Don't just try harder

Hi everyone,

Here’s a thing I need to remind myself of a lot, maybe you do too: When something is difficult, our first instinct is to just try harder, but often this leads into unproductive behaviour which makes us miserable and also doesn’t solve the problem. Instead it can be worth taking a step back and trying to figure out why the thing is difficult.

My central example of how this plays out is a conversation I had with a friend a while back that went roughly as follows:

Them: I really want to go to bed earlier but I can’t seem to.

Me: What have you tried?

Them: I’ve tried going to bed earlier.

Me: No, that’s your goal. What have you tried?

They had identified the goal, and the fact that they weren’t achieving that goal was treated as evidence that they weren’t trying hard enough and should just force themselves to do it rather than that they hadn’t figured out how to make it work.

We talked a bit more and came up with a bunch of tactics that might help (I actually don’t know if any of them actually did, I don’t think I followed up on this conversation, but the exchange stuck with me anyway).

I think this is a common failure mode: We have a thing that we want to do, so we try to just do it, and if that doesn’t work we try harder. If that still doesn’t work, we conclude that we must just not be trying hard enough and try to force our way through it.

Sometimes this is the right solution. Many things are just hard and there’s no way to really get around that. Sometimes that’s for intrinsic reasons, sometimes it’s for situational ones, but either way sometimes you really do just have to push through. This is especially true for things that you do rarely enough that it’s not worth the effort of trying to figure out how to do them more easily.

But for recurring difficulties, I think it’s almost never the right solution. When you respond to recurring difficulties with an attempt to just try harder, you’re committing yourself to doing a lot of work, and it’s often unhelpful and will lead to unhelpful feelings that make it harder yet.

Often you’ll drop the task altogether: A thing that was worth it at one effort level may just not be worth it at another effort level. I tend to go through a long period of resentment and frustration prior to this point, and this makes everything even worse: Often the habit becomes scorched earth to which I cannot return, or if it’s something I can’t drop I just get worse and worse and it as it becomes something I resent more and am more anxious about doing.

This unfortunately then helps to feed a self-concept of yourself as someone who isn’t able to try hard at things, because basically every time you do it results in misery and failure. But what’s happening is not that you can’t try hard, it’s that you’re trying hard in the wrong way and learning the wrong lesson when that doesn’t work.

I think the way out of this is to treat something being unexpectedly difficult as a signal that something interesting is going on and that, rather than trying harder, you should respond by going “Oh, that’s interesting.” and figuring out what that is with a bit of experimentation (the attitude I talk about in Self Curiosity might help here).

This too might be hard but it’s the good sort of hard thing: It’s a one off expenditure of effort that, if it succeeds, has lasting rewards.

I wrote about this general category of trying to make things easier in “Why are things hard?”, but I think there are probably three common sources we run into:

  1. There’s some negative emotions associated with the problem that you need to resolve (See e.g. How I fix anxiety triggers, Cleaning up the fnords in your environment).

  2. Something in your environment or the way you are doing it is making it much harder than it needs to be (See e.g. Trivial irritations as inhibiting factors)

  3. You’re missing some trick that would make the problem easier (See e.g. Ideas get you unstuck)

Two examples for me recently:

The first is the dual to the problem that we started out with: I’ve been really struggling to get out of bed in the morning.

The “reasons” for this are clear: It’s cold and I’m not sleeping well, and the combination makes me want to stay under the nice, warm, duvet. So I foolishly spent a week or two trying to get through this on willpower, and that wasn’t working at all.

Then I looked at what I was actually doing instead of getting up - checking messages and scrolling twitter on my phone - and moved my phone out of my bedroom and I started getting up just fine. I still don’t want to get out of bed much, but now that the prompt that was keeping me there has been removed it’s not particularly hard to do so.

Another recent example: As I talked about in Writing to Understand, I’m a big fan of journaling, and I’ve been doing morning pages for a while which for me looks like two pages of journaling every morning.

I’ve been really struggling over the last few weeks, finding it increasingly hard to write them. I skipped a few days and was often finishing writing my “morning” pages late in the evening. I tried to fix this by forcing myself to sit down and write in the morning over my coffee, and this was very much not working.

Eventually I tracked this down to not really wanting to decide what to write about. I’d already written about most of the low hanging fruit and many of the things that were going on in my life right now I didn’t particularly want to write about (I didn’t mind writing about them exactly, but the inevitability of writing about them was putting me off doing the morning pages).

Once I realised this the problem was easy because I’d already solved it when I was writing a notebook post every day (See A Guide to Starting a Daily Writing Practice). If I can’t/don’t want to decide what to write very day, I just need a system for generating useful writing prompts. In the end I settled on using tarot card draws (See 78 Thinking Hats): Every morning I draw a tarot card, look up its symbolism on learntarot.com, and pick something from that as the theme to start writing about. I’m free to go off script if I want to, but if I don’t have anything I want to write about the card provides plenty to work with.

In both cases rather than “try harder” the solution was to spend some temporary effort to figure out how to not have to.

But, of course, I knew this already and it still took a week or more of struggling before I went “Wait, this is a stupid way to handle it, I should try something different”. Despite knowing better, I’d internalised the idea that this was a problem I should solve with effort rather than just actually fixing the issue.

Apparently “remembering that you can fix things rather than work harder” is itself a problem that is harder than it needs to be. I’m not yet quite sure what to do about it - I suspect it’s worth doing some sort of routine inventory taking of what’s going on in your life and whether it’s harder than it needs to be, but I haven’t worked out the details yet. In the meantime, maybe writing a long newsletter about it will help me remember, and maybe reading one will help you too.