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When effort fails

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

When effort fails

Scott Miker

Our society likes to make assumptions about the effort one makes towards a goal.  We see a tennis player win a tournament and say their effort is what made it happen.

Or we see a scientific discovery and assume their effort in thinking through the problem was the key factor that allowed them to succeed. 

But effort is given credit too often.  It fits a nice narrative that one’s effort allowed them to succeed or a lack of effort must be the reason for failure.

I enjoy watching football.  One of the things that I have noticed is that analysts like to make bold, assumptive statements all the time.  The announcer will look at a player’s body language and say it must mean that he isn’t playing the game with the intensity necessary to win.

When that same player wins, the comments are usually around how this player stayed calm in the midst of pressure and chaos. 

But it could be the same player and the same behavior being interpreted differently based on the outcome.  We use hindsight bias to fit our narrative instead of looking for proof.

I recently read an article on effort that pointed to this.  I started to look at the effort I was putting forth towards several goals and I decided to increase my effort.  Each day I would evaluate the effort I put forth and try to increase the effort the next day.

At first this seemed like a great approach.  I was working harder than I normally did and was making more progress than normal.  I was convinced focusing on effort was the key.

With all of my systems knowledge and the fact that I have written many articles on this trap should have clued me in to what was about to happen.  I mistakenly thought effort could continue to increase and increase in drastic ways without repercussion.

What actually happened was that I started to burn out.  I couldn’t keep working as hard and as long and each day became more and more difficult to do anything, let alone give more effort and do more than the day before. 

There is a limit to what we can do with effort alone.  In order to overcome the limitations of effort we have to find ways to have sustained effort.  This likely means we do less but do it more and more until it becomes automatic.  We turn it into a habit.  Then we can slowly improve. 

Trying to improve through effort alone without building the right systems and habits, will lead to a balancing feedback loop.  A balancing feedback loop will start to push against your effort.  It will usually cause you to stop progressing regardless of how hard you are working.  The best way forward isn’t to try and overpower a balancing feedback loop; it is reduce the limiting factor. (More on balancing feedback loops)

It took me quite a while to realize what was happening.  I felt myself getting more and more anxious.  I found it harder to even get started each day and found that I was working significantly harder with minimal improvement.  I kept sabotaging my efforts without even realizing it.

So I decided to change my approach and go back to working systematically to try and progress.  I would slow the pace slightly and give additional effort when I could, without trying to do that every time.  Within a few days I was back to the positive routines I had spent years developing and was able to get out of the effort trap.