How To Deal With Avoidance: The Portion Control Tool

habit creation mental health

(Listen to the blog post instead of reading it)


 There are lots of things I avoid:

  • Exercising
  • Cleaning
  • Working
  • Learning
  • Anything that feels scary
  • Uncomfortable conversations
  • Changing my routines
  • Getting off the couch
  • Eating healthy
  • Meditating

I avoid them because they’re uncomfortable. The voice in my head tells me they’re hard. They feel like a drag. They’re overwhelming. They’re impossible. The more I listen to this voice, the more momentum it picks up, and the more I remain crippled by inaction.

But I also recognize that life is moving forward through many twists and turns. When I avoid things, I accept stuckness. I stop moving forward with life. As a result, I put myself in a less strategic position to handle the mysteries around the corner. I all but guarantee that I will not live up to my potential, that I’ll never accomplish my dreams, that I’ll feel hopeless and stuck forever. Deep in my bones, I know that my best future depends on me taking action on the things I want to avoid.

In order to break out of the mental friction that characterizes avoidance and act in spite of the voice that tells me that positive change is impossible, I need a tool. I need something that will help me get unstuck. Here’s what I’ve discovered the tool is not:

  1. Motivation - Motivation happens after I do something, not before. If I wait until I want to do something, I’ll end up avoiding it forever.
  2. Other People - Most people are content to live below their potential. If I want to experience life at its best, I cannot take my cues from them.
  3. Opportunity - There will never be a good time or place to start. If I wait until life presents me with perfect circumstances, I’ll die waiting.

Luckily, there is a tool that works. I call it Portion Control. Here’s how I use it to transform avoidance into action.

Step 1: Recognize avoidance

Avoidance is often hard to recognize because it bubbles up at odd times. Sure, sometimes it’s obvious, like when I’m sitting on the couch trying to muster up the courage to move my body a little bit. But it’s not always that easy. Sometimes it creeps up while I’m doing the sort of automatic life tasks that don’t require my full attention, like driving my car, taking a shower, or cooking a meal. When avoidance shows up during those moments, it can be hours before I notice it.

Learning to recognize avoidance in my body is a skill. Here’s what it feels like to me. It’s a bit of anxiety colored with the thought, “I don’t want to do that”. Sometimes it’s a bigger brat, and it says “I can’t do that”. It feels like brain fog and a sense of not being present. Physically, I have a knot in my stomach, my chest is tight, and I’m either holding my breath or breathing high and shallow.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to recognize my avoidance. The point is that I recognize it eventually, and that I study it to get clear on what I’m avoiding.

Step 2: Get clear about what I’m avoiding                                        

Once I’ve recognized that I’m avoiding something, I need to get clear about what, exactly, that something is. 

I can usually tell based on where my life feels stuck. Typically this has something to do with how I’m taking care of myself or how I’m choosing to show up in the world. I avoid things that are confusing, uncomfortable or laborious in the short term but that have beneficial long term payoffs, preferring instead activities that are pleasurable in the short term, but that have painful consequences down the road. This may look like watching TV instead of exercising, fighting with Oli instead of learning how to repair our connection, taking a nap instead of moving forward on my to-do list.

It takes practice to identify what I’m avoiding. It isn’t always obvious, and that’s okay. The more I practice this step, the better I get at being able to identify the actions I need to take to get unstuck and restore forward motion.

Step 3: Take action using the Portion Control tool

Once I’m clear on what I’m avoiding, it’s time to take some sort of action. This is where the whole thing can go haywire, because the idea of action can feel impossible and overwhelming.

If I imagine myself doing too much at once, my avoidance becomes sharper and harder to act on. Impatience wants me to take huge leaps and strides forward, but this actually works against me. Instead of motivating me to take action, the idea of doing something big reinforces my avoidance. It keeps me in a cycle of being stuck. On the other hand, the moment I think about doing something manageable, my avoidance softens.

Sometimes avoidance is trying to tell me to do less, to take a smaller bite, to pick the right size action for my current state. That’s when it’s time to use the Portion Control tool. To use this tool, I ask myself, “What’s one bite size thing I can do right now that will put me on the path of forward motion?” 

The answer might be time-bound, as in, “I can do this thing for 5 minutes.” Or the answer might be scope-bound, as in, “I can do a small portion of this thing”. Ideally, the next step is not just doable, but pleasurable! Here are some examples of appropriately sized actions that can help me act in the face of avoidance:

  • Exercising - I can buy new workout clothes.
  • Cleaning - I can tidy up each room when I’m finished using it.
  • Working - I can reply to the most important email in my inbox.
  • Uncomfortable conversations - I can write down my point of view in a journal.
  • Eating healthy - I can stop overeating. 
  • Meditating - I can download a meditation app.

When I have one small, doable thing, I’m no longer overwhelmed by the change I need to make in my life. After the first action, I use the tool again to discover the next bite-size motion. Pretty soon, I feel myself moving forward. I feel momentum on my side. Over time, I prove to myself that positive change is possible, and my old ideas about my limitations start to erode. It feels safe to dream again because I’ve restored faith in my abilities to move things forward.

Closing Thoughts

I encountered a lot of avoidance in sitting down to write this piece. Every time I thought about it, I felt that familiar twang in my stomach and the whine of my inner monologue: “But I don’t wanna do it.”

So I used the Portion Control tool to spread the task out over several days. On Day 1, I allowed myself to vomit all of my thoughts into a doc. On Day 2, I created the structure for the piece. On Day 3, I filled in the structure with my notes. On Day 4, I edited and finalized the piece for sharing with others.

I probably thought to myself, “I don’t want to do this,” 20 or 30 times in the writing of this. Luckily, I have enough practice under my belt that I don’t let that thought stop me. Instead, I recognize it as avoidance and I find the right portion of work to do right now.

Here’s what I know: I am better for having written this. My tomorrow self is happier that I stuck this out, rather than throwing in the towel to watch stuff on YouTube or scroll on social media. I am better for having not given in to my temptation to avoid, for cultivating the discipline to show up and move the damn thing forward.

Avoidance doesn’t help me become the person I wish to be. In fact, it actively prevents me from becoming that. That’s why I use the Portion Control tool.