, that people may treat us badly or unfairly, and that the universe has no obligation to reward us for hard work, we become able to take risks, to learn to fail, to understand that we can't always be in control.

'It's the irrational demand for certainty that puts us in the comfort trap in the first place. We have to tell ourselves that although we may prefer to be in control, we can't guarantee it. Once we can do this, we've already started to lift ourselves out of the trap.

'Whenever we get into the habit of trying to avoid situations which provoke anxiety, we become more anxious, because it's impossible to go through life without anxious moments. The more anxiety we can face up to, the more confidence we gain. We have to say: I don't enjoy being anxious, but I can put up with it.'

All of us have been guilty of putting off until tomorrow, next week or next year, what should be done today. The way to overcome this, advises Windy Dryden, is to admit that we have a problem. 'If you tell yourself you have a low tolerance of initial discomfort, you can then start to deal with it. It's when you don't admit the problem that it continues - and builds up. In order to get yourself into the habit of doing things now, make a list of all the good things that will happen if you stop procrastinating.'

Let's take something most of us hate, or at least find difficult - making a nerve-racking phone call, perhaps to file a complaint or mend fences with one of the family. We know we should do it, but so often simply the act of picking up the phone seems beyond us. So what we have to do is keep in mind the advantages of making the call, rather than the initial discomfort. If you force yourself to make at least one difficult call, you establish a very important principle: that you can do it. This builds confidence for the future. At first, it may feel uncomfortable, but if you persist, it becomes ever easier to take the initiative. And whenever you don't feel like making a particular call, continue to remind yourself of the disadvantages of not keeping in touch or making your wishes known. Don't forget to reward yourself: once you've tackled that problematic call, you can enjoy a gossip with a friend.

Establish this routine with all difficult tasks, and eventually you will spring the comfort trap, promise Dryden and Gordon. But this doesn't mean putting on a mental hair shirt - the promise is that life will become far more enjoyable as you'll have progressively less to fear.

'The easy way out is the easy way out of the most rewarding life,' said Professor Dryden.

'Beating the Comfort Trap', by Windy Dryden and Jack Gordon, Sheldon Press, pounds 5.99