Peechaya Burroughs for TIME
Advice

How to Conquer Your Biggest Fears

March 29, 2016

It’s not nearly as difficult as you think

We’re all scared of something.

Do you get heart palpitations at the idea of speaking in front of big groups at work? Are you worried you’ll never actually learn to swim? Do you stare at the ceiling, thinking you’ll never write that book you’ve been dreaming about for years?

Me, too. I’ve deeply felt all three of those exact fears, along with many others. But those fears are just a few I’ve started overcoming using a little happiness hack I can share with you.

Are you ready?

O.K., to start with, here is the thought process most of us follow when it comes to facing our fears:

CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT> DO IT

Before you do anything, you have to feel like you can do it first—and then you have to actually want to do it second.

Take my fear of swimming. Developed from a childhood full of ear infections and never-ending sets of tubes, I grew into the 30-year-old guy perpetually hanging by the grill at the pool party. I was afraid of the water. Why? Because “I can’t swim. I’ll sink like a stone! I can’t tread water, jump into the deep end, nothing.” And “You know, I don’t really want to swim anyway. No big deal. I prefer reading at the beach. Getting wet, showering, showing off spaghetti-noodle arms? No thanks. I’ll do without.”

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Yes, I never got to do it because I never thought I could do it and so I didn’t want to do it.

It’s the same way many of us think about running a marathon, giving a big presentation or writing a novel.

So what happens if we think about that process in a different order? The same set of words, but said a different way? Specifically, what happens if do it becomes the starting point instead of the end? Well, then it looks like this:

DO IT —> CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT

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What happened with my fear of swimming?

Well, I started dating a beautiful woman who I fell in love with, fast. On our second date, she told me her family had a cottage on an island—and every morning in the summer, her little cousins and 80-year-old grandparents swam around the island together. And did I ever want to come?

That night, without thinking about whether I could do it or whether I wanted to do it, I just did it. I signed up for swimming lessons at the city pool. Shortly thereafter, I walked into the moldy locker room and listened to my heart thumping as I stepped onto the pool deck wearing a life jacket and goggles.

After that first 30 minutes of flutter-kicking in the shallow end and wearing a life jacket, guess what happened? I thought, “I can do this!” And so the next week, I wanted to do it. “Give me moldy locker rooms! Pass me the flutter board—in the deep end this time.” And after I had done it one week, I knew I could do it again.

Read more: 4 Ways to Gain an ‘Extra’ Hour Every Day

How do you turn your biggest fear into your biggest success?

You place action in front of capability and motivation. You put do it before can do it and want to do it.

Turns out, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting. Those forced baby steps create the early belief in your abilities, which create the motivation—and a virtuous cycle quickly develops.

So go forward. Step into your fears. Because you’ll quickly see that, completely counter-intuitively, motivation does not actually cause action. Action causes motivation.

Neil Pasricha is the director of the Institute for Global Happiness and author of The Book of Awesome series. His newest book is The Happiness Equation.