how to turn frustration into innovation

I'm sure you've been through a phase or two in your life when you've hit a wall or obstacle of some kind that's so frustrating, you give up.

Innovation, as well as personal productivity, are both affected by frustrating obstacles. I mean, wouldn't life be that much easier if we didn't have any obstacles? I believe that much of our personal success and innovation success is determined by our ability to overcome obstacles.

What stops us from being more productive and innovative is not external; it's internal. One of the major obstacles is our 'frustration tolerance'. Psychologists talk about individuals who have 'Low frustration tolerance' (LFT). These people may have the intention to realise an idea, yet at the first sign of trouble, discomfort, or frustration, they give it away.

LFT can affect, not just individuals, but also teams and organisations. I'm sure you've come across that 'group think' mentality that sometimes says, "that's going to be too hard. There's so many potential problems. It's not worth doing".

The good news is that LFT can be treated, but as you might expect, it will take a bit of hard, frustrating work in order to overcome it.

So where do we want to end up if we deal with LFT?


Where I think we want to aspire to be is at a level of high frustration tolerance. This is a level of tolerance that is reflected in an individual’s ability to tackle obstacles head on. They can get through one obstacle, then another and another and another. Sure, they might not love the obstacles, yet they can manage to deal with the discomfort of solving new problems, of not knowing the answer straight away, of having to make decisions and take actions that are uncomfortable. They persist and they succeed.

The good news is that nearly everyone on the planet would have demonstrated this high frustration tolerance in at least one thing in their life. Whether it was working hard to go on a holiday that never seemed like it could happen, or managing a family crisis of some sort.

We want to be able to build our frustration tolerance so that we become more productive and are able to innovate more.

What enables us to build our frustration tolerance is the way we think about the situation we are in, the experiences we've had in past frustrations and simply practicing to deal with frustration.

Here's a couple of techniques to apply.

    1.    The ABC's
    2.    Frustration meditation

#1: The ABC's

The ABC's is a technique used by cognitive behavioural psychologists to help deal with faulty thinking. To show you how the ABC’s work, I’ve used some of the thinking I had to change when it came to writing my latest book:

Activating Event – Write down and describe the event which creates the attitude just as you would think about it. Avoid evaluating your thoughts, just write them down in the words you would say to yourself as they run through your mind. For example, “My book’s still not finished and I’ve been working on it for months and months.”

Beliefs – Write down the beliefs you have about yourself and your conclusions about the reasons for the activating event, For example, “I think I’m not smart enough,” “I know it’s too hard,” and “I’m wasting time.” “I don’t know what to do” and “No one will want to read my book when I finish it.” Aim at recording thoughts that express beliefs and ignore feelings.

Consequent Emotions – Write down how you feel and how you will feel if you keep thinking this way. For example, “I feel angry, dejected and like a loser.” “I will end up wasting the rest of the day eating food, sulking about doing nothing.”

Dispute irrational beliefs – We’re good at defending ourselves if someone else is attacking us, but usually, we suck at defending ourselves against our own thinking, especially our irrational beliefs. We need to learn to observe our communication with ourselves and defend ourselves from ourselves by coming to objective conclusions.

To do this, find the evidence for and against your belief and make accurate statements. Example: ” I’ve written and published a great book successfully before and it took close to a year to write” “What I’ve written is already substantial in size and quality. I am more than 75% complete”.

Finally, create a real disputing statement based on these facts; for example, ”I know that I have the ability, determination and resources at my disposal to make this book happen.”

(Positive) Effects – Now write down some rational beliefs — alternative possibilities to your original faulty thoughts behind the activating event. For example, “I have been speaking at more conferences this year while writing this book than ever before, so I actually have had less time to write” or “I have been testing a lot of my theories with clients through consulting and running workshops, all of which takes time. And although it’s not time spent writing, it is the precursor to it and essential.”

Write down how you feel after you’ve questioned your faulty thinking and beliefs to see if you have been energised by the event. For example, “I feel better realising that I have done more than I thought I had other than writing the book and I’m now putting my energy into making it all happen.” 

#2: Frustration Meditation

Close your eyes and think of a task on which you are finding frustration. Make sure you look through your eyes and hear through your ears. If you observe yourself from the outside, step back into your body. Become aware of how it feels to NOT do the task.

Now focus on the discomfort of having to do it. Imagine yourself doing that task. Imagine doing whatever you need to do to finish the task and know (or simply pretend) that you have what it takes to do it.

Now project yourself into the future, to a point where you have just finished the task.

Feel what it feels like to have completed the task. Whatever that sensation is, choose to experience the feeling fully, and really immerse yourself in it. Notice what you’re doing. Are you doing something else now? Do you have more momentum to go forward?

After you completed the task on which has been frustrating, you write a few sentences about how you feel. Has the worry or discomfort disappeared? Does it feel average, good or fantastic?

Challenge yourself by applying yourself to one frustrating activity each day. The more resistant you become, the better you can handle the discomfort.

I hope you'll consider some of these techniques in your latest quest.



Nils Vesk

Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation speaker | consultant | author

nils vesk